Art reviews: BP Portrait Award 2018 | Aviary | Creag agus uisge | Lost All Reason and Direction

Detail from the winner of the BP Portrait Award 2018, 'An Angel At My Table by Miriam Escofet
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Does a lifelike painting make a perfect portrait? The BP Portrait Award show invites us to ponder the question

BP Portrait Award 2018, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh ****

Aviary, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh ****

Creag agus uisge: Rock and Water, Dundas Street Gallery, Edinburgh ****

Lost All Reason and Direction, Tent Gallery, Edinburgh College of Art ***

The annual BP Portrait Award always raises the question: what is the point of painting a portrait when a painting is hit or miss, but a photograph can give a guaranteed likeness? This year’s show seems no closer to providing the answer to the conundrum. The winner of the first prize, An Angel at my Table by Miriam Escofet, certainly doesn’t. Predominantly in grey and white, it is a portrait of the artist’s mother, but even more it is a meticulously photographic account of a teapot, cups and plates and the eponymous angel, a china ornament, which fill the foreground. Beyond this still-life, the sitter, equally meticulously painted, looks off to her left at something going on beyond the edge of the picture. Raised eyebrows, head partly turned, her glance is momentary. It could not be held for long and so is itself a photographer’s rather than a painter’s image. You cannot fault the execution, but at the same time you wonder at so much skill deployed to recreate something that is really only an enlarged photograph.

The second-prize picture, Time Traveller, Matthew Napping, by Felicia Forte, goes in the opposite direction. It is a nicely composed abstract painting in primary red and blue and secondary green and orange. The portrait, the ostensible point of the picture, is lost in the painterly display. Others go down this painterly route, but without much more success. In the Cholmondeley Children, Phoebe Dickinson frankly reverts to Edwardian society slickness to assert the status of her picture as a painting. In Vincent Desiderio, a portrait of a fellow teacher in the classroom with models, Bernardo Siciliano tries the Lucian Freud approach with glum looking nudes and chunky brushwork. Alastair Adam’s portrait of Bruce Robinson is more successful. His handling of light and the various textures speak of the strengths of painting rather than of the camera. Jamie Coreth’s Broken Bodies, a portrait of an ex-soldier turned sculptor really feels like a painting, particularly in the light and dark. The title relates the sitter’s war injuries with a fragmentary and rather beaten-up plaster cast behind him. Ilea, a simple, frontal portrait of a young girl in a blue dress by Neale Worley, is also more successful, though a piece of ivy trailing across the composition seems to add very little other than a display of skill. In Sheepskin and Cactus by Anthony Williams, a worried looking woman lying in bed in a sheepskin coat and threatened by a spiky cactus is given presence by the strength of the drawing. It suggests the artist’s engagement with the image is direct, not second-hand via the camera. The same could be said of Robert by Peter James Field and of Patchwork by Paula Wilson. Liesel Thomas paints her self-portrait, but with her gaze averted. It suggests evasion, rather than self-scrutiny. That is in marked contrast with what is to my mind one of the outstanding pictures here, the self-portrait of Seçil Gûven. She paints herself naked and, with a nod to Freda Kahlo, against a background of leaves and grasses. That is a bit photographic, but her face is not. Her glance is arresting as she quite literally puts herself on the canvas to claim her freedom to be herself. She is from Turkey and deserves a prize for her courage if for nothing else.

From portraits of people to pictures of birds, with Aviary at the RSA. All by members of the Academy, the works range from prints through paintings to sculpture. The late John Busby, who is represented by several pictures here, was a distinguished ornithological painter. A painting of gannets on a cliff, at once free and nicely observed, clearly demonstrates his skill as does a watercolour, Jackdaws in a stiff wind. With his usual unassuming charm, Henry Kondracki’s Dean Village Swan and his Blue Parrot show a similar balance of casualness and precise observation. Gordon Mitchell describes a woodpecker and a chaffinch very minutely, but then has the woodpecker pecking out the drawing of a naked girl on the slats of a wooden fence while we glimpse the girl through the fence, sunbathing and casually unaware of the bird’s unexpected attention.

Will Maclean’s mysterious small sculpture Sweeney’s Last Flight is even more enigmatic. A bird-man alights clumsily on a steel money-box. It is so sinister looking, however, that it could equally be a miniature machine gun post. Frances Pelly’s small sculptures of birds are exquisite. George Donald’s cat has caught a bullfinch and with half-closed eyes challenges you to reproach it. Stuart Mckenzie’s large Capercaillie is among the most striking things. In black on white paper with bright red around its eye and perched on a sketch book bound with red ties it makes a really powerful image. A big lino print of a dodo entirely in black and white, a joint work by Ade Adesina and Michael Agnew, is a show-stopper. It packs real energy within tight formal control.

In the Dundas Street Gallery, the skeleton of a bird, wings spread wide, above a nest made of barbed wire (he did actually see a nest made with barbed wire) and wool and made by Fergus Granville is one of the most striking objects in Creag agus uisge: Rock and Water, an exhibition of work by artists from or working in North Uist. Several of the same artist’s other works are equally striking, notably where he has left a stag’s head, for instance, or the head of a shop window mannequin under the water for a period of years to allow the sea to do its work, encrusting it with barnacles and other marine growths. Among the other artists included, Fiona Pearson’s delicate drawings of neolithic cup marks are quite beautiful as are Marnie Keltie’s encrusted rock surfaces, recreated in paint.

Finally Lost all Reason and Direction, a show by Rowan Paton and Alan Grieve at Edinburgh College of Art, does at first seem quite aptly named. Grieve’s work is a kind of post-punk assemblage of words an images. They seem at first pretty random, but occasionally something more coherent shows through the ranting. In one drawing, for instance, he locates it all in what seems to be his own home patch. Elsewhere a justifiable ecological rage shows through, but it really is all a bit incoherent. Paton’s paintings seem more resolved and are really rather beautiful. Against a white ground, small pools of transparent paint are set off by lines and stripes and dots of brighter, more opaque colour. Fragments of mountains drift in to suggest the fragility of landscape and from one mountain top a word balloon cries “Help!” n

BP Portrait Award until 10 March; Aviary until 17 February; Creag agus uisge and Lost All Reason and Direction both until 26 January

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