Christine Trueman's Screen Lovers
The Belfast artist is inspired by the Golden Age of Hollywood with her debut solo exhibition at Queen's Film Theatre
We've all seen them – those mass-produced, generic portraits of Hollywood stars for sale in cafés and furniture stores that pass for 'art' only in our nightmares. (And you can make one too: simply turn on a projector, project image onto canvas, outline in pencil, fill in with paint. Sell.)
But Christine Trueman's portraits of tortured Hollywood screen sirens and brooding leading men, though similar, are much more refined. They were painted by eye and by hand, for one thing – not traced along projected lines of light – and they feature little details that only an expert could draw out.
Such portraits, like the one below of Humphrey Bogart, make up one half of Screen Lovers, Trueman's debut solo exhibition at Queen's Film Theatre. The other half consists of portraits produced according to Trueman's signature style: using multi-coloured acrylic paints applied impasto style, and made three-dimensional with the addition of miniature jewels and ephemera glued into place (notice the added feathers in the image above).
Meeting at QFT two days after the launch of Screen Lovers (which took place on Oscars night, when even the assorted press scrubbed up for the occasion), on a cold Tuesday morning, with so many hungover university students loitering in the vicinity that she is forced to remove an easel prop lest someone fall over it, Trueman is as glamorous as the women in her paintings, all fake fur and heels. But when she talks, she's pure Belfast.
'Don't tell anyone,' she whispers, mischievously, 'but I haven't seen any of the Oscar contenders. Not one of them. I was hoping that none of the press would ask me about which films were my favourites on the night of the launch, because I couldn't have told them! It was great to open on Oscars night, but I was far too busy finishing off some of these paintings to watch any television.'
Yes, Trueman is passionate about her art – and she isn't interested in churning out cheap tat to meet our ever increasing demand for, well, cheap tat. She puts in the man hours making Bogart's doleful eyes come alive, or tracking down miniature yellow cabs and red apples to give a portrait of New Yorker, Lauren Bacall, an added level of authenticity and pizzazz.
As well as that, it seems that Trueman isn't interested in modern cinema at all. When she pictures herself having tea with a friend, it's not Nicole Kidman sitting opposite, but Elizabeth Taylor (a portrait of whom also features in Screen Lovers).
Imagine the diminutive artist in the clutches of a giant, rampaging gorilla and isn't Tom Hanks who you envisage running around on the streets below – careful not to issue an expletive lest he offend the studios – but a shirtless Tony Curtis, choreographing the rescue mission with hands on hips.
Trueman paints the Hollywood she knows and loves, and when I ask if she might one day be interested in painting the likes of Lindsay Lohan or Ryan Reynolds, she ignores the question completely. Back to the story at hand: Golden Age Hollywood.
'With the whole studio system [back then], even directors weren't seen as artists,' Trueman explains. 'Everyone was an employee of the studio. The studios even owned the cinemas of the day. They had the movies reeled out – there was a schedule, and they were mass-produced.
'All the actors belonged to particular studios, and they were paired up. They had no say in what scripts they did, what characters they played. The men were allowed to ad lib a little bit, especially the likes of Cary Grant, who was very good at it, but for the women especially it [was hard]. You came in, you did what you were told and you left.'
As a comment on those early days of creative subjugation in tinsletown, with the first half of Screen Lovers Trueman focused on her female subject's lips. 'With the ladies in particular, I've tried to give them a bit of a voice, because they were kind of stifled in their day,' she adds. 'So I've put a lot of emphasis on their mouths.'
Round the corner, in the hallway leading down towards QFT's two screens, the second half of the exhibition is much more vibrant. Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Lauran Bacall and Cary Grant (one of only two males featured) are captured on smaller canvases, installed in white frames behind glass.
It's great fun getting up close to pick out the little plastic additions that reflect their personal histories: dollar signs allude to Deitrich's days as a Las Vegas showgirl, for example, while a tiny dress stand is symbolic of Monroe the ingenue's unprecedented popularity as a global pin-up – a public role engineered for her by the studios, and one which Monroe felt increasingly unable to perform.
Trueman remains fascinated by the mystery, the folklore, the personalities; the pain, the beauty, the allure of Golden Age era Hollywood, and her affection for her subjects is evident in her portraits, which bristle with life. Each painting is up for sale, and I'm told that there are bidding wars ongoing for some.
The most expensive piece is a large, 4x4 ft portrait of Audrey Hepburn, worth almost £2,000. A remarkable price, given that Trueman began painting only four years ago. I recall a telephone conversation after her first painting was picked up by art consultant, Carrie Neely. 'Honestly, this is the first thing I've painted,' Trueman admitted at the time, breathless. 'I have no paintings to put on an exhibition, but I'll call you when I do.'
Finally one of Belfast's most exciting, unique artists can now enjoy her time in the spotlight. Film fans should get to QFT before Screen Lovers is taken down on March 8. Perhaps Trueman's preoccupation with old Hollywood will rub off. Breakfast at Bright's, anyone?