Davy Portrait Awards

The 'eyes' have it for Northern Irish artist Ian Cumberland's flaw celebrating self-portrait, currently exhibited in The Naughton Gallery at Queen's

Art thieves beware. In The Naughton Gallery at Queen's even the walls have eyes. And ears and noses and in some cases feet.

It’s not quite as Lovecraftian as it sounds. The Naughton Gallery is playing host to the Davy Portrait Exhibition, displaying the short-listed entrants to the Davy Portrait Awards. This year’s winner, a larger than life self-portrait by Northern Irish artist Ian Cumberland, is on display in pride of place. It’s the first thing a visitor sees as they walk in the door.

Cumberland looks dog-rough – scruffy, sunken cheeked and hollow eyed. His ears don’t look that clean either. Every line and discolouration and wayward hair is carefully detailed.

‘It’s a bit more honest than it is,’ according to Hugh Mulholland, the exhibition’s curator. ‘He’s not quite so beat up and tired looking in real life.’

Maybe there’s a touch of the Dorian Gray’s about it then. And there is definitely something eerie about walking through the exhibition. The portraits have personality, presence and a story behind them that isn’t explained. Who is the pale, startled, dark-eyed girl who peers from one small picture? Why did the woman with the green dress and coiffed hair, hands angled so her diamond ring and expensive watch are on display, pay to have her portrait painted? Or did someone else pay for it?

Mulholland points out one of his favourite pieces in the exhibition, a portrait of a woman in a red skirt by Neil Shawcross. Although he admires the technique displayed in Cumberland’s self-portrait he admits his personal preference is for something looser. The Shawcross painting is all soft edges and blurs around the anchor point of a hard, white face, like smoke pinned to the canvas.

‘I think it captures a little of the personality of the person,’ Mulholland adds. ‘For me that relationship between the artist and the sitter has to be made visible as well.’

Some of the portraits are even more impressionistic than the one by Shawcross. A self-portrait by Cian McLoughlin seems constructed as much as painted, with thick ridges of layered paint giving it shadows and structure.

Others are so perfectly life-like that they look digital, in a few cases so much so that they risk falling into the Uncanny Valley, although Mulholland insists that only traditional media is allowed in the competition.

‘That’s one of the criteria. They have to create in a traditional medium: painting, graphite, drawing, print. The intention is that this is a period in art history when a lot of attention is given to new media and mixed media and we were looking very particularly at the history of painting and the representation of the figure within that.’

It isn’t just the medium that the Davy Portrait Awards are designed to promote, it’s the genre. Portraiture as an art form has fallen out of favour. In the old days you couldn’t turn around without tripping over an artist painting some fat man in tights with a dead pheasant. Today it is much quicker, cheaper and easier to just take a picture.

But maybe we’re missing out. A photograph can capture an image, but what about that ‘relationship’ between sitter and artist that Mulholland talks about? There is a distinct life, a depth beyond the thickness of paint, to the paintings on display at this exhibit. It’s something a camera can only rarely capture.

As Mulholland points out: ‘When you visit a gallery you spend so much more time looking at paintings that are pictures of people. People are interested in people. That’s why this is relevant.'

The Davy Portrait Awards 2010 Exhibition is on display at The Naughton Gallery at Queen's until April 11.