Northern Irish Artist Shortlisted for BP Portrait Awards

Ian Cumberland's 'messy' portrait of an old friend is in the running for the prestigious award, but don't ask about his subject

The BP Portrait Awards short-listing painting ‘Just to Feel Normal’ by Ian Cumberland is powerful. A knackered looking man with a bleach-blonde faux-hawk and a hard-lived face squints out of the canvas. The subject is a friend of Cumberland’s, but the artist says he is sick of being asked about him.

‘People keep asking “Who is he?” and “Why did I choose to paint him”, but that isn’t relevant.’

The ambiguity of the piece - is he defiant or ashamed, does he want to feel normal or is mocking those who do? - is the point of it. Cumberland wants the piece to be open to interpretation, rather than ‘closed’ by foreknowledge of the subject’s life. ‘As a human being I draw conclusions when I look at people. That’s what I want the audience to do.’

In fact, Cumberland does not even see himself as a portraitist. Instead the artist describes himself as someone who ‘just happens to paint these big heads’. He does admit that they are - between being short-listed for the BP Portrait Awards and winning the Davy Portrait Award in 2010 - very successful big heads. ‘They have gotten a lot of interest,’ Cumberland agrees. ‘That’s important.’

As far as the portrait's chances in the competition, Cumberland is confident - ‘It is a good painting,’ he says. ‘A strong image’ - but points out that with four awards and four short-listed artists he is fairly confident of winning something, he just doesn't know what yet.

Reminded of a comment he made in a previous CultureNorthernIreland interview about a critic who said his work was not memorable, Cumberland laughs. He hopes his work is memorable now, but it has been a while since he spoke to the critic. ‘Last time I did, he thought that portraits were limited artistically.’

His work has, he thinks, ‘evolved loads’ since then. He was preoccupied with photo-realism, something he has since moved away from. Something the casual viewer of his work might not realise, given that seen in reproduction or from a distance Cumberland’s art looks almost hyper-realistic. Every mole, spot and vein is picked out in detail - it is like HD TV for the art world.

‘You have to get up close to see what I’ve done with the paint. It is really quite messy,’ Cumberland explains. ‘The stuff I do now is a lot more painterly.’ He argues that paint on canvas is a conceptually limited medium (he thinks video is a better vehicle for concept art) and therefore the artist has to consider technique. He thinks a lot, these days, about how to use paint.

If Cumberland is awarded the first prize this year he will win £25,000 and a commission worth £4000. Not to mention all the kudos the award can carry. Cumberland says that would be ‘nice’, but doesn’t know if the award would make any difference to him artistically. He doesn’t know if he will even be focusing on his ‘big heads’ in a few years time, ‘it’s just something that I am into right now.’

Besides: ‘That nude tied to the rock?’ ‘Holly’ by Louis Smith. ‘I reckon that will win. It is pretty memorable.’