Kate Brettkelly-Chalmers – 19 January, 2011
In many ways it is the narrative of Upritchard's success that is the true subject of Maw's portrait. In this case, the strange figure of Upritchard becomes a vessel for our aspirations - she is an eerie mixture of successful artist and mystical seer.
4 December 2010 - 19 February 2011
It is a bold move to leave a large gallery bare save for a single near-monochrome painting. Liz Maw’s dramatically sparse exhibition at ARTSPACE consists solely of a portrait of the expatriate artist Francis Upritchard. In a space that has hosted memorably epic sculptures and installations - Peter Robinson’s Ack and Fiona Connor’s replica staircase from the 2008 show You Are Here come to mind - it is more than a little unnerving to be presented with just one portrait. More unnerving still is that Maw has painted Upritchard, in her characteristically skilful brand of realism, without eyes. The acclaimed artist is the only thing in this big room to look at and yet this figure does not return your gaze.
In a fitting turn, Maw’s minimal installation is reminiscent of Upritchard’s own stellar show Doomed, Doomed, All Doomed of 2005. Like Maw, Upritchard left ARTSPACE’s main gallery completely empty apart from an intriguing taxidermy sloth. With its long arms stiffly outstretched and its fingers decorated with bejewelled rings this somewhat mythical creature was all too strangely human.
Doomed, Doomed, All Doomed was Upritchard’s first substantial solo show in New Zealand and undoubtedly boosted what has become a highly successful international art career. In many ways it is the narrative of Upritchard’s success that is the true subject of Maw’s portrait. As with many of her paintings, their superb and seductive rendering of form and detail belies a web of symbolism and association. In this case, the strange figure of Upritchard becomes a vessel for our aspirations - she is an eerie mixture of successful artist and mystical seer.
I am reminded of another of Maw’s art star portraits of the famously elusive Bill Hammond. Wearing a white suit replete with cape slung over one shoulder Hammond gleamed like an alabaster sculpture against the dark background of his portrait. Like the painting of Upritchard, the numinous figure of Hammond held court in the small, darkened room in which his portrait hung. In this way, Maw’s figures command the space in which they are presented. No doubt drawing on her Catholic upbringing and the rich history of portraiture, she demonstrates an innate understanding of the theatrical potential of art. The dramaturgy of fame, religious veneration and spiritual mysticism all collide in this showpiece.
While Maw’s portrait of Upritchard offers less visual drama than that of Hammond - indeed many viewers might find it tame compared to her previous work - the painting has a reductive vacuity that is intriguingly unsettling. Unlike Hammond’s full-bodied depiction the eyeless Upritchard is two-dimensional and mask-like. Her arms are held strangely aloft almost mimicking the awkward dancing poses of the figurines that populated her work Save Yourself at the 2009 Venice Biennale.
Maw’s portrait has Upritchard wearing a simple black dress that also seems to reference the basic shifts and swathes of cloth that these figurines wore. Like any good consumer of best-dressed lists, I can’t help but think of the extraordinary multi-coloured diamond shirt that Upritchard appeared in for her Venice publicity shots. Nor could I help but note that one of her strange little figurines was entirely covered in a similar diamond pattern. Like Hammond’s notorious elusiveness, Upritchard’s chic persona hovers around her work. Maw taps this realm of reputation, appearance and charisma that often maintains a peripheral presence in our consideration of an artwork.
While this portrait of Francis Upritchard is undeniably superb, the question I keep returning to is whether or not its sparse installation does anything for the painting itself. Artspace’s modernist architecture and minimalist white walls offer a neat contrast to the mystic appeal of Maw’s eyeless portrait. But where Upritchard’s installation of her anthropomorphised sloth emphasised its strange and somewhat lonesome character, Maw’s deadpan use of space seems superfluous to her intriguing painting. Ultimately this portrait doesn’t need a bold spatial statement - its amplification of Upritchard’s captivating art persona and its strangely enigmatic presence speaks for itself.
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