Feature: ArtScene

ArtScene: Turner Prize at Gateshead, First Actresses in London

By , Columnist

GATESHEAD. The fat woman in knee socks and wide apart running quarterback legs was stuffing herself with the dirtiest beef burger seen/smelled on a British train. Guillaume (no beauty himself with that mole disappearing into his third chin) did retching noises and scurried for the corridor with his worried catamite mincing behind. She burped goodbye. Nell Gwyn with her cherry ripe nipples she wasn't.  

Guillaume and his acolyte had tagged on for the train ride north. This horribly sneering Parisian (why do I put up with him? In '81 he saved my life, that's why) once had a job in a London gallery coffee shop and believed anything north of the capital was injun territory. So I was taking him north to, of all places, Gateshead.  Why leave the buzz of London galleries and fabulous cocktails for Gateshead? Answer: Because it's Turner Prize Award time and for the first time in its 27-year history, the Turner Prize show and awards ceremony is being held outside of London and the Tate orbit.  

But Gateshead? Does it work? This year’s show is well hung (as they say up North) at the Baltic Gallery.  Yet as the eyelids droop in anticipation, some things are different. Firstly, the shortlist of four, George Shaw (painting) Martin Boyce (installation), Karla Black (Installation) and Hilary Lloyd (film and still photos) and perhaps with one exception, display work that is interesting, original and technically of an uncompromisingly high standard.  Hooray!  That’s a good start.

This is a biggy award in UK terms. The winner of Turner 2011 gets £25,000 at a ceremony on the 5th December held at the Baltic and the judges this year know their stuff. Who will win? The young Karla Black interests me. I wish her the top marks but something says she comes under the 'Not Yet' category. There are clearly two contenders: Martin Boyce, a pleasurable experience (rare in an art installation these days) and George Shaw.  Shaw's subject matter's a wee bit bleak but he is obsessed and we like that, and wait for it, his paintings are realistic! Now there’s a turn up.

Martin Boyce.jpg

LONDON. Now back to the belching slut on the 7.55 London to Newcastle flyer.  I'd seen her the day before. She was the woman in turquoise taffeta with the tag-wrestler's gait at the National Gallery in London.  On the way to my studio, I'd dropped into the wonderful National Portrait Gallery (it's like seeing old friends) to get an early sight of The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons. It's in the NPG's Wolfson Gallery until 8 January next.

 First Actresses.jpg

The crowd pulling title and one that should not disappoint with 53 portraits, some never seen in public before, including Nell Gwyn, Lavinia Fenton, Sarah Siddons, Mary Robinson and Dorothy Jordan, by artists such as Reynolds, Gainsborough, Hogarth and Gillray.  The gallery says that the bare-breasted Nell Gwyn is yet another 'discovered' portrait. This one's by the late seventeenth century painter, Simon Verelest.

The burger queen said that the jolly freewheeling Victorians simply couldn't cope with courtesans with big bare boobies, so painted over Nell's best-remembered assets. A clean up jobby in the twentieth century restored the lady to her full glory. Clearly, after more than three hundred years, Nell's still the main attraction.

I have to report that burger lady, with a fixed stare at Guillaume's second jowl made a very good point: "good portrait painters tell the truth. Photographers tell you what you want to see." Guillaume's catamite giggled. Guillaume, wonderfully insulted, rushed off to the corridor to be sick again.  I think I like my new bestest friend in turquoise taffeta.


ArtScene Quote

The real character of a man is found out by his amusements. Joshua Reynolds

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Fiona Graham-Mackay, is London's newest royal portrait painter. She is also recently back from painting in the Pakistan-Afghan border. She studied at London's Royal College of Art, had a studio in Paris before returning to the UK to paint and teach in London, Spain and Italy. Her next assignments are…

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