The Long Look at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is a small but focused show that turns portraiture on its head in a conceptually intriguing and visually satisfying way. The exhibition is the result of a two-year project in which Norman McBeath (photographer, printmaker) sat for painter Audrey Grant as she created two portraits of him in charcoal.
The portraits of McBeath do feature, but they are really only a side story to this show. The main body of work is by McBeath: his photographic impressions of Grant’s studio, documenting her presence by the trails of creative detritus she leaves in her wake. These ‘portraits’ show the traces of Grant everywhere: fingerprints in the paint that has dried on the back on her easel; highly detailed close-ups of her charcoal-blackened apron that seem transformed into vast monochrome sand dunes; the bars of soap on the counter, misshapen by the hands they help to clean after every session.
Hands series, a sequence of close up and super-high-definition photographs is at the centre of the display. Each minute detail is made more striking by the charcoal dust embedded in the creases of Grant’s skin. We rarely get much of a glimpse of the artist in standard portraiture, a genre that can feel fairly prosaic and transactional. Here, the photographs by McBeath document her creative space, the studio, and present its contents as a lens through which we ‘see’ the artist.
It seems that the sense of fascination with the artist’s studio now seems more prevalent than ever. The most unique and (the more I reflect on it) bizarre example I encountered was at Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane. There, in the centre of the gallery, is Francis Bacon’s studio. Its contents – even the dust – painstakingly reassembled having been documented and meticulously transferred from London to Dublin in 1998. Though it is undeniably a fascinating sight, and totally worth visiting, there is something voyeuristic about the practice of preserving and reassembling the artist’s studio within the Gallery space (closer to home, Paolozzi’s studio is on display at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art until next year). These kind of displays continue to assert the narratives of the ‘artist genius’, elevating and shrouding his or her workplace in magic and mystique, ways of thinking that contemporary art history has sought to move away from.
The Long Look, though it has elements of this tendency to give the artist’s studio too much auratic power (including the unnecessary inclusion of the chair that McBeath sat in while his portrait was created) for the most part manages to circumvent these more troubling tendencies of artist/studio worship. Particularly when presented in the context of a national collection of portraiture, where wall labels normally the list the sitter’s name and details of their life far more prominently than the artist’s, this reversal of the gaze subverts the traditions of portraiture in a refreshing way.
For me, the examination of the psychological intensity of two people observing one another over time, and the resulting sense of intimacy between McBeath and Grant was one of the other most successful outcomes of the show. For this reason, I would argue that the inclusion of two portraits of Val McDermind were a kind of ‘third wheel’, an unnecessary curatorial appendage to an otherwise tightly-focused exhibition.
Through the simple switch between observer/observed, The Long Look empowers the usually passive sitter with the gift of re-observation, and extends this to the observer in a way that offers a fresh perspective. When encountering subsequent portraits, we might ask ourselves: how did it look from the other side?