The definition of Figurative Art generally reflects the shape of things, objects, places and perceptions; creating a likeness, a realistic representation as well as abstract images. This wide-ranging showcase covers portraiture and figurative studies inspired by varied artistic styles from classical Baroque to modernist Photorealism.
Saul Robertson won second prize at the prestigious BP Portrait award in 2005 and his painting of a family, Journeys has recently been selected for the Scottish Portrait Fine Art Awards, 2021. Solitary figures in a city or rural environment is very much the theme of his work here. The meticulous detail in The Rainbow Comes and Goes requires careful observation; this figurative landscape appears to be a break for a picnic on a road trip by vintage VW campervan, with sandy soil and dry grass of a remote, hot, desert landscape. Although we cannot see the face of the woman in the yellow dress, she seems to be looking wistfully out to sea. Robertson has captured a most meditative and melancholic scene like a Kodak snapshot moment, a memory of a distant time and place.
While Madame Pommery was the entrepreneurial 19th century brand leader of the champagne house, Rory Macdonald introduces us to Madame de Chardonnay in her lavish blue-ribboned white crinoline gown. This is such a theatrical, charmingly witty portrait – despite the fact that she holds an oversized, decorative glass of Chardonnay, her expression is far from cheerful. Rather like Mona Lisa, she has a perceptive gaze, staring directly at the viewer.
Having studied Art History at St Andrews, Rory’s innovative approach is inspired by Renaissance and Baroque traditions (Velazquez, van Dyck, Giordano) to create a contemporary, often comical narrative. Also enjoying a tipple or two, Old Soak is a classic portrait of a bearded gentleman, proudly dressed in a ruff and red silk gown, standing, incongruously, in a tumbler of wine. The quality of light glinting on glass and fine textures illustrates his perfectionist style as a young ‘Old Master’.
In contrast, Peter Hallam captures a manner and mood of his subjects with a surrealist style. Here is a colourful line up of smart young men – racing driver, songwriter, androgynous fashionista and, very timely due to Bond mania, a Secret Agent. In his brown velvet jacket, tie, neat hair and piercing blue eyes (à la Daniel Craig), he appears suave and sophisticated. Apparently, these portraits are often based on real people, transformed into quirky fictional caricatures yet balanced with a lively sense of humanity and charming humour.
Cherylene Dyer also has an artistic narrative through characters, choosing actors and dancers as her models, in order to express emotion and a dramatic ambience. Her series, The World Changed while I was Sleeping’ are playful images of a girl wearing a tall crown made out of newspaper, but there’s a hidden message about disorientation as if lost in a fantasy dream world, the lost world of lockdown.
In Duality, we see a double image of a woman, one with eyes closed, in a summer dress, the other a back view and the shadows of two figures perhaps reflecting her dual, public and private faces. This is a poignant illustration of Dyer’s fascination with how we deal with social media, selfie images and the exposure of our identity.
In similar vein, Jane Gardiner has made a close study of the Venice Carnival where guests embrace the art of masquerade to hide one’s true self. Through period costumes, wigs and jewellery, people can adopt, and hide behind, a different, glamorous personality. Light as Air is an evocative portrait of a lady, carefully made up, rouged cheeks, lace eye mask and glittering ear-rings who clearly wants to catch the eye of a secret admirer.
Using a bright rainbow palette and thick brushstrokes, Ruaridh Crighton transforms and distorts his portraits with bold abstract vision and a touch of Egon Schiele expressionism, as in Portrait 1.
Here too are colourful illustrations of forgotten heroes by Stuart Moir who is inspired by classical Flemish art, such as the rather dashing Daniel Specklin was a 16th century fortress architect and engineer.
Emotionally moved by the world Pandemic, Gill Walton has created a series of Breath drawings, akin to religious icons, decorated with silver leaf which was apparently used as a protection during the Black Death.
Steven Higginson likes to experiment with the use of light and shade in a domestic environment as in this stunning self-portrait, The Awakening (BP Portrait Awards, 2019) with photographic accuracy. You can detect the strong sunlight in his eyes and the brilliantly composed pattern reflecting the window blind across his face, echoed in the shadow behind. Like Rory Macdonald, Higginson too is inspired by the work of the Old Masters, transferring traditional representation to modern day life.
In a previous exhibition at the Heriot Gallery, Angela Reilly presented paintings of the naked female form to expose details of skin, flesh and bodily imperfections in intimate detail. Here, in Wrap, Reilly’s artistic lens captures a close up of a woman’s thigh and legs, the left bent under and wrapped around the right to reveal the sole of her foot. The blank background, painted in a shade of soft pink-buttermilk, gives the effect of the figure floating in mid air. Extraordinary photographic quality for the texture of smooth skin, toes and nails.
As an exemplary portraitist, her profile study of a Boy depicts the fine facial features, his eyes slightly dazzled in sunlight and a shimmering shadow with such clarity.
Since opening in July, the Heriot Gallery has shown a most refreshing and impressive selection of distinctive artists across a varied range of genres. Do visit this inspiring gallery soon!
With special thanks to Vivien Devlin for this review.