I want to get into the past
What is the reason for painting the face of a long-dead stranger? As Hilary Mantel says, 'history is not the past -it is the method we have evolved of organizing our ignorance of the past.' My choice of subject matter was random to start with, a project with a tight focus that would help develop my painting skills without worrying about subject matter. I visited India in 2015 and in a dingy room in Udaipur City Palace I came across a group of dismal old photos of British political agents . Their presence in the palace intrigue me, - some were elegant men covered in medals, others looked tired and shabby. Some even had their eyelashes and whiskers carfeully painted in.
Looking at the photos I was aware of beginning a very live conversation with the past - the sitter and photographer negotiating presentation, costume, pose and background; the photographer looking through his hooded camera, himself a tiny reflection in the eyes of the subject; the viewer of the image standing where the photographer once had. Indian portraits were traditionally executed in profile, meaning that the Indian subject's gaze remains within the world of the painting, unlike the gaze of classical European portraits which engage the viewer with stances of submission and domination. The Indian concept of darshan - you see the god and the god sees you - gave the photos with a mysticism that made them magnetic.
By chance I met the grandson of the court artist who had taken and overpainted many of the original photos. Of the 16 portraits, some were enlarged photos of photos, some lithographs, some cropped from larger photos, some well-made and formally posed, some crudely touched in and grainy. The links with past and present, india and England, seemed to bounce fruitfully to and fro across time and sapce.
Next I painted the Indian princes for whom the agents had worked. Beautiful mesmerising images of wonderfully dressed men gleaming with silks and jewels, these made a contrast with some of the agents in their scratchy-looking lumpy uniforms. The single head was problematic to paint though - I only wanted to paint the faces, to keep up the feeling of dramatic engagement with a head so it was like an icon, a mugshot, an anthropological specimen. I became aware of the Orientalist trap of 'speaking for' the subject.
Before starting painting in 2014 I'd always made sculpture, and felt muddled by what to put in the background of my paintings, as well as the need to do boring bits of bodies like forearms and shins. I looked for a solution to composition, somewhere for these heads to be, but I couldn't find any reason to do one thing rather than another. Then I hit on the idea of literally putting myself in the picture, painting an expression or aspect of my response to the space and subject of the photograph. Overpainting made a conceptual bridge between photography and painting that made it possible for me to cross from present to past, using the illusionary depth of the photo and the 2D flat plane of the paper so I am inscribing the present on the past.
Getting photos of photos printed out has also been fascinating. There are cropped photos, photos of etchings and lithographs, overpainted photos, photos of photos, photos of paintings, overpainted photos. getting them printed is also complex: jpegs of tiny photos blown up, photos that have a shimmering 'moire' effect, black and white photos that print out in shades of brown, grey, purple, green.