Opie's A Beggar Boy: an element of self-portraiture

Sometimes an artwork just sticks with you. It could be the subject, medium or artist – or it could be for absolutely no reason at all. For me, one of these artworks is John Opie’s A Beggar Boy, a permanent member of the Falmouth Art Gallery collection.

See? ‘Member’. Already, I’m talking as if the painting is the subject.

Look at him. Look at those eyes.  Opie took particular care over the expression in his eyes, like he passed this boy in the street and it was his hypnotic gaze that made him so memorable.

But there must be an element of poetic licence here. If this boy really looked like this, with his clean, cherub face and pitiful, isolated stance, then surely he would have evoked enough compassion (or at least attracted enough pennies in his hat) to get off the streets, one way or another.  With the light on his face, he looks angelic. The fiery background looks hellish.

With any medium, from photography to sculpture, it is easy to forget that we are not seeing a subject, but an artist’s interpretation of a subject. In A Beggar Boy, I am seeing more of John Opie than the child himself.  I’m not sure of the truth, but it seems that this painting is the result of Opie walking past a boy in the street and painting him from memory. In Opie’s mind (and in his rose-tinted memory), this Beggar Boy is an angel in a hellish world.

But art isn't always about truth. Just as a journalist writes to persuade his readers, so an artist conveys his opinion through paint - and John Opie has done a hell of a good job in making us pity this vagabond. Falmouth Art Gallery says John Opie was Cornwall’s first famous painter and with a work like this, it’s easy to see why.

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In praise of the commercial gallery

One of the things I love about London is how great its commercial art spaces are. The big blockbuster galleries are amazing of course – you only need to enter the first room of the chronologically hung Tate Britain to know that. But I’ve been checking out some of the smaller galleries lately and it’s a whole new art world.

Last week, I wrote about my funny little trip to Red Gallery in Shoreditch. Nearby, Flowers Gallery currently has an exhibition on portraiture that I checked out the other weekend. Different artists have completely different ways of exploring the self, from the photorealist to the totally abstract. But the works that really stuck with me were the photos of artists holding artworks, which hung next to the artworks in question. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that what you see in a photo or on a painting is real, but seeing both photo and subject alongside one another really drove on home the reality of reproduction. Very cool.

Carroll/Fletcher is a (relatively) new gallery on the terribly trendy Eastcastle Street, just off Oxford Street. It’s currently closed for the summer, but their previous exhibition was incredible. The gallery specialises in emerging art forms, and boy do I love the medium of technology in art. There were quite a few installation pieces – my favourite was London Wall W1W (see below), which pulled in tweets sent within a one mile radius of the gallery and randomly picked them out. Throughout the exhibition’s lifespan, tweets would be printed off and pasted on the wall, creating an evolving portrait of local tidbits.

One gallery I’m looking forward to checking out is Erarta. It specialises in Russian art, which is an area I’m particularly fond of. I’m going to make it my business to visit as many of these small galleries as I can. They’re under the radar, and they’re fun.

P.s. I’m happy to announce that I have teamed up with online portal for all things Asia, Mokio, to bring you a monthly column on the wonderful world of Eastern arts. The first article will be posted in September – I’ll be sure to link you!

Can murals translate to postcards?

So my knowledge of Chilean art is pretty low. In fact my knowledge of Chilean anything is pretty low, which is why I was delighted to be invited to the opening of Chilean artist MACAY's latest exhibition at the Red Gallery in Shoreditch.

It shows new works by emerging Chilean artist Macarena YaƱez, and is entitled ‘11677.595km’. That is the distance in km from Santiago (Chile) to London - the distance MACAY had to travel for the show.
Street art is a predominantly male genre, but MACAY is putting a deliberate feminine twist on her aesthetic, with flowers, fruit and fifties fashion. It's nice... I would expect to see these patterns on a folder in Paperchase, and I'd probably buy it. 

It's kind of odd though; it's not the type of street art I'm used to. British street art has real roots in socio political comment (think about every Banksy ever), so it was bizarre to see more two-dimensional works in Shoreditch - a part of London that is heavily populated with street murals.

But later on, we saw one of her murals down the road and it was amazing. Maybe street art belongs on the street. It just seems a little contrived when put in a gallery setting.

Pioneers of fine art: Jay Z, Bob Dylan and Ronnie Wood

Jay Z is awesome, isn't he? In what was admittedly an obvious PR stunt for both his album and the Jay Z brand, he has released a ten minute mini-documentary exploring the relationship between music and art, in which he performs his new single, Picasso Baby, for six hours straight in a New York gallery space. It would appear he wants a Picasso in his casa. Don't we all, Shawn; don't we all.

Take a look:

You'll see that performance artist Marina Abramovic was among a select few present (she's the one in the big black dress). Jay Z's arty efforts come as a bitesize echo of Abramovic's piece of three years ago, where she sat still in a gallery for seven hundred and fifty hours. She's clearly keen on her prodigy's performance; you can hear her saying it's "wonderful for visual artists to cross the borders into a different medium, and music has always been the most immaterial form of art."

She's right. The relationship between art and pop is long-standing. On the eve of a Bob Dylan exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, in which Bob is the artist, not muse (see above), we are reminded of the plethora of artist-musicians. Or musician-artists.

Take Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones, for instance (see above). I've been to a few of his exhibitions and I actually really like most of what he does. Rachel Campbell-Johnson, Times art critic, isn't quite so sure. She recently said 'his paintings are the visual equivalent of the boy in his bedroom strutting his stuff on the air guitar'. She thinks he almost has potential... but it probably won't be realised.

Funny that musicians and artists are pretty much one and the same, but we insist on using one type of creativity as a yard stick from which to measure other types of creativity.
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