I always pop into the National Portrait Gallery over the summer to see the pictures in the annual BP Portrait Award. It’s a popular exhibition and it’s fun choosing a favourite picture. But this year I went particularly to see the 2012 Travel Award winner – Carl Randall, who was commissioned by the Portrait Gallery to paint the people and places along the Tokaido Road (the ancient route between Tokyo and Kyoto) and whose exhibition In the footsteps of Hiroshige: Portraits of Modern Japan is part of the Portrait Award show.
Carl Randall’s connection with Japan goes back a long way. After graduating from the Slade School of Art he was awarded a Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation scholarship in 2003 to continue his painting career in Tokyo. He was selected to be artist in residence in Hiroshima city, painting portraits of survivors of the Atomic Bomb and also completed a Masters and Doctorate in Painting at Tokyo University of Fine Arts where he won the 2011 Nomura Art Prize.
Randall often paints in monotone, producing large canvases of densely packed groups of faces in which every face is a portrait painted directly from life, without use of photographs – over a thousand volunteers in Tokyo sat for him. The portraits are assembled into a picture of Tokyo life, each one a face in the crowd, living their own private lives separate from each other even as they jostle together in the busy street.
His smaller pictures show a few figures, sometimes just a couple, sometimes more, in everyday environments. They go sightseeing in Kyoto, visit the hot spring, ride the bullet train past Mount Fuji, mobile phone in hand, all with the same impenetrable expressions on their faces.
There’s a sense of alienation in his pictures – there’s no way of telling what’s going on in these people’s minds. The background, precise as it is, gives you no clue as to their inner lives. Are they happy or sad? We can only guess.
There’s a fascination in not being able to penetrate behind the mask. If you get the chance, do drop in to see the pictures for yourself.
Besides the exhibition of his travel award work Randall also has a picture in the 2013 Portrait Award exhibition. Titled Shinjuku, it’s a large monochrome group portrait in oil on canvas of the crowds that pass through Shinjuku station, the busiest station in the world.
Now, credit where credit’s due – I found out about Carl Randall’s exhibition from fellow blogger, Karolyn Cooper, who has a wonderful blog about Bangalore called Distant Drumlin – well worth a visit.
The BP Portrait Award show is at the National Portrait Gallery until September 15th. Entry is free.
My thanks to Carl Randall, who gave me permission to use his images. You can see more on his website and there is a film on Vimeo of him painting some of the portraits. There is also a colour catalogue of his pictures, called Japan Portraits, on sale at the Hayward Gallery shop.