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Art not Algorithms

Jenna Luxon on this year’s BP Portrait Award exhibition and how social media can restrict the art we see

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Image Credit: The Tea Trader by Britta Westhausen, 2019 © Britta Westhausen

Now in its 41st year, the BP Portrait Award is a mainstay of the British fine art calendar. Usually displayed in the National Portrait Gallery, it is one of the most prestigious art competitions in the country and arguably one of the most important portraiture awards in the world. With over 1,900 entries this year from 69 different countries, the exhibition presents the very best of contemporary portrait painting.

Yet rather than making my usual pilgrimage up to London for the BP Award, this year I instead made the more manageable journey to my bedroom, and with my laptop laid out in front of me, visited this year’s exhibition through the screen.

While my bedroom definitely lacks the grandeur of the National (and my lukewarm tea could not compete with Covent Garden café standards) I enjoyed my virtual visit, clicking around the exhibition space, reading the descriptions and easily selecting the paintings I wanted to look at more closely.

In fact, the online exhibition was so well designed that the only element of the physical exhibition I really missed, was not being able to listen in on other visitors’ comments. There is no comedy gold like following someone who hates art around an art gallery, patiently waiting for the moment they finally break and pronounce that ‘a toddler could have done that’ is so satisfying and an experience sorely missed by visiting the exhibition virtually.

My personal favourite paintings this year, were actually none of the winners, which is often the case. Relationship by Hongshu Lei, a painting of a couple the artist saw in a San Francisco Art Gallery which focuses on the way the two people exist side by side both looking at the art that interests them whilst being part of a pair in each other’s company was touching.

I also particularly liked The Tea Trader by Britta Westhausen, a painting of the artist’s son in a circular frame and Mid-shift by Thomas Leveritt which is now eerily apt, being a portrait of the artist’s friend who’s a midwife and her colleague working at the James Paget University Hospital just before COVID-19 in the winter of 2019-20. The artist aimed to capture the stress on individual health workers that is routine for an NHS hospital and has, of course, now increased exponentially.

My overall favourite, however, was Red Beret by Thomas Arthurton. The artist studied History of Art at the University of York (something I only realised later on so I wasn’t biased, I promise). Painted in an attic in St Petersburg over several dark winter evenings with artificial light, some parts of the painting are left deliberately unfinished so that it looks to have faded in places like a memory.

There was also, as ever, the BP travel award. This grant is given the previous year and allows the winning artist to experience working in a different environment for a portraiture-related project. The winner of the grant in 2019 was Manu Saluja who travelled to The Golden Temple in Amritsar, India to create portraits of the volunteers working in the large communal kitchen there.

The BP award exhibition being online this year, got me thinking about art galleries in general, mainly about how much I miss them, but also about how I’ve been interacting with art through the internet during this time in lockdown.

I probably engage with art in some way through social media every day, but what’s different about the art I see on these platforms is how it is designed for me. How algorithms work out that if I liked this one artist then I will probably like this other one too. How I get caught in a cycle of looking at similar art and artists again and again in the same way that Spotify suggests songs it thinks you will like based on what you’ve already listened to, or that section on ASOS where it predicts the clothes it thinks you’ll buy.

This can be nice. Indeed, I’ll often like an artist that Instagram suggests and too often I’m guilty of buying a skirt because ASOS shows it to me as something I’ll like. But what was refreshing about looking at the BP exhibition was looking at a range of art that had not been curated for me. There were pieces I liked and others I really did not. There were artists I’d never heard of before and some I’d happily not hear of again.

With art, as with most things, our personal preferences are shaped as much by what we dislike as what we like. It’s important to see art you don’t like and listen to songs you hate, it broadens your understanding of art and of yourself, and crucially in looking at this broader picture you find pieces you never thought would be your type of thing but that you end up loving anyway.

The internet and social media have been great for art and artists alike in many ways. Artists can now communicate directly with their audiences, for example, and can in turn get validation without having to go through galleries and the eliteness of having to have art critics and collectors approve their work before it stands a chance. But it’s important to still try and stretch beyond what the algorithms think we’ll like. To try and reach out every so often to find art even if we end up not liking it. Seeing art in person instead of through a screen is the perfect way to do this, but during this time at home, online exhibitions like the BP Award are a good alternative.

The BP Portrait Award 2020 is online at the National Portrait Gallery, London from 5 May 2020.

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