Face Value
Review of exhibition in The Economics Institute, Oxford University
Portraiture is a dirty word nowadays, admonishes artist Henry John.
Its better to say paintings of faces. And why not? This definition would certainly fit with both the fleeting but bold quality of the paintings and the minimalism of the modern glass structure that houses the exhibition.

All but a few larger, fuller paintings are on horizonal rectangular canvasses presenting faces that have the top and bottom sliced off. Yet this cropping focuses all the more attention on the T shape - the eyebrows, eyes and nose - which, John explains, has been scientifically proven to be the most striking feature of a face. It appears that such studies have influenced his painting, as John recreates them, by emphasising the T through a compellingly uneven application of paint. The prominence of the white gesso background gives the faces a ghostly quality as the outline proves their presence, only to then fall away revealing something hollow. However, the white enhances the boldness so that the paintings at eye level are the most provocative, forcing a consideration of the outsized face, which are at times truculent, at times whimsical, at times mischievous, but always boldly staring back, undaunted. There is something unquestionably confrontational about these paintings, as each head I encounter walking up the stairs of the exhibition seems to be offering some challenge.Just as I am wrong-footed by the audacity of these staring faces, I am captivated by others who look introspectively in on themselves. All are extremely expressive. In his one hour sittings, J has captured what it is most difficult to achieve: the fleeting expression and the quirky quality of the smile as it plays around the mouth and eyebrows. Most strikingly of all is John's representation of the eyes; while elsewhere the paint is sparse, the eyes confront with a blast of colour. The 'natural' facial tones (beige, brown and dusky pink) are overwhelmed by the brilliant infusion of green or blue. John evidently wants us to stand back and reconsider the face in the light of this, reminding us that this is what we will remember.

While the exhibition is as thin on paintings as it is on paint, the paintings on show do not let you walk comfortably past them. There is something incredibly immediate about these faces that invites lengthy consideration, and the varied expression is refreshing. Either the scientists are right, or John has done a good job, but I cant help thinking that there’s something in this T idea as I leave with an engrained impression of the all-expressive eyes.