Face Value
Review of Face Value, part of a series entitled 'Bright Young Things'. Portrait painter Henry John faces up to the art world.
Portrait painter, Henry John, 23, great grandson of Augustus John, is planning to make as dramatic an impact as his work. These days it seems even an artist with a famous name and the talent to match has to be inventive in the way they start out. With a sell out degree show at the Ruskin in Oxford and an exhibition at the Badcocks Gallery in Cornwall behind him, Henry’s sights are now set on London, courtesy of an enterprising project entitled Face Value.

As larger as life as his canvasses, in true YBA style Henry combines gregariousness with a Houdini-esque ability to vanish into thin air and lose himself for days in his studio. If this is a contradiction, then it is the first of many. Based for now in West London, next year he will be moving east to Hoxton. His signature huge oils would be as at home beside the likes of David Hockney or Gary Hume while other work would not look out of place in the more conservative confines of the Cork Street galleries.

Amongst friends and family are riffs on images from the Renaissance. Playfully stolen faces and glances highlight how for Henry, the idea of portraiture is as much his subject as his models. Given his artistic inheritance, this preoccupation makes an engaging virtue of necessity. Comparisons (and Tate Britain’s show gives plenty of opportunity for that) need not necessarily be odious. ‘I see myself as doffing a hat to tradition – with portraiture you have to acknowledge that line, and in the case of Augustus and Gwen, it would be impossible not to do so. For someone interested in oils, it was great that the Ruskin also exposed me to a far wider range of approaches, conceptual art for instance.’

The Face Value project is a almost a work of just this: the past six months have been spent executing face after face in watercolours, an amazing array of features and moods. It seems almost a shame to think of them being separated. That, alas, is the plan – three hundred possible patrons will each be sent a piece and asked either to pay what they think the work is worth, or else return it. ‘These pictures are about the value we place on a face, the way a picture can make you invest emotionally in someone you have never met, but the project is also a cheeky way of asking people, on the strength of one picture, to consider how they rate me as an artist.’

Henry’s girlfriend, Bond actress Ros Pike, may provide one familiar set of features but for the most part recipients of the pictures are unlikely to recognize the subjects. ‘Portraiture’ argues Henry, ‘is about more than the idea of a likeness. I’m interested in the subject and the viewer. At school I remember this boy had a huge photograph of a girl’s face over his bed, a blown up photocopy and I remember saying, ‘god, she’s beautiful – who is she?’ And he said he didn’t know, he’d just found this passport picture. Ever since I’ve been fascinated by that sort of connection, the way the picture creates a relationship all of it’s own.’

Face Value will no doubt make a splash. With characteristic irony, John recalls the private view for Tracey Emin at the MOMA in Oxford last year: ‘Everyone who’s everyone was there. Our entire year at the Ruskin tried to gatecrash.’ Blessed with not inconsiderable charm, Henry not only made it in (disguised as a waiter) but over the canapés also managed to corner Britart dealer Jay Jopling: ‘I was pouring him a drink so took the opportunity to introduce myself and invite him to the degree show. He laughed at me and said, ‘if you’re any good, I’ll find you.’’

Jopling, Serota and co are all on the list of recipients (a portrait entitled ‘Peekaboo’, is headed for Charles Saatchi) and why not – the project is a self-consciously witty experiment in modern day patronage. The fleet of taxis that Damien Hirst sent to unsuspecting collectors to demand they attend his first show is one of several sources of modern day inspiration. ‘Peekaboo’ is at the moment propped up next to a David Hockney, purchased in New York with the profits of Henry’s first sales. It’s an exchange typical of a young artist daring enough to take on tradition but clever enough to play by the rules of today. Watch this space – not to mention your mail box.