Face Value
Review of exhibition at Badcocks gallery, Newlyn
Henry John, who graduated from the Ruskin School in Oxford last year, is the great-grandson of Augustus John. The latter’s wanderlust was such that several generations of painters have emerged within the populous dynasty but Henry John, being the latest in that long line, paints in a manner that both belongs to family tradition and markedly diverges from it. His use of the portrait as a subject for investigation and his deceptively relaxed treatment all point the confident virtuosity of ‘Gus’. But if Augustus’s relationship with modernism was an uneasy one what with its almost idiosyncratic and brilliant fusion of academic and expressionist then Henry John’s style sits easily within the conceptually aware conventions of contemporary practice.

John zooms in on the physiognomies of his chosen subjects caught in candid moments of being, sipping coffee, staring into space or navel searching with closed eyelids. He uses the amplified, close up focus of Alex Katz or Chuck Close in America or of late Sickert in England. The facial imagery is not however constructed either with pixel patterns or naturalistic daubs of dramatically handled pigment. Instead they come to life through a cool and selectively sophisticated graphic deployment of paint lines that caricature telling aspects of the subject. In this the broad use of expanses of dilute colour or of untouched empty canvas promotes the idea of calm, rest and quiet uncluttered contemplation. The pictures thereby ‘breathe’ with a tranquil but insistent luminosity.

Many of the works on display at Badcocks in Newlyn- the Venue for his first exhibition since graduating and just a mile or so from Mousehole where the John’s have decamped ever since the interwar days when Augustus’s recurring presence inspired local painters like Mary Jewells, Adrian Ryan, George Lambourne and of course Sven Berlin- are in watercolour. John explains how this liquid and transparent medium ‘forces me to be more playful’. The use of contemporary and anonymous subjects sits easily with historical paraphrasing using late medieval or Georgian sources. The ironic and discordant ‘take’ on history, explained by the artist ‘as a way of acknowledging the past and different roles of portraiture’ has a pluralistic postmodern feeling to it.

But John’s position as an early 21st century portrait painter is indebted to the more immediate influence of media influenced pop art in general and the legacy of Patrick Proctor and David Hockney in particular.If Badcocks continue to chance their arm with other young bloods then they will create a more authentic and distinctive voice among a host of latter day galleries who play too safe and operate merely as high-class extensions of the tourist market. The show runs from May 22 to June 10.