Face Value
Article published in The Times, 1.9.2004
GROWING UP in the shadow of Augustus and Gwen may be a daunting challenge but Henry John, the great-grandson of Augustus, who is starting out as a painter, is seeking success through unorthodox means.

Before the start of his forthcoming exhibition, Face Value, around 300 potential patrons will have a preview by receiving one of John's works in the post. Each individual item will arrive without a price, and those who receive one will simply be asked to pay what they believe it is worth, or return it the same way it arrived.

Crudely provocative or commercially innovative? John, 23, who graduated from the Ruskin School of Art last summer, modestly admits to being "possibly very naive and quite stupid", but maintains that the concept was born out of the show's title rather than being a calculated bid for publicity. "It is a bit sensationalist, but the idea was to ask the viewer their point of view and ask them to play a crucial role."

John's work so far has focused almost exclusively on facial portraits, such as Harrison, pictured below, and he imagines his new initiative as a way of "reinventing the portrait" by encouraging the viewer to assess both the art and the face it depicts in the home where it may hang.

In addition, John is taking advantage of new printing techniques to create the artworks: each unique print (mostly watercolours) will have been computer enhanced, printed out on archival paper and then touched up again.

But the idea also raises questions about the difficulties young artists face.

Although John admits that the titans of the contemporary art world such as Charles Saatchi and Jay Jopling will probably find their way on to his dispatch list, he bemoans what he calls "the lottery of dictating to taste". And since he is also reluctant to join a gallery ("taking 50 per cent of not very much"), his in-your-face approach can be seen as an independent route to gaining a reputation.

Alicia Miller, of the Whitechapel Gallery, is less optimistic about the potential benefits of John's experiment. "If it gets noted by the people on the list, the attention could really pay off, but as an artistic project and not because it makes money," she says. "It'll be interesting to see what the result is but it's not going to be a financial payoff."

She is cautiously welcoming to other graduate-led initiatives such as the website degreeart.com (which allows customers to buy art direct) but she is emphatic about the long-term benefits of the traditional gallery route. "It's not about selling your art but managing your career. Gallery representation will support an artist's career, give value to their art and allow them to develop an exhibition record."

The problem is less the dominance of a prevailing taste than the vast number of graduates coming out of art school. "Artists have a sense that there's a secret network, but actually it's just very competitive out there."

In any case, scan your doormat in the next few weeks -the postman may have brought a masterpiece.

Face Value ran from Sept 30 to Oct 12 at Chelsea Manor Studios,
SW3.