Humphrey Ocean, whose display A handbook of modern life opens at the Gallery this month, began making a series of portraits of visitors to his south London studio – friends, family and people he knows – in 2006; a diverse group who now number almost two hundred. The portraits share a format, and by using gouache, a kind of thickened watercolour, on paper, Ocean can work very swiftly. None of the portraits took more than forty-five minutes.
When I visited the studio in 2009 to view the existing works, with this display in mind, I was thrilled when the artist asked if I’d sit too. I perched awkwardly on a chair in the middle of the large, bright space – Ocean’s studio is in a former radio factory – and I didn’t know what to do, particularly with my arms. You can see that I’m anxiously gripping the chair, trying to be a good sitter. When I first saw the portrait I experienced a mild panic of exposure; I was confronted by me as I see myself, without the filters of self-confidence and professionalism. It seemed that Ocean painted me exactly the way I felt that day; like being painted inside-out. However, the way artist and sitter appreciate the finished portrait is different. My response was inevitably self-interested, based on the usual expectations of likeness and description of character. I think that Ocean ‘got’ me perfectly, but he insists that is not his intention with this series of paintings. He is interested in distilling a portrait to that visual ‘hit’ you get in a momentary glance, or a first meeting. For him,‘likeness’ is incidental, ‘often the worst thing one can do’, he says, ‘is compare the flat coloured paper to the whole flesh and blood’.
By Rosie Broadley, Associate Curator
Image Credits (from top to bottom)
Rosie, 2009. © Humphrey Ocean.
Maurice, 2007. © Humphrey Ocean.
Jack, 2006. © Humphrey Ocean.
As part of the display Humphrey Ocean: A handbook of modern life