Review: ‘Portrait of a Life Half Known’ @SimonOldfield : Is There a Correct Way to Look @ Art? VC and Tabish Battle it out!

VC had this thought, Is there a correct way to review art ? I mean do you need a beginning, middle and an end? Do you need to like or dislike the work, is it ok to be negative? (doesn’t seem to be ) What is art anyway? So,  how can we look into this?
Well, below VC and Tabish review the same show exposing two completely different interpretations while simultaneously attempting to answer some of the above questions.

What do You Think? Fancy Having a Go? Just leave a message at the end of this post.
Let us begin.

Portrait of A Life Half-Known @ Simon Oldfield Gallery- Through the eyes of VC

Allow me to first set the scene, or paint the picture if you will. Currently on view at the Simon Oldfield gallery, 94 Mount Street Mayfair, is a group show titled, ‘Portrait of a Life Half Known’ featuring the works of four slightly different, half known artists: Kay Harwood, Juno Calypso, Simon Foxall and Ryan Leigh. When I first read the press release, I immediately fell into torturous past memories of dark uni lecture halls. Where haunting flashbacks from my days studying art history slowly crept their way back into my present mind. Endless days and endless nights, forced to feast eyes, ears and perceptions upon portraits of kings and queens, peasants and slaves, dogs and birds, tyrants and their servants, portraits of the artists themselves, portraits of their wives and mistresses, portraits of their children, portraits of portraits re-interpreted- the slides were never ending! At the ripe age of 22, I was inevitably led to the final and unchangeable conclusion that people, especially artists, are completely narcissistic and that all of this s&*t is the same! However, this unshakable conclusion only made my love for the art world even stronger, and of course- the love for myself. As I revel in opportunities of finding something new and interesting to critique and observe, meeting people who are unique and ubiquitous and, of course- using my own narcissistic voice to write about it.


Kay Harwood: You, 2012

On this note, back to yet another gallant evening parading the shimmering West London summer streets. On this particular sun filled late afternoon, I convinced myself to go to this ‘Half-known’ show for three reasons: Number 1. Mark wanted me to review it. Number 2. it was the private view, so I knew there would be heads, feet, and voices dancing, bobbing, and fluttering around the pieces- taking the yawning show of portraiture to a whole new level. Number 3. From a curatorial perspective it is entirely invigorating to see how group a show is curated. This skill a curator obtains: to incorporate similar, yet individual, minds, techniques and voices of artists from various backgrounds in a setting which synthesizes all of these interesting, intertwining elements and metaphorical conversations, is a skill I not only personally admire, but it is also one of the main reasons why the contemporary art world continues to stay afloat- through the strength, intelligence and agility of collaboration.


Ryan Leigh: Fruit Of The Pleroma, 2011

Walking up the stairs to the second floor of this quintessential Mayfair building, Mark and I were bombarded with groups of people of all shapes and sizes, sticky heat, hardwood floors, white walls and multiple corridors and dimensions alluding to an Alice in Wonderland theme in which many more layers were to unfold. With a cold beer in hand,  I was intrigued -and couldn’t stop from taking myself out of the role as the aerial view observer. I don’t know about you- but my imagination takes off in instances such as these. Something becomes terribly mystifying and extremely poetic within rooms, where a silent portrait hangs like a bug on the wall amidst clever conversation, loud chuckles, good vibes, free drinks and sunshine! I am usually always left wondering what the locked- in, framed subjects are thinking. Maybe, ‘why hasn’t anyone offered me a drink? Why are they so loud? Do they like my pink top? or What are YOU looking at!?’

Enter: Tabish. Highly aware of his ‘top 5 gallery picks‘ which he publishes every Monday on FAD, I could already assume from his gallery/show choices and from his bleak yet concise observations, that we had a completely different way of viewing art and even more so- of writing about it.

Tabish is solemn, timid, intelligent and thinks very long before he speaks, much less writes. I, on the other hand, naturally endowed with an American twang and booming gestures, speak loudly, laugh loudly, and write loudly! As different as we may seem, our oppositions inevitably led to curiosity and we immediately joined forces and began to embrace what the show had to offer. First up: Juno Calypso’s room. He told me on instant that he came to this show ‘specifically to see her work‘ Ha. I had never even heard of her ! And, as he was going on about her technique, skill, yada, yada, yada , all I could think about was whether or not the girl in the pink top situated in the background of this techincally ‘advanced’ photograph was aroused, or suddenly stimulated by the man having a conversation by HER couch? I may or may not have a dirty mind when it comes to art- after all is art, or is it not an interpretation of culture?


He then asked, ‘So what do you think, who is your favourite?‘ I responded with the fact that I did not even know who these artists were before I walked in (besides reading their names a week earlier on the press release) and that it was extremely difficult for me to zoom in on one artists work before I quickly zoom back out. In order to comprehend the overall conversation between all of the artists, the space, and the people who think twice to consider it, I had to first see it all in from an aerial perspective. It is quite enjoyable to walk into a show knowing NOTHING, especially a group show, where knowing too much can dominate a genuine and initial outlook.  It was refreshing to allow the works to speak to you, as oppose to MAKING the exhibition obtain some sort of theoretical meaning.

For Tabish, it is the oppposite. He is involved with almost everything scientific and is both enamoured and enticed by dissection and biology- ah ha! Hence the reason for his ability to quickly capture what he thinks is worth while and to accuratetley tune out all of the nonsense. I know that I tend to be too boistrous, opininated, and over think the whole shebang- missing the details and fine tuned points! So, I l am loving the fact that he can look at something and say- this is that, that is this- Done. After our conversation, while leaning on this same wall where we first met (where I was secretly convinced that another one of Calypso’s subject was spying on our rants) we then decided we need to battle our thoughts out on FAD- And for reasons that are both greater than him and I.

The question that both Tabish and I would like to pose is in fact: Is there a CORRECT way of looking at art, viewing art, talking about art, or WRITING about art?

We went our separate ways and decided to do our own review of what we gathered from the show a week later on FAD.


How do tiny humans belong in shows? Do they fit in- or fit out? Are you tiny or big?


Repeated heads and shapes. A heavier nod to the repetition within the piece, only when there are repeated foreheads crowded around- for me at least.


A view of the Garden from the window- oh how the sun makes such a difference at an art show opening!


He’s lonely…and cold?


Kay Harwood: Nothing But the Dust, 2013


But he has a friend!


Kay Harwood: A Higher Plain, 2013


People down below who probably have loads of fabulous other things they could be doing in Mayfair. Aka they don’t have to hang out in frames all day.


hmm…maybe this lonely tree wants to be colourful and in the garden outside the gallery with the rest?


Ryan Leigh: Family Tree, 2013


She is so flashy and green! The hulk’s wife?


Simon Foxall: Everglades Pilot III (It’s not love that keeps me here), 2013


Can you spot him? Creepy guy with duffelbag captured from gallery window. Wonder how he would want his portrait rendered?

So Here it is ladies and gents. A glimpse into the mind of VC and I, like the rest of you, cannot wait to see what Tabish has come up with

Although it seems a bit all over the place (just from my own interpretation)- it is very much a show worth checking out. And I must say I was incredibly impressed with the artists and the Simon Oldfield gallery

Portrait of Life Half Known @ Simon Oldfield through the eyes of Tabish Khan
There are three things that make for a good group show: high quality art, a central theme and how the works hang together. It’s completing this golden triangle that all galleries seek to do when putting on a group show, but has Simon Oldfield gallery succeeded with their latest exhibition?

We have four artists on display all taking portraiture in different directions, exploring the nature of portraits and what can be conveyed with a non-traditional painting, drawing or photograph. I’ll examine each artist in turn before returning to assess the exhibition as a whole.

Juno Calypso is an artist we spotted first at this gallery and her latest set of photographs are those that featured in the Caitlin art prize finalists’ exhibition. I like her anti-portraits where her face is hidden and she takes on the guise of her alter-ego – Joyce. The settings appear perfect but her stance hints at a hidden tension within each work that the viewer isn’t privy to. I think her photographs make her the strongest artist on display here.

Simon Foxall has two sets of work on display. A giant segment of wallpaper covering the gallery wall is his strongest piece as recognisable landmarks appear through the semi-abstract brightly coloured foreground. His portraits are a mixed bag, the use of deep and bright colour where only humanoid forms are visible are effective but when realism enters his work as with the giant green woman, they gain a comic book feel that decreases their presence.

Kay Harwood takes traditional portraits and adds touches of colour to bring out certain aspects of her male muses, whether it’s the blue in their eyes or the chequered pattern of his scarf. The technique is effective and can be arresting but it feels too safe to stand out in this exhibition that’s meant to be a new take on portraiture.

Ryan Leigh exhibits some traditional landscapes but the focus in on his drawings of trees. By placing them within an oval, which is traditionally reserved for portraits, he attempts to give them an added sense of life and personality. This didn’t work for me and I saw them as nature research drawings rather than pseudo-portraits.

The gallery layout affords each artist a closed off section. By not hanging works side by side, it feels more like four mini exhibitions rather than a group show. This is by no means a bad thing but I’ve assessed each artist individually because of this. As you leave one room and enter another, the slate wipes clean and each artist is left to stand on their own rather than as a group.

The central theme is strong and I recommend a visit but it’s Calypso’s work that is truest to this theme and was my top pick for this exhibition with Foxall also deserving some praise for his work.


About VC Maurer

VC Maurer, is an aspiring art critic, columnist, and art journalist. With a dual degree in Art History and Religious Studies, she also obtains a masters degree in Curating Contemporary Design from London, UK. Currently she lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, BK.

6 thoughts on “Review: ‘Portrait of a Life Half Known’ @SimonOldfield : Is There a Correct Way to Look @ Art? VC and Tabish Battle it out!

  1. Is there a correct way to look at art? Interesting question. As an art critic, and student of art history, one might well assume that I’d say yes. But, actually, to my mind, the answer is no.

    The viewer of a work of art, or of an exhibition, ought, I believe, to go in as a blank canvas and allow himself to become the subject. He should open himself to the experience, look at and live the artwork. He should feel its Affect.

    The joy of art is in its expression of emotion and how this, in turn, evokes emotion in the viewer.

    Coming, myself, from a background as an academic
    syntactician and semanticist, it is my tendency to seek out information, to find the “correct” way of analysing things, to label and to categorise. I am used to theories and solutions, to picking things apart and seeing how they work. But that is precisely what I don’t want to allow myself to do when it comes to
    art. Viewing art should not become an academic exercise.

    Which is precisely why I struggle with the contemporary trend for conceptual art which requires reams of textual explanation. Not that I don’t enjoy this on occasion – I do – but, for me, this is something
    different. It’s an exercise around art, not pure art itself.

    As a linguist, I became engrossed with my work to the point that, in lectures, and, worse still, in conversations with friends, I could no longer hear a word of the content, as I would be too busy processing the structure and breaking down the grammatical components of the speech. Theory
    and analysis took over my life. Art was my escape and my saving grace. It gave me back the ability to simply be, look, experience and enjoy.

    Then, when I began studying it, I took a course at the
    Courtauld, and we had a session on Old Masters restoration work. The tutor presenting was thoroughly enthusiastic about her work, revealing how she finds
    the backs of canvases far more thrilling than the fronts, and how, when she looks at a contemporary work, all she can see is how long it will take to
    disintegrate, and what glues and other products might be used to help preserve it. This is what I feel I must protect myself from at all costs! Art, for me, cannot become about technique and media – it must always remain about effect
    and Affect. It is something anyone and everyone can experience and enjoy.

    And this experience, for each individual, will be unique. Hence why, in my reviews, I often struggle if pushed towards giving an opinion. I do not feel this is my right. I seek, instead, to present the exhibition as
    enthusiastically as possible, so as to draw the public in and incite them to go and see it, experience it, and judge for themselves.

    With all the shoulds and oughts in the above, it perhaps sounds as if I am, after all, prescribing a “correct” way of looking, but, to make clear, what I want to say is: “each to his own” – whichever individual way you find to relate to a work or exhibition is, for you, the correct way. Don’t feel you need to go with an academic toolbox for
    deciphering, or that you need to read the wall texts and flyers before understanding – simply go in, look, and allow yourself to experience the art.


  2. Great comments Anna but I think there are a few choice statements in there that merit further exploration.

    I particularly like your statement ‘go in as a blank canvas and allow himself to become the subject. He should open himself to the experience’. But the question this raises to me is whether we as ‘art professionals’ for want of a better phrase can truly experience this.

    We have several reference points including knowledge of other artists, experience of past exhibitions and having read academic essays on the subject. So can art reviewers ever be a blank canvas?

    I’d agree that our experience makes us a little more hardened when it comes to fully enjoying an exhibition as it has to measure up to what we’ve seen before – maybe this is part of the reason why Brian Sewell is so grumpy all the time! I’m rarely as overawed by work as other people at exhibitions tend to be but I’m glad to say there are still artworks and exhibitions that can blow me away.

    My approach to reviews is different. I will never ‘slate’ an exhibition but if it’s by a major instituiton then I feel it’s my duty to inform my readers as to whether they should go see it, especially if there’s an admission price – and even there isn’t it’s their time that will be wasted if I’m too enthused about it all.

    As for smaller exhibitions, I don’t feature them if I liked nothing about it, so generally these are all positive reviews. There’s so much art out there, I feel there is a responsibility on us to act as a filter.
    I agree with your statement around conceptual art in that it’s very hard to review something where everyone has a different interpretation. Duchamp has lots of good and bad outcomes to answer for!
    I’m also sligtly dismayed by people who say that you ‘get art or you don’t’. Especially when it comes to conceptual art, ‘I don’t get it’ is a perfectly reasonable response. That’s not the fault of the viewer and the artist and gallery are equally responsible.

  3. Yes, I fear that one of the negative outcomes of art
    education is that it fetters our ability to “go in as a blank canvas,” but, who ever really can completely? I mean, no one and nothing can be taken completely
    out of its context. Knowledge of other artists, past exhibitions, and academic angles alters the context in which our internal “blank canvas” is hung, if you like. Some people sadly cannot see beyond this, and seek only to look at the new art through this filter, situating it within an art historical or contemporary context, relating it to other artists and other works. But I think the talent that marks out a true critic, or student, or simply any viewer of an artwork or exhibition, is the talent to find that inner space which still can be a blank canvas, and to allow this part of the soul to experience the art. And the criterion that marks out good art, for me, is that it can affect this blank
    canvas directly, without needing to be interpreted cerebrally first.

    Incidentally, I also try to avoid reviewing shows in which I find nothing positive, but, if a small gallery is hosting something I am not impressed by, but which I am compelled to review, I will try hard to find something positive in it, or else I will write something purely contextual and informative – i.e. I will resort to the cerebral, which, for those who know me, will probably speak volumes anyway!

  4. Wow! Killer response Anna! And thanks so much for taking the time to really dive into this perplexing subject. I agree with you completely as I don’t think there is a ‘correct’ way to look at art, and this is precisely why Tabish and I wanted to pose this question. Everyone has their own interpretations which should be embraced. I in fact could, not even criticize someone who replied that there is a ‘correct’ way to look at art- because this is how they look at art! 100% with you on ‘to each, his own’! Stay tuned for next week as Tabish and I will battle it out again with another thought provoking show. Any suggestions?

  5. Yes indeed – after life starts its mark making process, none of us can be a blank canvas. We have to accept our own idiosyncratic under-paintings. But I think this is far from a negative:

    Is it more about simultaneous readings and interpretations – to wonder in the magic that the same object can inspire different reactions in others, and that life is not as black and white as the world would have us think. We should have our own views but also seek and accept those of others. Of course, prior art-world knowledge could certainly give a deeper reading or show the work up in the glow of its predecessors. But then again, a good artist should have made the work in the context of the background of art history, and also been aware of their audience which may or may not possess this same knowledge: resulting in a successful artwork that speaks both to those who can see it in relation to art history, and those with fresh eyes. Ultimately, a good artwork could resonate with both our inner blank canvas and our inner cluttered montage, if that is the artist’s intention. (Here I guess I have to add another qualifier – what about artworks which are very personal or specific, made in the knowledge that a very specific shade of inner-canvas is required to understand it?)

    Those who are practiced can often assume a blank-canvas-like state when first looking at a work, judging it first in a vacuum and then later, in context. I can see how this is a valuable tool to any art critic. Would you agree that the importance of this with group shows is probably for two reasons? –

    1 is that you eliminate any risk of being more biased towards one artist because they have previously resonated with you, and 2: Some, (including myself), believe that even when a work requires background knowledge to be fully understood, it should still be effective on some level even if viewers do not know the ‘backstory’.

    If our concern here, with writing about art, is about keeping the ‘base level’ of viewing / assessing the work equal – like an examiner marking papers – then perhaps we need to accept that it won’t be. In the end, that’s what makes the art world so vastly diverse and inexhaustible.

    Just to cause trouble: I wonder if an equally effective way of viewing art, is to make sure we know as much as possible about all the artists. Don’t go with a blank canvas, go with a full sketch book of research and understanding, packed with scribblings of research and cuttings of both your own and others life experiences. This way you can equally catch out any artists whose ‘backstory’ is simply padding and frill to make unsuccessful work appear more meaningful. Then again, for us reviewers, the work would never be done. Perhaps that is your next challenge Tabish and VC…! — Nicola

  6. Hello Nicola,

    Many thanks for your very thoughful response and I am digging your take on things-

    I certainly agree with you here: “1 is that you eliminate any risk of being more biased towards one artist because they have previously resonated with you, and 2: Some, (including myself), believe that even when a work requires background knowledge to be fully understood, it should still be effective on some level even if viewers do not know the ‘backstory’.”

    As a practicing curator, I do think it is pertinent to view a show as a whole (primarily in group exhibitions) and if only we could entirely be a blank canvas! For your second answer, due to my art history background (and my often running detachment from it, as I feel it can interrupt a relationship one could acquire with a particular piece) I love nothing more than becoming captured by an entrancing work, where my heart rate slows down beat by beat and the goosembumps slowly raise from hair to hair. Sometimes, not knowing anything about the maker, the history, or the meaning, is in fact what makes it so powerful! A true artistic work speaks to you because the artist has put their heart and soul into the production and the overall vision where the canvas is an attempt to speak to the partcipating viewer through their medium! This is what our whole artistic community thrives on! Would you agree?

    As mentioned in the review, portraiture and figure painting have never been my favourite genre, but I am must admit, this show changed my mind and reawakened some old feelings which I thought had been permanently sealed away in the time capsule of art history. So maybe a better question should have been raised- ‘what makes a worthwhile show?’

    What are some worthwhile shows that you have seen recently? Did you go in as a blank canvas or fully armed with knowledge from research?

    Thanks again for your response and stay tuned for the next ‘trouble causing’ battle!

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