Paul Brandford by Christina Patterson


William Blake talked about finding “a world in a grain of sand’’. In Paul Brandford’s work you can find a world in a face. Unlike so many contemporary artists, what he paints is people, but to call his paintings “portraits’’ would be to miss the point. When he paints a politician, or a monarch, or a dictator, he isn’t just trying to paint a person. He’s trying to say something about the world that put them in that role.

In a painting of Prince Charles, for example, he shows a man weighed down by medals, and by his mother’s big purple crown. He shows a man, in other words, weighed down by the regalia of his (future) office, but the face is that of a man racked with self-doubt. This is Charles as we sometimes glimpse him, but not as we think we know him. But then, the painting asks, why do we think we know him? Why would we know someone we only ever see on telly, or in the news?

Most of Brandford’s paintings come from images in the news. Sometimes, these are images we’ve all seen and aren’t likely to forget. The one of Prince Charles kissing his new bride, Diana, has become as much part of royal iconography as a Holbein portrait of Henry VIII, but the resulting picture, painted almost thirty years after the wedding took place, still comes as a shock. Diana’s face is literally blank, as you might expect from a sacrificial victim, and Charles’s has the grim set of duty. The title, “The Passionate Prince’’, is as savagely ironic as the one he has given to the painting of Charles in the crown. “Game of Thrones’’, that one’s called, catching both the zeitgeist, and the painter’s contempt for the “game’’ that propels any bloodline to power.

But Brandford’s paintings of the royal family- brought together in 2012 in an exhibition called “Monarchy in the UK’’ – are gentle compared to his paintings of politicians. The Queen, for example, looks like a tired old woman getting on with a job. It’s clear from the work that Brandford thinks it’s a ridiculous job but whatever  he feels seems to have much more to do with that ridiculous job than with the (in his view) rather ordinary woman trying to do it.

This can’t be said of the paintings of politicians. We don’t need the titles – “Arrogant Dave’’, “Bullingdon Dave’’, “Smug Dave’’ – to make Brandford’s view of our current Prime Minister clear. The big, smooth face – shiny and pink against the dark suit beneath- isn’t one you’re likely to warm to. Boris, too, looks like a man thinking about his next Machiavellian step. But at least Boris and “Dave’’ have a face. Tony Blair in “Pale Tony’’ hardly does. You can just about see the eyes, but what you really see is paint and shadow, and a terrible blankness. This, the painting seems to say, is a man who has lost his humanity.

You can see this in Brandford’s paintings of dictators, too. Gaddafi, also weighed down by regalia, has almost no features. Instead, he has sunglasses and a smug, smug smile. The King of Tonga is so puffed up, in his giant uniform and medals, that all you can see is a mask. When you look at the painting, you feel that whatever human was once there has long gone.

But what’s almost more disturbing than the pictures of dictators are the generalized images of war. In “Mission Accomplished’’ , in this year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond stands in a bleak landscape, with a helicopter departing overhead. The expression on his face is disdainful, but the main feeling that comes through is one of waste. In “Dying for a Piss’’ , we see American soldiers urinating on Afghan corpses. In “Online Execution”, we see Al Qaeda terrorists looming over a captive they’re about to kill. Hanging above them is a banner with the jihadi slogans that spur them on. Both paintings bring to mind what Hannah Arendt said about the “banality of evil’’.

What Paul Brandford does in nearly all his paintings is take the familiar and make it strange. The blurring of the features suggests an ambiguity that can never be resolved. The glimpse of a man (and yes, it usually is a man) is, the painting suggests, as near as any of us is going to get to the mystery of another person. But in that glimpse you do sometimes get a glimpse of a soul.

It’s a bit of a cliché for artists to rage against authority. It might make a nice change if some of them didn’t. But if some artists rage because raging seems like the fashionable thing to do – and also perhaps, because it can be quite lucrative – Brandford rages because he can’t do anything else. Sigmund Freud might point at the succession of middle-aged male authority figures in his work, and wonder about his father, but when did an artist’s obsessions not start as a child? When you look at Brandford’s work, you certainly feel anger. You also feel energy,  and joy.

The joy is in the alchemy of painting: that process that starts with an image, and then perhaps a drawing, and then perhaps the mixing of paints. And then it turns into brushstrokes on panel, smoothing, splodging, layering and sometimes stabbing, as something that’s felt in the solar plexus is turned into something that might make someone else’s heart leap.

It’s no surprise to discover that Brandford’s favourite works are by the seventeenth century masters. “Rembrandt, Velazquez and Vermeer,’’ he told me, over a glass of wine in his Hackney studio. “I love all those painters who create the image, and have a language thats separate to that image, so there’s some dialogue between what it is, and how it’s made. That making is highly visible. You might not be a fan of how they did it, but it’s not hidden behind words or superficial technique. Somehow, they’ve turned up and they’ve done it. The sensation without the tedium of its conveyance. A construct that exists to tell you something else. Good art,” he said, but he almost didn’t need to, “resonates’’.

Any old Tom, Damien or Tracey can shock. What’s much harder is to produce something that gives you more each time you go back. Paul Brandford’s paintings can certainly unsettle you because they’re as full of humanity as rage.”I want,’’ he says, “to make poetry from the conflict between authority and fear’’. At his best, that’s exactly what he does.