From NYC subway to the Pallant House: Nicholas Sinclair’s artists reassessing Andres Serrano’s homeless


The perceptive article below has been sent to Conceptual Fine Arts by artist and lecturer Geoff Hands. It moves from our recent post criticizing Andres Serrano’s project in New York City’s subway, connecting it with the exhibition dedicated to Nicholas Sinclair currently at the Pallant House and with some of CFA’s main topics: the relation between contemporary art and the art from the past, the artwork’s morality, the selfie practice and the discovering of art out of what we call “the tourist flock”.


I was introduced to Andres Serrano’s photographs of homeless residents of New York City here, on the CFA website. The portraits are impressive and politically provocative. The strength of his language is contained within the engaging 5X4 foot images, doubtless using a sophisticated, ‘high-end’ camera. The strengths I perceive are contained in the varied, but calmly posed, expressions of some of the poorest residents of the second richest city on earth. Initially, these images contrast totally with the portrait photographs I was looking at recently at Pallant House where a fantastic collection of British modern art is held. In the UK you are advised to visit the National Portrait Gallery in London to see a huge and impressive collection of portraits of a wide range of British cultural luminaries. But at Pallant House the portraits of artists by Nicholas Sinclair are truly ‘at home’ under the same roof as a small but astounding collection of paintings.


One consequence of looking at and experiencing good quality Art (in this case through the medium of photography) is to send one’s thoughts elsewhere. Seeing Serrano’s and Sinclair’s portraits provoked me to think about portraiture generally. Portraiture interests us all even if we would rather not see our reflection in the mirror on certain occasions. Currently, a cultural obsession for making Selfies appears to dominate the reasons for owning an Apple or Samsung smartphone. Julian Stallabrass, in the London Review of Books, has recently commented that, “Photography, unthinkingly and endlessly made and shared, pollutes awareness of the real world and suppresses memory of anything other than the moment when the image is captured.” Fortunately, the imagery of Serrano and Sinclair offer extremely loaded and poignant views of humankind. Their chosen moments are contrasting but equally engaging. Of course, all forms of portraiture are mediated by objective and subjective uses and readings. We need ID and, thanks to the invention of photography, can leave our familial images behind for future generations to contemplate. Even Selfies have role to play here, however diminished their ultimate interest may be.


Historically, the richest development of the portrait image was located in the domain of the fine artist – especially since the Quattrocento. An early example, Masaccio’s (possible) self-portrait in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, introduces the individualised human face, open to scrutiny by the observer (and God?) for centuries to come. Photography, arguably, replaced painting and sculpture as the dominant medium for all subjects revealing and expressing the human form – the face especially. For those who may mourn the passing of the ‘great age’ of portraiture, from the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century, to Expressionist introspection of the early 20th century, the photographic image may appear inadequate at times. Here, time may be an issue. Most often, a split-second records the image. What would Rembrandt have thought? He is attributed with saying, “The deepest and most lifelike emotion has been expressed, and that’s the reason [the paintings] have taken so long to execute.” But that’s not really the point, because technology and historical context has always affected the production, the use and the ‘consumption’ of the image (we have Walter Benjamin’s, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ to credit for enlightening us on this matter). Surely, the amount of time taken to make a portrait is irrelevant if the picture not only serves its purpose, but also has qualitative attributes that enhance the powerful humanism and emotional impact of the image? Or, if photography is still contentious in its relationship to painting, does the contention that I assume some may have, refer to skill? This point about skill crossed my mind when I was in the audience listening to a lecture given by Sinclair at Pallant House for his ‘Portraits of the Artists’ exhibition. I shall return to this notion of skillfulness later.


I have presented quite a long pre-amble for a small, but remarkable, exhibition of portrait photographs of British artists on show at Pallant House in Chichester. I am quite sure that seeing the exhibition alone would have prompted thoughts about portraiture generally. More specifically, the link to fine art would have been evident as the subjects of Sinclair’s photographs are 20th century British artists, now being augmented by younger artists who develop the tradition into the 21st century. But this ongoing project (now in its second stage) does pose a moral question. Are the Serrano pictures more important and valid than Sinclair’s? Do they have a greater relevance in a societal context? Serrano’s New York series of the homeless exposes a sense of wrongness inherent in capitalism and in spite of the American Dream. Ideally, these photographs should not be possible in a society awash with material and monetary wealth. Serrano’s portraits must provoke anger and despair in the viewer. Pity is useless if it does not lead to social and political action. Art is equally useless if it does not enhance some aspect of what it is to be human.


Compared to Serrano’s subjects, a set of photographs of 3 or 4 generations of British artists pales into insignificance. But on another level, there is a moral tale to be told in Sinclair’s work. The photographs celebrate the creative and ‘self-actualized’ aspect of being human – attributes that make existence worthwhile as identified in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. These are images of society’s creative Shaman’s. Their practice transcends basic existence and enhances the lives of those who are willing to share in the experiences offered by their varied practices. Sinclair’s portrait photographs tell a moral story, with an internal narrative that is ultimately positive and progressive. Sinclair’s narrative is essentially visual and it requires his skills as a director and a photographer to create the images that can realize his intentions. Sinclair was trained as a fine artist in the UK in the 1970s. He is obsessed with painting (amongst his other interests) and he reveled in the lecture theatre, which doubles as a storage area for the collection, where the audience was surrounded by dozens of paintings. This was rather telling, as there is an aspect of the aficionado with regard to painting that underpins his photographic language.


Sinclair has a slightly self-deprecating character: “I tend to think like a painter”, he told the audience. But he is a painter who happens to use the photographic medium (predominantly with film and the silver gelatin print – masterfully produced it is worth noting) rather than paint. Sinclair’s portraits are exemplary examples of visual skills in composition and mise-en-scène. The ‘decisive moment’ is recognized (he will select from many negatives); and he will allow his subjects to ‘be themselves’; personalities often revealed in body language and the gaze of the eyes. He is skilled in preparation, both before the shoot when he will research his subject thoroughly, and during the setting up of the composition via an interaction with the sitter. The image begins to be pre-visualized once he enters into conversation with the various artists in their respective studios.


Two examples, both of Sir Anthony Caro, are worthy examples of Sinclair’s constructivist sensibility. The first, in black and white, presents Britain’s greatest abstract sculptor posed beneath curving lengths of metal. Caro’s eyes engage with the lens, and therefore the viewer, in supreme self-confidence. The image has an internal geometry worthy of Mondrian; only here, the vertical and horizontal lines support the circular rhythms of the sculptor’s preferred material. Even the inside edges of Caro’s jacket lapels take part in the curvilinear gestures. The metal thought bubble above Caro’s head bares witness to the great conceptual mind that formed his work. The second, in colour, again intelligently sub-divides the square and has a Braque-like quality in its controlled exposition of cool hues: browns, greys and whites re-construct the picture space that Braque presented in his late atelier masterpieces. Visually suggesting the dynamism of Caro’s achievements as a sculptor – a strong diagonal sub-divides the square.


Sinclair’s photography proves his sensibility as an artist who creates paintings with the medium of photography. His book, ‘Portraits of Artists’, published by Lund Humphries in 2000, is now out of print. I hope that in the future we shall see a second edition, updated with a selection of today’s young artists.

September 22, 2014