Sunday, 6 March 2011



Walk into a smallish room on the first floor of the National Portrait Gallery and you’re breaking into a group of artists, dealers and curators who know each other well. They eye each other across the room. At least that’s what it feels like: 12 fragile pencil-on-paper drawings have been selected from a project Michael Landy worked on  8 hours a day, 7 days a week for nearly a year. He said it was like making an inventory of the face, starting with the left eye and working outwards in the hope that it’ll make a likeness.The gallery says the work shows 'imperial detachment'.
Michael Landy, self-portrait, 2008 (c) National Portrait Gallery

I find Landy’s work remarkable. I haven't forgotten Break Down, when I watched a roller conveyor circulate round a disused C & A store near Marble Arch , systematically, obsessively destroying everything he owned.  I saw his O level certificate and a Chris Ofili print in a rubbish tray. He'd made an inventory of 7,227 items and classified everything into 10 categories – Artworks, Clothing, Equipment, Furniture, Kitchen, Leisure, Motor Vehicles, Perishables, Reading Material and Studio Material. It was then systematically smashed, pulped, granulated – whatever it took to destroy it entirely. All this took place amid C & A's still and silent escalators and crisp ‘Pay Here’ signs pointing to nothing. It remined me that everything we have - including the ground we stand on, the food we eat, the water we drink - is not really ours but is on temporary loan.
Writing about  those who sat for him in Art World Portraits, the present exhibition, he comments that some of  his sitters 'found my concentration-face rather off-putting and said I looked angry'. I presume this is the face we see here. He also remarks that ‘Some people found it disconcerting having to sit so close to me. I would use my legs to lock their legs into a vice-like grip, some people liked that. 1 or 2 of the sitters wrote on the back of my drawing board things like ‘I’m bored’ or ‘Landy can’t draw’. 

Charles Booth-Clibborn by Michael Landy (c) Michael Landy / Courtesy the
artist and Thomas Dane Gallery, London

I chose this portrait from among the 12 because his was the only  name I did not recognise - and because it's such a famous surname. Is he related to Stanley, the exceptional Bishop of Manchester (1979-1992), who was such a controversial and energetic priest in the Thatcher years and in the campaign for women's ordination?

Charles is here as founder of the Paragon Press which commissions contemporary artists to create unique print series and portfolios - including a suite of etchings of weeds by Landy called Nourishment. The title was inspired by the way 'street flowers - shepherd's purse, fat hen or oxtongue - proliferate in pavement cracks with so little nourishment'. The etchings are said to be intricate and detailed with 'shapes which criss-cross like dancing figures'. Their publisher, Charles Booth-Clibborn, says they are 'somewhere between Dürer and Odilon Redon'.

Landy describes Booth-Clibborn as 'the ideal a human statue, I kept wanting to check for a pulse'. He says that some sitters found the experience 'revelatory and disconcerting'. What  interests me is that  there are no art critical notes in the exhibition. Instead we have a novel account of what the sitters and the artist felt about the experience. Pretty rare in the history of portraiture.

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