Gas Gallery, Aberystwyth
Portraiture has been the subject of some excellent critical attention in recent years. Laura Cumming’s book A Face to the World is as lavish in presentation as it is acute in treatment. Martin Gayford in Man with a Blue Scarf described his experience of being a sitter for that most unrelenting of painterly eyes, Lucian Freud. In March this year James Hall published to applause his The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History.
The publishers of Hall’s book have put a James Barry self-portrait on the cover. The artist is giving his viewer a cool, sideways look. Hall’s choice of portraits includes the young Joshua Reynolds holding his arm up to cast a shadow across eyes and forehead. The versatility and endurance of the genre are attested by the popularity, in different ways, of Gilbert and George and Anthony Gormley, Frida Kahlo and Cindy Sherman. The recent writers on portraiture and self-portraiture have not caught up with the leaps in technology’s ability to render the human form. Anyone may step into the mini-studio offered by the company my3Dtwin. Its sixty-four cameras snap in unison and within the hour the subject may be possessor of a photographic-quality mini-replica of the self.
The degree of verisimilitude is of course the issue. The art in the art of the portrait is that it is not just representation. It is representation within a medium, that also draws simultaneous attention to that medium. Those 3D replicas have, for the moment, an unappealing surface in their resin finish. That aspect may be expected to evolve rapidly. In the meantime Aberystwyth’s unfailingly cheering and airy Gas Gallery has mounted an exhibition that contains self-portraits of vivacity and originality.
Annie Morgan Suganami’s inaugural exhibition, after her move to Ceredigion, comprises twenty-five works. Twelve of these are self-portraits; cumulatively they capture the elusiveness and manifoldness of expression in the human persona. The artist is well travelled. Australia and Kuwait are unremarkable destinations now in a much-journeyed world, but Labrador and the Yukon still have a Hammond Innes whiff of adventure to them. The impression from the exhibition is of an art and an artist, who started late after a life as a musician, at great ease with herself.
A full figure, near to life-size, in charcoal and unframed has Annie Morgan Suganami standing arms folded before a canvas. The feet and shoes are emphatic. It is the artist ready, composed and self-composed. Adjacent to it, similarly close to life-size, Suganami sits in a red coat. The shape of the coat, its lines and contours, the looseness of its sleeves, are done in free lines of red. Drips of paint have been left as they are. Above the free lines of the coat the face has been drawn as prematurely wizened. The passing of the years and maturity pose no threat. Another white-faced figure has the hair rendered in an explosion of white. Along the same wall the artist is painted from back view in a flourish of Dionysiac gesture.
At the opposite end of Aberystwyth’s cool and spacious Gas Gallery a group of six paintings are evidence of Suganami’s travels. She herself is a rootin’ tootin’ westerner on horseback. Four same-sized playful pictures are of cowboys close-up. The image of an artist who has come to rest and roost is emphasised by a distinctive, even quirky, touch to the exhibition. Five chairs encircle a couple of small tables on which sits an array of coats, cardigans, seven varied pieces of footwear, including cowboy boots of the daintiest size.
Facing the Gas Gallery’s door is another self-portrait. The canvas is six by four feet, the ground grey in tone. Annie Morgan Suganami’s face is half in profile between two hands exaggerated in size and asymmetrically drawn. The facial expression of sharp knowing and the large outstretched palms that face us speak of the artist as if to say: ‘This is all that I have.’
This is an exhibition of breadth and exuberance. The Gas Gallery has established itself in a short time as a novel, unique and crucial part of the West Wales art landscape. The exhibition continues until 6th May.