Here’s an old article I thought I’d share from the Irish Arts Review, Summer 2012, pg 56-7 by Jane Humphries. Its about my painting Just To Feel Normal which won the Ireland-US Council/Irish Arts Review Portraiture Award at the 182nd RHA Annual Exhibition and placed third in the BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery in 2011.


Considering the ebbs and flows within art history and visual culture, the genre of portraiture, particularly the ‘painted portrait’ continues to fascinate both contemporary artists and viewers. When photography prompted artists to move beyond the mimetic leading to modern movements such as Cubism, Fauvism and Expressionism, portraiture was usurped from its lofty heights as the second most important subject in the academic hierarchy of genres. Later in the 20th century artists such as Cindy Sherman explored photography as a medium capable of presenting an objective reality, eventually leading to something of a contemporary renaissance within painting and portraiture, as the development of the inclusion of a conceptual element by artists such as Gerald Richter exposed the endless possibilities for future artists to explore. But has a portrait ever been quite what it seems in any media? Artist flattered their wealthy patrons in the Renaissance by enhancing their attributes in much the same way as glitzy fashion magazines Photoshop celebrities today. Debra Brehmer writes: ‘Portraits are maps of what we privilege and long for in both the material and spiritual worlds. Within their seeming simplicity and directness of purpose are innumerable signifiers of culture’s sneaky hand shaping image and identity without us even realising it.’ Since the Ireland-US Council and the Irish Arts Review established the inaugural Portrait Award to honour a ‘promising Irish artist in portraiture’ the recipients have demonstrated the enduring power of the portrait with its traits that parallel what Donald Kuspit terms ‘The Old New Masters’. That is art that combines skilful execution with a contemporary knowledge of image-making and appropriation that creates a ‘new humanist art.’ Three very serious contenders for this year’s prize display these concerns : the exquisitely painted and conceptually strong work, The Key by Conor Walton; Colin Harrison’s stylistic August 1950; and Comhgnall Casey’s Self Portrait, all of which incorporate allegory, iconography and art historical references within their compositions. The Portrait Award of €5,000, now in its seventh year, is awarded jointly by the Ireland-US Council and the Irish Arts Review to the most portrait artist in the RHA Annual Exhibition. The previous winners have been: Una Sealy, Colin Davidson, Jonathan Dalton, Carey Clarke, Gary Coyle and Maeve McCarthy.

However, despite its evolution, portraiture is really all about the face. From the famous Buddhist glazed terracotta Head of Loan in China to the late Louis le Brocquy’s Portrait Head series, as signifier of the human condition the head has been omnipresent in global visual culture. In this tradition, a huge, monumental, extreme close-up study of a young man’s head is the recipient of this year’s portrait prize. Just To Feel Normal by Ian Cumberland. Born in Banbridge in Co Down, Cumberland studied at University of Ulster where his talent was marked early with the John and Rachael Turner Award for the most outstanding student in 2006. He has already established a national and international reputation for his portraits, winning the Davy Portrait Award in 2010, while in 2011 Just To Feel Normal was placed third in the BP Portrait Award.

However, this work is a significant departure from his earlier works, which were influenced by graphic design, advertising, the cinema and mass media, and had a more clinical flat application of paint. In these early works, the pathos of contemporary life was conveyed by the spatial relations between figures acting out an allegorical narrative such as Only a Pawn In Their Game. In Just To Feel Normal, there is a more expressionistic sensory use of paint that is immediate and emotes a more intimate engagement between subject and artist.

At a Distance the image appears to be a flat, photorealistic portrait, but on closer inspection the intention of the artist appears to be to aim for masterful deftness of the application of paint to the surface, linen. An obvious historical reference point are the great Dutch Portraitists Rembrandt and Frans Hals, where the pigments of the paint and skill of the brush stroke are only revealed close up. There are few who can emulate this degree of skill, and Cumberland’s application of paint and scale brings another reference to mind, Chuck Close, who said he ‘pushed paint around’ to give an inner essence of the subject. The entire space of this enormous composition is filled with a ravaged, imploding masculine face. Sinewy, scarred and skeletal, the taut tendons pulsate as skin desperately clings to sunken, unshaven cheekbones. An unkempt and grimy washed-out teeshirt suggest a life that is slowly burning out and on the edge. Ravaged by life at so young an age by some kind of substance abuse, life is draining from within and yet there is hope in the defiant stance, a certain cheekiness and playfulness. This is not a ‘pretty’ picture. It is not one that makes the viewer feel comfortable, not only in relation to the collapsing forms of the artist’s friend, but as members of society who are in some way complicit for the degradation, the depletion of youth, passive voyeurs of an individual’s demise.

Catherine Marshall wrote that: ‘In the sea of celebrity portraits that we live in nowadays, the importance of the individual cannot be overstated.’ See Irish Arts Review ‘ A Moment of Transition’ Summer 2009, pp. 62-3.

The subject is a friend of the artist who was going through a rough time and depicts ‘…those who have fallen victim to themselves and grinding pressures of life.’ Cumberland describes his painting as ‘A celebration of flaws using marks and colour of paint to accurately portray the flesh and bring out all the imperfections everyone has.’

Every portrait reminds the viewer of what is transitional and subjective. As Brehmer remarks, ‘A portrait wants what cannot be had. Life to stop without being dead.’ Simulated by the paint clinging to the support to the linen support, the material emulates the human condition holding on to the passing moment, signifying life’s fleeting temporality. It is a portrait, which is stylistically aesthetically ‘beautiful’ but brutally frank in the unanswerable question of what it is to be ‘normal’, what it is that makes us human not only as individuals but as a society, posing a profoundly more difficult philosophical question that is relevant to any era.

Jane Humphries is a writer and researcher.