While you might know him for his iconic cover design for the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, British artist Peter Blake’s career expands well beyond this emblem of the 1960s. Though he is often called a Pop artist, Blake has turned his hand equally successfully to realist urban painting, illustration, collage, sculpture, and formal commissioned portraits. Billed as the ‘first exhibition to focus on the artist’s portraiture’, in fact a little of each of these facets of Blake’s work is currently on display in Peter Blake: Portraits and People, now open at Waddington Custot Galleries in London. This exhibition presents his oeuvre through a new lens, one which will be appreciated equally by those familiar with and new to his work.
Sir Peter Blake, R.A., was born in Dartford, Kent in 1932 and attended the Gravesend School of Art and later the Royal College of Art. He is often grouped among the British Pop artists, including RCA contemporaries David Hockney, R. B. Kitaj, and Allen Jones. He exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1954 and 1955, the ICA in 1958, and had his first solo exhibition at the Portal Gallery in 1962. From the 1980s until now, he has had major museum retrospectives of his work in Bristol, Amsterdam, Brussels, and London.
The exhibition at Waddington Custot is divided roughly by series, featuring work from several different points in Blake’s career, all organised around the theme of portraiture. One room of the gallery features Blake’s commissioned portraits ranging from the 1980s to 2014, many on loan from private collections for the show. These portraits of friends, collectors, and notable figures are unified by a matte finish and the impassive expressions of the sitters. Most of the individual portraits are small and tightly cropped above the shoulders, as if they have been trimmed down from bust-length pictures. The large couples portraits of Simon Sainsbury and Stewart Grimshaw, and of Leslie and Clodagh Waddington, are particularly striking for their lack of intimacy: the partners do not look at each other, touch, or smile but instead keep to their own pictorial space, as if inhabiting separate canvasses.
The next room of the gallery presents works from a few series, most notably Blake’s Wrestlers and Tattooed People, which line opposite walls. These small scale works are brightly coloured and appealing for their intricate detail and bold designs. They also contrast each other nicely: the wrestlers express their identities through costume whereas the tattooed people wear theirs on their skin. The Wrestlers on display here are a continuation of a series Blake has returned to many times since the 1960s, while the Tattooed People are a new take on a recurring theme which he explored in earlier portraits of rock stars, pin-up girls, and circus acts.
Perhaps most surprising is the ‘centrepiece’ of the exhibition: Elvis Shrine: Portraits, Landscapes, or Still lifes? This installation piece, composed of pre-fabricated pieces of Elvis memorabilia, inhabits the back room of the gallery, hidden like a secret side chapel. The work is monumental in scale and visually overwhelming, effectively harnessing the frenetic, obsessive energy of super fandom. Elvis Shrine is essentially one giant portrait of the ‘King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’, made up of tiny collected trinkets that bear his resemblance, though the resulting work tells us more about Elvis’s fans than the man himself. The subtitle of the work is a nod to the question often asked of painters “what do you paint: portraits, landscapes, or still lifes?” and thus the altarpiece is divided like a triptych, each section representing one of those three genres. As the culmination of twenty years of collecting on Blake’s part, the line between artist and fan, observer and observed has become blurred, leaving the viewer with the uncomfortable feeling of looking into someone’s dirty laundry.
Our salient impression of Peter Blake: Portraits and People is that it is really a painter’s exhibition. The display of many series focussing on one subject from different periods in a major contemporary artist’s career gives the audience a chance to see how his painting has evolved over time, including his technique, materials, and even his conception of the theme of portraiture. There are also a few hidden gems in the exhibition, such as two unfinished portraits of Helen Mirren from the 1980s that are tucked away in a back corner, which reveal the bare bones of a portrait, giving us insight into his working practice. For that reason, this exhibition is one not to be missed by aspiring painters and portrait artists, or those interested in painting practice.
By Helena Anderson
Peter Blake Portraits and People is at Waddington Custot Galleries 24 November 2015 – 30 January 2016.