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Nobody should be surprised that I didn’t like Paul Emsley’s portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge. Still, in the interests of art and blogging I decided I better go to the National Portrait Gallery and see it. Some writers and viewers have said it looks better IRL, but it really doesn’t. I honestly have little more to say about it than it looks exactly like a reject passport photo.

Down the corridor in a separate room is a series of portraits by Humphrey Ocean that are infinitely more interesting and worthwhile seeing. Since 2006 he has made quick goache watercolours of friends, family, and visitors to his studio. He insists on only spending 30 minutes on each, to allow the spontaneity of the portrait to show. Ocean says that he wants to give the impression ‘I was there and I was with this person’.

It is this essence of personality, immediacy, and individuality present in Ocean’s paintings, that the Kate portrait lacks. Awkwardly posed, lumpy, and in thick vivid paint, Ocean manages to give more emotion in the two dabs of Rose’s eyes - shown above - than Emsley does in the whole of the Kate portrait. Then again, it was always going to be difficult for a warts-and-all painter to remove the warts and all from a sitter.

These portraits aren’t photographic reality, but their unreality makes them more real and emotional than Kate could ever be. If the choice was mine, I would much rather have my portrait done by Humphrey Ocean than Paul Emsley.

A Handbook of Modern Life is at the National Portrait Gallery, London until the 1st of September, 2013.

@jclwilson

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The Manchester School of Art 2012 Degree Show opened to the public on Saturday after a private viewing on Friday night. The art school, part of Manchester Metropolitan University, is known for the quality of its students, and high expectations are held of the annual degree show. I had visited the 2011 show with coursemates from my graphic design class and been blown away by the work on display, so I was glad to find myself in Manchester for the opening of the 2012 exhibition.

The show is divided by department and spread across four sites in Manchester; three on the MMU campus, with an additional exhibition space in Quay House on Quay Street. I set aside a day to view the entire show, though unfortunately I ran out of time to see the architecture exhibition.

The style of the work was mixed, but recognisably contemporary - It will be interesting to see how it looks in a decade or two. I was concerned though by the dearth of explicitly political or critical work, despite being 4 years into the global crisis. Most work appeared to be focussed on exploration of form rather than content or context; questions of what art is for and who it serves were left unanswered, the institution of the art school unchallenged. This isn’t an argument in favour of a restricted and uninventive form, but rather that radical form should be married with radical content. I assumed that art school graduates, knowledgeable of their precarious future, would speak about it.

Below is a list of works and artists which I felt deserved special mention.

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The illustration and animation department was one of the first I went to, as expected much of the work there was typically whimsical. Amy Victoria Marsh’s crude drawings and miniature Moore-like models (pictured above) were a favourite. Katie Lawes’ satirical beer mats comment on nutrition myths and branding, and could easily be hidden in pubs. Laura Nash Green’s playful models, heavily influenced by her trip to Utah and experience with Navajos, caught my eye - more drawings and film are featured on her website. Whilst Thomas Harnett O’Meara gives the impression of Aubrey Beardsley in his intricate pen drawings of Wayang Kulit shadow puppets.

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It was nice to compare the photography of the Manchester students with that of the London students I am familiar with. John Merrill’s surrealist photography and montage contrasts with the typically naturalistic feel of much contemporary work - pictured above is his Knife CutHollie Myles’ photographic and video portraits of people in thought are closer to the style I am used to. I also enjoyed Hannah Trampleasure’s voyeuristic series of photographs, particularly the hidden peephole animation.

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The breaking of boundaries between disciplines, e.g. sculpture, 3D design, installation, was notable throughout the show. Isaac Berbiers’ functional Desk Lamp and Concrete Table could easily be seen in style magazines and on blogs. Likewise, April Wernham’s practical and fantastically designed Creative Research and Play desk toys wouldn’t be out of place in a child or adult’s room. My recent obsession with Futurism was probably an indication I would enjoy Ryan Higgin’s Study of Movement; a glass globe suspended from a light fitting, filled with polystyrene balls and an electric fan; and James Lencki’s darkened room with electroluminescent wires and motion activated synthesiser - Video. Contrasted with this is the simple calming monochrome of both Conor Callaghan and Abby Mccracken’s black and white installations.

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It would have been good to sit down and watch all of the student films, however I only had time for the second half of Rebecca Gillespie’s beautifully shot Grandpa’s Girl. Documentation of the production is available on her blog.

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I found the sculpture students’ light and airy space in the Holden Gallery basement particularly enjoyable. My favourite work was Meiling Tse’s Untitled, a huge installation of wires stretched between three walls forming an optical illusion of circles - pictured above. Tse sees her work more as drawing in three dimensions than sculpture. Rebecca Sampson-Jorge’s stitchwork wall piece A CANVAS WHERE OTHERS SEE SKIN likewise eschewed the traditional features of sculpture. More conventional was Lucas E. Wilson’s Title for an Exhibition, two wooden tables covered in concrete cones with paper labels suggesting possible titles, andKeith Garnett Junior’s various solid concrete cubes scattered throughout the gallery and named according to their mass such as 1,139.022 Kg.

The show continues until Wednesday the 20th of June.

@jclwilson