Face Value at Abbot Hall: On the face of it

Polly Checkland Harding
Still from a video by Emin, with the artist dancing

One of our Cultural Calendar picks, this exhibition of portraiture in Cumbria brings together some big names and unusual techniques to go beyond skin deep.

Portraits rarely represent people straightforwardly. And so it is that an exhibition focussing on portraiture can include elephant dung. To explain: Face Value – Portraiture from the Arts Council Collection at Abbot Hall in Cumbria includes Popcorn Shells, a work by artist Chris Ofill that features the faces of famous Jazz musicians, surrounded by decoration and the elephant dung that both dots the linen surface of the work, and props it up against one wall. Popcorn Shells joins Sarah Lucas’ famous Self Portrait with Fried Eggs as well as the non-realist Head by venerated sculptor Elizabeth Frink in a star-studded show that, at its heart, questions what portraiture can be used for.

A star-studded show that, at its heart, questions what portraiture can be used for

Take Marc Quinn’s Template for My Future Plastic Surgery, a troubling, semi-comic self-portrait for which the artist cast other people’s features and collaged them over his own face before photographing it. It’s hard to say who, exactly, we’re looking at; Quinn shows us his present self, thinking about an edited, future version of himself – and using parts of other people’s faces to point out the absurd vanity of doing so. The video work Why I Never Became a Dancer by Tracey Emin, also on show here, is similarly reflexive – smart and dark and defiant, the collaged footage is used as a kind of two fingers up to her past.

Quinn and Emin are joined by Peter Blake (whose Dazzle Ship has just launched in Liverpool), Lucian Freud, Bedwyr Williams (coming to the Whitworth in Manchester later this year) and many other artists for an exhibition that tests the boundaries between intimacy and objectification, exploring the ways we come to know someone by how they’re presented. And, just like the term ‘face value’, there’s often more to it than it might at first appear. How many of you would have guessed that elephant dung would be used in a portrait, I wonder?

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