Celia Broughton wrote a comprehensive review for this recent exhibition [now finished]. She is an author, professional arts writer, copywriter and former gallery owner. Over 30 years she has received numerous awards for her writing and has written hundreds of exhibition and book reviews, many published in national journals in Australia, where she grew up and taught art history after completing a double major in painting and art history, and first class honours in art theory.
It’s nice to meet you, what’s your name …?
The North Wall Gallery’s January exhibition, A Darker Shade: Portraits and Genre Paintings by Cotswolds-based artist, Kevin Line, is one of the finest and most original exhibitions I have seen in a long time. Which is a strange thing to say, given the work is entirely comprised of extremely detailed and realistic black and white portraits and paintings of people I don’t really know, and produced by the artist’s incredible ability to manipulate charcoal with his hands on paper.
Line’s paintings are so life-like and effective that the artist’s marks seem to become invisible, and you are left feeling that you are looking at a living person. His mastery is that once you have observed and taken in the exquisite detail, his skill in drawing, the accuracy of his reproduced understanding of his subjects, then these things simply fall away and you are left with only the painting of his sitter. Like an essence. In the artist’s words:
‘The condition of being an artist could be defined as a state of slow looking. In order to draw someone or something, you have to observe intimately. So, by drawing, you increase and hone your observational skills. And it is through observation that comprehension, knowledge and understanding grows. Drawing is a non-verbal thinking process. There is an immediacy of drawing, of thinking in drawing, which is vital to me.’
Experiencing these works in the gallery is very different to seeing reproductions of them. In ‘the flesh’ they have a deep and powerful presence that is felt as much as seen.
It is as though the action of your mind, as it tries to take in the artist’s incredible technical ability with charcoal and dust on paper, leads to an emotional response as your brain then tries to recreate the actual person you are looking at. An image made up of molecules and particles of matter that make up the fine charcoal lines and black smudged dust before you.
You feel a need to deconstruct the image (because you know it can’t be a real person); and, after all, it’s a monochrome image, two dimensional, larger than life … of course it’s not real. But, somewhere deep and instinctive inside you, the painting before you still ‘feels’ like a living person.
And so your mind persists in trying to understand the puzzle. Admiring the eyebrow hairs, texture of the skin, shimmer or roughness of a piece of petticoat or shirt fabric, and the accuracy of the drawn knitted stitches in a jumper.
But then you pull back again and see the whole of the portrait; after it is unpicked and understood as black charcoal marks on paper. And your mind recreates the ‘person’ before your eyes … your brain effectively draws or creates the portrait itself and – in that moment – you start to feel the sitter come alive. You ‘feel’ for the subject of these paintings.
You, as a viewer, have brought them to life. You have tricked your brain into putting all the tiny marks together to produce a cohesive image, just as your mind does when it sees a real person that it recognises.
All that visual information comes in through the eyes and forms a connection in the brain. And, then, just as when you recognise a real person, so in this case too, your brain produces emotion and feeling to accompany that sight – and to bring that person to life.
As your mind wanders through the spaces of no-information that the artist has left blank and unanswered in the image before you, you start to fill in the gaps of stories and personalities and characters you can’t see in the paintings in front of you. You begin to create your own understanding and knowledge about the sitter, and build your own relationship with the subjects of Kevin Line’s paintings. You are introduced … and the relationship becomes your’s.
In other words, in this exhibition, Kevin Line allows you to observe as deeply as he does and then to ‘paint’ your own portrait as you engage with his work. The gift of this exhibition is that the artist, subtly and skilfully, prompts you and allows you to experience the process of making art like he does. And, through that process, the artist himself recedes almost invisibly into the background, to leave space for a direct and shared connection between the subject and the viewer. And this, it seems, lies at the heart of Kevin Line’s committed and singular quest for observation, intimacy, understanding, truth and expression.
In this exhibition, the artist does not just bring his sitters to life, he places his viewers into the role of artist. And, just like the process he undertakes to make these works, when he is observing and unpacking and understanding all the visual data of his subject and then putting it all back together again, so the viewer of this exhibition does too.
It is an act of creation to view and engage with these remarkable portrait paintings; an act that is subliminally powerful and hardwired into us all on such an instinctive level that we aren’t even aware of it being there most of the time. And then, suddenly, standing in front of one of Kevin Line’s grisaille portraits, we are.
This gift, and it is a gift, is a rare and endangered commodity in our world. It is only a generous, ego-less artist who bestows such power to both their subjects and the viewers of their work. It is a great privilege to experience this exhibition, and it should be a mandatory visit for any student of drawing, painting or photography to undertake.