Wednesday 21 March 2018

What Lies Beneath: Untitled by Stephen Durnin

Oil on Canvas, courtesy of the artist and RHA

Stephen Durnin
Stephen Durnin

Niall MacMonagle

A room full of portraits can be a bit heady. All those staring faces. You walk on, you look back and they’re still looking your way. In the Annual RHA Summer Show dozens of paintings of people are all gathered together in the one space. Head after head after head. And then you come upon Stephen Durnin’s work Untitled and, boy, is he looking at you kid.

This direct, winning, engaging portrait is by Drogheda-born, London-based artist Stephen Durnin who specialises in photography, photo manipulation, 3D manipulation and video. He’s also produced a book, London Underground Stations, which documents alphabetically over two-hundred Tube stations. But here he’s using conventional, traditional oil on canvas.

Not from an arty background, Durnin is self-taught apart from a Foundation Course at Camberwell College in Peckham. He later studied graphic design at Central St Martins and this led him to film, animation, photography and an interest in Photoshop. Franz Hals, Rembrandt, van Gogh, Cartier-Bresson are among those whom he admires as portrait painters and in this, Durnin’s own portrait of an artist as a young man, one artist is honouring another.

He’s been painting “long before I touched a computer which was in about 1990” and he lives in London because there are “more opportunities but not necessarily for painting, I can do that anywhere”. This hardy-handsome chap is a friend and fellow artist; in it Durnin says that he hopes to have captured the “sitter’s character”.

Mr Unnamed is wide-eyed with friendly, open features and has settled himself into being looked at through a lens. He’s colour-co-ordinated in chocolate brown: the heavy, ribbed jumper with its circular neck, those clear eyes, those perfect ears, the slightly ruffled hair are so convincingly photo-realist that the medium, oil-on-canvas, needs to be double checked. Light from the right illuminates the features. The sitter’s right hand is at rest, so is he; and all focus in on the face.

The geometric ceiling in the background “is, or was, the ceiling of the café in Tate Modern but people and other distractions were removed”. Its design thrusts the subject forward and the bland grey wall provides no distraction.

Durnin works slowly and from photographs and believes that ‘there can be a fascination with paintings that look like photos. It can force the gallery-goer to examine the work more closely rather than walk on to the next piece”. You bet.

The RHA 184th Annual Exhibition, 15 Ely Place, Dublin 2, is open every day and runs until August 9th.

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