Friday 23 March 2018

What Lies Beneath: Tom by Michael Gaskell

Tom by Michael Gaskell, Egg tempera on board, courtesy of the artist

Tom by Michael Gaskell
Tom by Michael Gaskell

Niall MacMonagle

Michael Gaskell's portraits, landscapes, still lifes, "have an underlying intention in common, a sense of presence and place and the appearance of simplicity and stillness".

Among portraits, he names Rembrandt's Kenwood Self-Portrait and Antonello da Messina's Portrait of a Young Man as works "which engage your attention from across a room and reward closer, closer inspection. I feel I would be able to walk out of the gallery and meet them in the street". But he also admires the abstract artist Agnes Martin's work: "contemplative, still, balanced, compelling".

Lucian Freud notoriously made punishing demands of his sitters.

"For the rest of us, similar demands would send people running", says Gaskell.

"A typical sitting takes the form of a conversation, the majority of my reference images are unusable: lots of open mouths, talking, laughing".

But his aim is timelessness, stillness.

"I'm interested in subtlety, subtle shifts in appearance; the space under the eye, the move of a lip, its slight curve on one side and not the other; a shift in light and colour".

Tom, now 28, was 17 when he sat for his father. "I hope Tom's portrait has a sense of his growing confidence as a person. He'd come through a particularly challenging period of growing up and was just beginning to flower as an individual. A fleeting moment - but one that somehow hangs there and alludes to growth and development, a moment that holds in it a feeling for the person as a child but also a glimpse of them as an adult."

He has painted his niece Eliza (an image used on Sarah Moss's novel The Tidal Zone) and that, like Tom, was shortlisted for the BP National Portrait Award.

Gaskell would like to paint "some people I've walked past in the street and Irish MMA fighter Conor McGregor - part showman, part athlete, part artist. A fascinating personality, he has the complex psychology to match his physiology".

Virginia Woolf recognised that a facial expression can sometimes be "dull and thick as bacon" and sometimes "translucent as a wave of the sea".

In this brilliant, beautiful portrait, everything is luminous, translucent. Take away Tom's T-shirt, give him a ruff and he's a Renaissance prince.

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