richard wathen at max wigram gallery

14 May 2011 § Leave a comment

A small vase was placed gently in my hand. It was a beautiful object with an exquisite misty pale green colour and a light craquelure. ‘Feel ze texture’ I was told in a strong French accent, ‘more recent ones zey are not  as smooth – and dont drop eet, ze estmate is a third of a million.’ At which point of course i nearly did.

I was, as you by now realise, not at Max Wigram but actually at Sothebys just over the road in Old Bond Street. I was having a sneak, personalised tour of the Fine Chinese ceramics and works of art sale (the subsequently record-breaking 11 May auction) courtesy of Christian, head of their Paris oriental department. Over ninety fascinating minutes he proceeded to give me the entire history of Chinese arts, insisting on handing me every major work in the sale, and exhorting me variously to examine the quality of the brushwork, the finish, lustre, colours and texture.

A few million pounds worth of astonishing works of art later we concluded the tour and I mentioned to Christian that I was going to view some contemporary art nearby. ‘Ah, I am not sure about contemporary art,’ he commented, ‘there eez too much, how you say, treekery. With zeese.. ‘ he said, gesturing to the works on display, ‘you know precisely what you ‘ave.’

Over at the very pleasant Max Wigram gallery, accessed via a discreet doorbell at no 106 was an airy room featuring about a ten Richard Wathen works. Although Christian was probably referring more to the, often somewhat dubious, wheeling and dealing that goes on in the contemporary art world, his comments had some immediate relevance as I tried to make sense of the ‘press release’, available to all on the desk as a guide to the works. What exactly are we getting here?

Wathen’s paintings are ‘disturbing, anatomically distorted self-portraits that reflect on time and age and art history.’ Hmmm, sort of get the gist.  

His paintings ‘draw inspiration from a variety of periods, mixed with disguised, self-fashioned autobiographic references.’ Not sure I totally understand.

He ‘intentionally redefines his subjects’ personhood applying …. multiple viewpoints, to the concept of time. His painting Olive, is not the oddity of a young girl with grey hair, but a portrait containing all the ages of the sitter at once, reflecting human experience and life, and rendering ambiguities of gender, age and loss.’ Really? What does the last part actually mean?

I found Wathen’s work rather interesting actually but his work is best explained by one of Wathen’s own quotes: ‘I consider all of the portraits to be self-portraits. The starting point is usually a memory or feeling that will then proceed to sifting through pre-existing images.  This might be a face or an item of clothing but will often have a feeling of memory or history.’

A nice exhibition, but with the smallest paintings starting at £24k I think buyers deserve a little more plain speaking in place of vague sweeping statements – Christian would not have been impressed!

Richard Wathen, 20 April – 21 May 2011, Max Wigram, 106 New Bond Street, London W1S 1DN 0207 495 4960.

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