Self-Portrait with Toothache
2009 Koestler Awards Art by Offenders, Royal Festival Hall
The Art by Offenders exhibition is huge; probably because these 140 pieces were whittled down from the 6000 entries, all selected and curated by prisoners themselves. The effect is overwhelming even before you see the art, which is varied, emotive, expressive and always interesting, proven by the red stickers that dot almost every plaque. It’s hard to forget as you wander through the exhibition that everything shown is by prisoners, often impossible when confronted with larger than life, meticulously realist, painted fists, clutching at bars. Self-Portrait with Toothache shares this internal pull — on the one hand a stylised self-portrait, on the other a prisoner drawing attention to pain. The painting style is hugely expressive, from the large brush strokes that softly build the image, to the bright and varied colour. Skin is all tone here: the natural colours of flesh mix with the anger of red pigmentation, deep under the eyes and ears it blends softly golden for the forehead, which is uncommonly smooth. Michael’s eyes remain unmoved; almost glazed, they fail to fix on us, staring into nothing, bright and piercingly blue. This is perhaps where the poignancy lies; the figure stares deliberately out, but his eyes do not follow us around the room; we are mesmerised by him, though the feeling is not necessarily reciprocal. Heavily painted with outline and light, the style is vaguely Modernist; reminiscent of the cold angular attention paid to the figures in their portraits.