Elements come together, clash and resonate in David Booth’s abstract portraits.
Portraiture has always had a special appeal to the audiences who love art. One way to explain the universality of this appeal is to look at what it is that portraits capture, namely, the face. Without a doubt, faces are compelling – in the course of our lives they confront us and arrest our attention with an almost violent intensity. The neuroscience of infant brains has proven that the first thing babies learn to recognise are faces, and some research suggests that newborns as young as four months old are processing facial patterns with almost the same proficiency as adults. Our social media are awash with millions of images of the face, and one of the most common complaints about the restrictions of the pandemic had to do with the ubiquitous mask, which frustrates our ability to see and read each other’s facial expressions.
David Booth’s new show at Hang Tough Contemporary, Polybond, steers our fascination with the face into a surreal and futuristic territory. Booth is a young painter, a graduate of the Gorey School of Art, and one of a number of emerging artists – including Salvatore of Lucan and Alison Farrelly – with close ties to La Catedral Studios on St Augustine Street. He has a flair for capturing the fleshy, heavy muscularity and dewy weight of the sitter’s face, which forms a basis on which his graphic abstraction can run wild. In his realist vein, Booth’s use of oil-paint and his style of facial caricature and colour palette are reminiscent of avant-garde 20th century British portrait painters like Stanley Spencer and Lucien Freud, and, in this century, Tai Shan Schierenberg. That said, according to Booth, his major inspirations are Chuck Close and Jenny Saville. Their influence is certainly visible in his work, not least insofar as they are both experimental artists that focus on portraiture.
Aside from the obvious, one of the things he admires about Close’s paintings is that they are individually “unique and consistent,” which will strike a chord with those who know Booth’s work. His fascination with Saville stems from the method she has developed in approaching her work. “The more I looked into it, the more I became intrigued by it. She renders a number of results from the same source, producing multiple paintings, and then she selects one that stands out from the others, even though the differences between them would be very slight. This detail about her practice shows how important your involvement is, and that the process of making is very much part of the work; it is through working that things become clear and apparent.”
Hang Tough’s exhibition of recent work, mostly painted since 2020, builds on these fundamentals and sees Booth progress in a career that is marked by experimenting with the form of portraiture. Owner and curator Michael Rubio Hennigan encountered Booth in 2017, and when he saw Booth’s portrait submission in the 2018 RHA annual exhibition, he reached out to the artist. Since then, they have struck up a productive relationship, working together on a group show in 2018 and a solo show in 2019. Hennigan describes himself as a “huge fan” of Booth and believes he “is one of Ireland’s finest painters.” “The level at which David composes and thinks about his works is phenomenal…When viewing David’s work, there is a connection between the subject and the viewer. One immediately sees the figurative elements within his paintings and then the journey of abstract dissection begins.”
Booth has always shown a keen appetite for renegotiating the terms of his practice, and all of his paintings contain elements of the abstract, in both content and form. Looking through the works in Polybond, however, you can’t help but feel that his efforts have taken on a new intensity. The cumulative effect is one of restless and urgent creativity. His new portraits are hybrids in every sense of the term. Many of the figures are designed with a mechanistic aesthetic; in one instance, the features of the subject’s face are like a mask that covers cogs, pistons and hidden mechanisms; in another, his realist approach is completely abandoned in favour of a machine-like architecture of human geometry; in other cases, the perspective of the subjects are subtly distorted, reproducing the effect of sitting too close to a camera lens. This distortion technique is both familiar and not, as we are now all completely literate consumers of photography and its images (produced under every kind of conceivable condition), but not quite so at home with seeing photographic effects that owe their existence to the mechanics of the lens rendered in painting.
On the level of form, Booth has developed a technique of erasure, where he removes paint to dislocate the anatomy of his sitters – heads swim away from necks, eyes from faces, etc. He also paints sheer, two-dimensional surfaces onto the figures, so that the naturalism of their musculature is interrupted by impossible planes. This strategy of erasure and interruption is sometimes accomplished with materials applied directly on to the canvass, like strips of masking tape. This strategy, it should be clear by now, is not done in the service of an austere minimalism (like Louis le Brocquy), but with disjunction in mind: elements coming together, clashing, resonating with one another. However, this tension is not for the sake of pure heterogeneity. Booth’s remark about Close signals his interest in recombination and unification: take for instance the repeated motif of the double eye. In several works that are dissimilar in other respects, the figures are given two eyes on one side of their face; an eye that either sits below the original, or that recedes horizontally away from the face. When tracked across the breadth of the exhibit, the doubled eye takes on a symbolic charge – what it represents, we don’t know, but the sense is that it does represent something, and that the meaning is carried and shared among each of its iterations. To my mind, the doubled eye has (pleasingly) two functions: it refers back to the mechanistic aesthetic mentioned earlier, insofar as it acts like a visual stutter, or accidental time-lapse, produced by a malfunctioning technology; and it also has wider spiritual connotations in the sense that the doubled eye is not a second eye, but properly speaking a ‘third eye’, and the concept of the third eye is rife throughout esoteric mysticisms where it is relevant as a portal to a higher plane of consciousness.
My thought about the doubled eye is my own – I’m not sure if it will be something that strikes anyone else (or if it is a trite observation, made by everyone), but Booth is clearly interested in the possibility of weaving a unifying narrative of human experience into his work. During our conversation, he mentions the importance of visiting the Glyptothek, Munich’s oldest museum, which houses a large collection of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures. “The museum spells out a linear timeline of sculpture from its earliest manifestations, by understanding how sculptors saw and represented the figure, how they represented the human. Instead of representing individual people, ancient Greek sculptures were more like reflections of humanity itself. So, in the museum you get to see how humanity reflects itself through an evolutionary timeline of sculptural styles, and I found that really interesting on a conceptual level. I feel like it has gone on to inspire my work a lot, like an undercurrent, or base tone to what I am trying to accomplish. The portrait, even though it is about a specific person, has a collective quality that reflects us all.”
Words: Tom Lordan