Paradox portrait: Skull A by Darren Coffield
Paradox portrait: Skull A by Darren Coffield

Darren Coffield’s store front exhibition of paintings at the Residence Gallery is an interesting proposition. Supposedly commenting on celebrity representation, identity and representational function, Hitchcock’s Psycho was his starting point and the basis for the portrait at the centre of the exhibition.

The recurring visual motif throughout Coffield’s work here is the inversion of facial features, the upside down eyes and noses of celebrities and dictators bringing to mind Picasso as well as the looming influence of Warhol. These profile images appear on large canvases, small paper sketches and on plates displayed around the gallery space, with the artist’s working study for Psycho shown in the window.

Similarly upside-down faces of the North Korean Kim despots appear in a series of glass fronted miniature icons, objects that are clearly having something of a moment in contemporary portraiture.

Many of the ceramic pieces unfortunately finish up on the wrong side of novelty homeware, but those larger, central portraits – the title work and the representations of Picasso, Stalin and Thatcher – have a depth and seriousness about them that reveals why Coffield has been so successful as a painter. Indeed, the accompanying text and material is extremely keen to remind the viewer that he is so far the only artist to be nominated for the three major UK painting prizes in the same year (2010).

And for the most part it is clear that he is a skilled artist with interesting ideas about the craft of painting and portraiture, even with the display of the occasional misfire. Alongside Warhol and Picasso (who is presented in portrait form), there are echoes of James Ensor and even, particularly in the Thatcher portrait, the punk collage of Jamie Reid.

What the accompanying text is also keen to do, however, is reinforce Coffield’s involvement with the YBA movement of the 90s that made Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin stars. But this merely underlines the central problem with the exhibition.

All it does is compound the more troublesome aspects of that movement, its rampant commercialism, its marketisation and the publicity hungry production of boring and unambitious work. All the YBA reference does is to reinforce how much this exhibition is here to be sold, and shows up that whilst there are interesting individual pieces and moments where Coffield’s strength as an artist shines through, those moments are diluted by the inclusion of slight works of eye-rolling blankness – a skull with an inverted face, for example (above).

These smaller pieces are superficial and insubstantial, a feeling reinforced by the fact that as much as the text references the ‘psychological twist’ of the paintings and the paradox of our visual processes, it also quotes the Urban Dictionary in its gallery information. And whilst that could charitably be framed as part of an attempt to blur the distinction between high and low culture, it really just drags the serious works of the artist down to the level of amusing divergence.

Darren Coffield: Psycho is at Residence Gallery, 229 Victoria Park Rd, E9 7HD until 24 December
www.residence-gallery.com

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