The awkwardness and disturbing nature of Richard Wathen’s portraits are enhanced tenfold by the intimate setting of the Max Wigram Gallery. The androgynous portraits stare confidently from colourful yet strangely muted backgrounds creating a disquieting atmosphere. Even the animals captured in Wathen’s painting, Llareggub, seem to be out of place and awkwardly arranged. These images bring to mind the mass taxidermy arrangements à la National History Museum.
Though it is known that Wathen uses many old references to create his figures, there seems to be a heavy reference to 17th-century Dutch portrait painting. It’s the costuming, colour palette, and neutral-faced figures in relation to a single, symbolically-loaded object - such as a card house or a bunny - that create this art historic feel. Vermeer and his Portrait of a Young Girl pop into my mind every now and again whilst taking in Wathen’s portraits.
The second floor houses a series of large-scale etchings confronting the viewer with male figures, ranging in age from pre-pubescent to adult, all intently staring down the gallery space, confidently nude. In a few portraits, some of the figures adjust a glove on one hand. As a grouping, this series creates an anxious viewing experience. The sly expressions on the faces lead one to share in their secret whether one intended to or not. These prints were made in conjunction with Paragon Press during a yearlong project.
-- David Yu
(All images courtesy Max Wigram Gallery, London. Images from top to bottom: The Maker, Richard Wathen, 2009, oil on linen on aluminium, 98/83cm; Llareggub, Richard Wathen, 2009, Oil on linen on aluminium, 189/135cm; Florence, Richard Wathen, 2009, Oil on linen on aluminium, 225/180cm.)