Portraiture feels like a much-discussed topic at the moment – from historical observations such as Simon Schama’s Face of Britain exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (until Monday January 4) to more intimate viewings such as the miniatures displayed at Philip Mould’s new gallery on London’s Pall Mall – or, indeed, to ubiquitous social-media selfies. So the chance to enjoy – and buy – subversive portraits by that maverick champion of pop culture Peter Blake is an opportunity not to be missed.
Peter Blake: Portraits and People (Tuesday November 24 to Saturday January 30) at London’s Waddington Custot Galleries is the first exhibitionto focus on the artist’s portraiture. All the works have been chosen by Blake himself, and include a significant number of new paintings inspired by his penchant for the circus andfairground activities – such as wrestling. There are wonderfully eccentric imaginary characters like red-nosed Krankie the Klown, bullish Sgt Slaughter 4th and the not-so-innocent Princess Perfect (watercolours on paper with collage, £42,000 each; all prices include VAT). Then there’s the freakish Night Marauder (watercolour on paper with collage, £42,000) and a series of strikingly uneasy masked characters: Twotone, Sadista, Mystero and Batgirl (all oil on board with collage, £54,000 each).
Blake’s exploration of body art – a recurring theme linked to his fascination with circus life – continues with the Tattooed Man and Tattooed Woman series (all watercolours on paper, £21,600 each, pictured, 2015), in which heavily inked faces and torsos are used almost as a canvas in themselves to display richly detailed imagery. “I think Peter is at his best when he takes his brushes out, and these intriguing portraits are among my favourites; their liveliness and energy is striking,” says gallery co-owner Stéphane Custot. “The works combine Peter’s artistic maturity with a consistent element of fun and play. The joy and humour in his work is clear. He never stops surprising us.”
Also on show (but not for sale) are a number of commissioned portraits from private collections, which have rarely been seen in public. These include the debut appearance of Leslie Waddington (1996), one of Blake’s oldest friends and his dealer since the 1960s; a portrait of fashion designer Paul Smith; and two portraits of actress Helen Mirren, who sat for Blake in the early 1980s while starring in Cleopatra. Elvis Shrine: Portraits, Landscapes or Still Lifes? (1995-2015, £480,000) – a three-panelled über-memorial incorporating found objects, Elvis busts and LED lighting, which Blake has been working on for more than 20 years – provides a nostalgically kitsch centrepiece within this spirited exhibition. Fans of Blake’s work are in for a treat.