Salgado’s portraits revive an old art form

by Gregory Beatty


Rarely has an art exhibition in Regina been accompanied by as much hype as this show by London-based artist Andrew Salgado. On the day The Acquaintance opened at the Art Gallery of Regina (Oct. 9) the Leader-Post gave it a six-page spread in its weekly supplement QC. The free daily Metro ran a story on it too, as did News Talk 650 CJME. And a few days later the Globe & Mail’s Marsha Lederman did a follow-up to an article she did on Salgado last October that carried the subhead: Portrait of the artist as a young man on the rise.

Why all the fuss from so many outlets that, with the exception of Canada’s national newspaper, rarely cover art in depth?

Well, to begin with, Salgado was born and raised in Regina, so this exhibition is a homecoming for him. It’s his first solo show in his former home town, in fact. It had originally been scheduled for last December, but had to be postponed when Salgado broke his arm in a studio accident.

Represented in London by the prestigious Beers.Lambert Gallery, Salgado has taken the art world by storm since moving to London in 2008, with sold-out shows in New York, Oslo, London — and now Regina, as all eight paintings in The Acquaintance have already sold for prices in excess of $10,000. On the docket for next year are solo exhibitions in Cape Town, New York and London, with another solo show scheduled for Copenhagen in 2015.

Salgado’s success hasn’t been limited to commercial popularity, either. He’s also drawn praise from critics for breathing new life into a genre of art (painting and portraiture) that has been regarded for some time as being on life support with more avant garde artists typically shunning the medium and its staid conventions in favour of installation, performance, video and other forms of new media.

Two acclaimed painters that Salgado has been compared favourably to are Francis Bacon (1909-92) and Lucian Freud (1922-2011). Both were primarily portraitists, but instead of striving for a physically accurate likeness they both sought to depict deeper emotional truths about their subjects and the broader human condition.

Salgado does portraits too. And like Bacon and Freud, he’s primarily interested in exploring the emotional state of his subject. Early in his professional career, his work was informed by a traumatic incident of gay-bashing that he and his partner suffered at a music festival in B.C. after he’d moved to Vancouver in 2003 to continue his fine art studies at UBC. Comfortably settled into his new life in London, which he described in the QC feature as a “super gay-friendly city,” he’s no longer haunted by the violence that was inflicted upon him and his partner. Paintings like those on display in The Acquaintance still pack an emotional wallop, though.

Part of that relates to the scale of the work. Simply put, the eight paintings are huge — not quite on a cinematic scale, but imposing nonetheless, with some measuring over two metres in height. Compositionally, they consist of close-up images of young men — generally cropped at shoulder level, so that the focus is on the face and upper torso, although in one painting a bearded man is depicted bare-chested with his hands clasped in repose on his stomach.

Stylistically, Salgado doesn’t quite cover the gamut of Modernism and Post-Modernism — but he comes close. From a distance, the paintings read as representational but as you move toward them, the central image starts to dissolve into a riot of thick brush-strokes, blotches, drips and chunks of impasto that totally recall action painting and the broader tenets of abstract expressionism. He’s pretty liberal with his use of colour too, which invites comparison with the Fauvists of the early 20th century who used garish colour to convey emotional heft.

There are even traces of geometric abstraction and colour field painting in some of the backgrounds, along with embedded text and numbers in two of the works that are suggestive of conceptual art.

Salgado got the title for this exhibition from a Sinéad O’Connor song called “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance”. The song recounts a woman’s feelings as she contemplates the dissolution of a romantic relationship with a partner who once loved her but no longer does.

Informed by that knowledge, it’s tempting to interpret the generally introspective poses of Salgado’s subjects in a similar light — as men contemplating (and perhaps even mourning in one or two instances) the demise of a love relationship. But Salgado’s focus here is on the act of portraiture itself.

In assembling this body of work, what he did was approach strangers who interested him and invite them to his studio to be photographed to serve as reference models for the portraits he ultimately created. The emotional bond at the core of this form of acquaintanceship, then, is the intimacy that inevitably develops between a painter and their subject.

As Margaret Bessai points out in her catalogue essay, one of the central conventions of traditional portraiture is to depict the status of the individual through references to their wealth, occupation, and any special office that they might hold in society.

With their non-descript backgrounds and cropped composition, Salgado’s portraits are largely devoid of socio-economic information about their subjects. What we’re left with is a nuanced exploration of masculinity in the early years of the 21st century, inevitably filtered through Salgado’s sensibility as a gay male, but by no means confined to that. The subjects are all young, and appear to come from white European backgrounds, so those parameters certainly apply, but not to the exclusion of a broad consideration of what it means to be a man in a world where notions of gender, sexuality, class, community and more are all in flux.

Does The Acquaintance live up to the hype? In a word, yes.

Salgado will give an artist talk at the gallery Oct. 21 at 7:30 p.m., and Oct. 22 there’s a reception at 7 p.m.