BP Portrait Award 2017 continues to set high standard (4 stars)

BP Portrait Award 2017

Second place winner: Thomas Ehretsmann, 'Double Portrait', 2017 / Thomas Ehretsmann

Annual portrait awards returns to Scottish National Portrait Gallery

An annual winter fixture at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery for the past eight of its 38 years in existence, the BP Portrait Award shows the best works selected from a submission pool of 2,580 pieces gathered from 87 countries around the world. Such an old art is by its nature slow-moving, and there really isn't much to be taken from the award in terms of new trends emerging, other than the fact that photorealism is popular; it's impossible to turn a corner within the gallery and not have a 'surely that's a photograph?' moment.

The standard is incredibly high, as usual. There's an attention-grabber on the first wall, 22-year-old Khushna Sulaman-Butt's 'Society', a large-scale piece featuring a group of six young friends of mixed gender and ethnicity from the Ruskin School of Art. That five are partly nude or in their underwear is hard to explain away, but the piece is beautifully rendered. That it sits diagonally opposite, however, the first prize-winning 'Breech!' by Benjamin Sullivan is a help in illuminating what makes a really good portrait. The latter piece is simple in subject and setting, but beautifully captures a resonantly human and personal moment; the artist's exhausted-looking wife Virginia breast-feeding the couple's daughter Edith.

As ever, well-known faces appear here and there. Particularly interesting is an ebullient painting of the poet and broadcaster Lemn Sissay, an Ethiopian immigrant as a child who was fed through the care system, and who now finds himself immortalised by Fiona Graham-Mackay, a painter more widely associated with the Royal Family. Richard Twose has painted a full-length Ken Loach, who looks almost welcoming, and there's an uncharacteristically serious, monochromatic image of the actor Matt Berry by Martyn Burdon.

The odd formal experiment appears – Brian Shields' mirror-incorporating 'Archipelago', for example, or the thick, featureless-yet-characterful paint daubs of Lucy Stopford's 'Dr Tim Moreton' – but this show remains once more a satisfying examination of the story faces tell and how these might be displayed, over how esoterically simple features can be depicted.

BP Portrait Award 2017 is at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, until 11 Mar.

BP Portrait Award 2017

The best in contemporary portrait painting, selected from 2,580 entries by artists from 87 countries around the world.

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