The walls of the Norman Rea Gallery are currently home to a collection of realist portraits by Essex-based artist Harvey Taylor, who works from digital photographs of family members to create large-scale oil paintings. At first glance, the exhibition might appear to be a set of, sometimes quite spontaneous, and even intimate, family photos—the images of the artist’s sleeping mother or the Gameboy-playing cousins stand out as unplanned, almost private moments captured on the canvas. But at closer look, Taylor’s work re-emerges as artistic interpretations with painstaking attention to detail, and raises questions about how far the artist should place himself from reality as he depicts it. Taylor explains that he always works from photographs, and when asked why he prefers this technique to having sitting models, he replies that he likes the distance he can create between himself and the photograph as he is painting.
“I like to concentrate on one small part at a time—sometimes I even paint upside down,” the artist adds with a laugh. He claims that his work has moved “from abstract paintings to more exact realist work,” but there is also a feeling of a movement in the opposite direction in this particular exhibition. The paintings span four years in the life of the artist and his family, and the earlier pieces — such as “Pheobe Sleeping” and “Debbie” — are less daring in detail as well as gaze and show smoother transitions, as if painted with the whole of the finished image in mind. His latest piece “Dad”, on the other hand, is more textured and saturated with almost impressionistic details, giving a feeling that the artist has moved towards the more abstract and analytical.
Harvey Taylor’s paintings propose an interesting contradiction — that realist art can be created through a method of great abstraction, in which the artist deliberately tries to free himself from the reality of the object of his work. After his speech on the opening night, a member of the audience asked Taylor how he felt about the portraits of his daughter and parents potentially being sold, wondering if he did not feel a certain anxiety about separating with works of such a personal and private nature. “No,” the artist responded straightforwardly. “Once they are done, they are just paintings!”