Head 1995 is a large, horizontally oriented figurative painting by the British artist Tony Bevan. The work depicts the left side of a man’s head that is positioned in the bottom-centre of the composition and is tilted backward, is if seen from below. Only the face, left ear and jawline are visible, with the neck truncated just below the chin. The subject is set against a solid purple background, the upper part of which he seems to stare up towards with a blank expression. The face and head are extremely craggy and gnarled in their appearance, an effect that is achieved by the heavy interconnecting red and black lines that cover it. These seem to indicate either the internal physiological systems of the body or a series of injuries sustained by the subject. Head is signed and numbered by the artist three times on the reverse.
Bevan made Head in 1995 in his studio in Deptford in south London. It is one of a series of head portraits produced by the artist in the mid-1990s (see, for example, Head 1994, Tate P77866, and Portrait Head and Neck 1994, Tate P77865). The painting was executed on a medium-weight cotton canvas that the artist shrank and sprayed with an acrylic sizing medium. Unlike traditional opaque canvas primers, used to smooth and unify the support’s surface before painting, the sizing medium used by Bevan is unconventionally clear and glossy and emphasises the cloth’s original weave and texture. Bevan also makes his own paint by grinding pigments together and suspending them in an acrylic medium similar to the one he uses for sizing his canvases. He began work on Head 1995 by making preliminary studies in charcoal, after which he drew the image in charcoal onto the canvas while it was still wet with the sizing medium so that the dark lines would be absorbed into the canvas’s fibres. The painting was positioned flat on the floor of his studio in order to be painted, with the artist working on his hands and knees, and it was only placed loosely onto a stretcher once complete. As the drying time of acrylic paint is significantly faster than oil, Bevan works quickly to execute paintings such as Head 1995, and he often uses a combination of brushes and his hands to move the paint around. Due to the artist’s dynamic and rapid style of working, large clumps of powdered pigment are adhered to the surface of the painting and create a matt and textured finish to the work while small areas of canvas are also left exposed.
Writing in 1998 about Bevan’s head paintings, the art historian Marco Livingstone commented:
The human head, and specifically his own, has been Tony Bevan’s most obsessive subject during the 90s, endlessly rephrased and reinvented on a colossal scale that allows the viewer no escape from the confrontation. Of all the images at the disposal of a figurative artist it is the one with the greatest potential of speaking of the human spirit and the full range of emotions.
(Livingstone 1998, accessed 13 August 2015 p.5)
As Livingstone suggests, Bevan’s head paintings are often self-portraits, yet they are not necessarily made from life. According to the curator Catherine Kinley, the artist works from a number of composite sources, including traditional portrait painting, and his is portraiture of many different kinds – psychological, social and political as well as representational (see Richard Morphet, unpublished Board note presented to Tate Gallery Trustees, April 1995, Tate Acquisition File, Tony Bevan, PC10.1).
Bevan’s heads are often presented in a shallow space, with the face shown frontally and with a rough paint surface that gives the appearance of granularity to the skin, and all these elements combine, Kinley argues, to present an unsettling image. However, she acknowledges that Bevan regards his portraits as non-figurative and describes his head works as ‘containers for many things’. Making marks within these containers, she argues, ‘is not to represent the appearance of a head, as to find things within it and, as it were, within himself’ (quoted in Richard Morphet, unpublished Board note presented to Tate Gallery Trustees, April 1995, Tate Acquisition File, Tony Bevan, PC10.1).
Marco Livingstone, ‘The Spirit Beneath the Skin’, in Tony Bevan, exhibition catalogue, Michael Hue-Williams, London 1998, pp. 5–12, reproduced pl.69.
Sue Hubbard, ‘Tony Bevan’, in Tony Bevan: New Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Ben Brown Fine Arts, London 2008, http://www.suehubbard.com/index.php?mact=News,cntnt01,detail,0&cntnt01articleid=221&cntnt01returnid=58, accessed 13 August 2015.
Tony Bevan, Tony Bevan: Self Portraits, exhibition catalogue, National Portrait Gallery, London 2011, reproduced p.31.
Supported by Christie’s.