We’re in the last gallery of the chronological circuit and this room represents a selection of work made in Britain over the last 10 to 15 years and our ambition for this gallery is that it will change much more regularly than previous rooms so that we can continually change and adapt and respond to the scope of contemporary art and present the latest additions to the collection, which is continually evolving and responding to art being made today.
This deceptively simple portrait by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye is the most recent work on display. It was acquired by the Tate only last year. I think it has a really interesting place in contemporary art. Historically portraits are loaded with symbolism and often tell us a great deal about the identity or personality of the sitter. In this portrait the artist has stripped the painting back to its bare essentials placing her figure on a monochromatic black background, which makes it very difficult for us to get a sense of time or place or indeed the identity of the sitter. I often like to think about portraits as pictures that speak to each other over time and I certainly think that portraits like this are referencing western traditions of portraiture from Goya and Gainsborough but its mysteriousness counteracts this great tradition. I think its power lies in its refusal to be pinned down, which greatly pulls on our imagination.
So we’re now looking at another painting that is being displayed at Tate for the first time. This is an untitled wall painting by Richard Wright and Richard Wright often chooses very unusual locations for his wall paintings. Sometimes they occupy entire rooms and create a very sublime impact and others, like this, which are nestled into the corner of the gallery. He approaches painting very much compulsively and they are created as soon as the artist steps into the room before the installation. This painting certainly has a gothic feel and I think it references the history of painting and decorative arts and although they look very formal and very precise the brushwork does reveal their fragile nature and in fact Wright’s paintings are all very temporary in nature and they disappear under layers of white emulsion at the end of each exhibition or display and so Wright places at the very heart of his practice fragility and disappearance as the natural conclusion to creation.
It’s interesting that the final two works we encounter on our walk through British art represent two very different kinds of painting, that both ask important questions about its status in art of the 21st century. I think these two paintings speak to each other but in their own ways they form their very personal dialogues and associations with the history of painting and therefore with the collection.