Simon Richardson interviewby andrew.mcnulty
Encouraged by Grahame Sydney, Simon Richardson opted for solid observation over fashionable conceptual art and is now a sought-after portraitist.
Not many artists make their name immortalising the bare buttocks of a burly All Black on canvas. But Dunedin painter Simon Richardson can claim that honour.
His work Back Field, a striking rear view of Anton Oliver’s slab-like shoulders, pale haunches and sturdy legs, attracted attention for more than its artistic merit when it featured in an Auckland exhibition five years ago. The rugby player had agreed to pose nude for Richardson, a friend, without anticipating the publicity – and derision – he would cop when his identity as the model was revealed.
Much as the media fuss that erupted at the time surprised and irked Richardson, the painting was snapped up for $16,750, and he’s honest enough to admit the publicity has aided his career, raising his profile and helping him win steady commissions as a portrait artist.
Last year, he painted Christ’s College’s headmaster, Simon Leese, for the Christchurch school, and his civic portrait of former Dunedin Mayor Peter Chin was officially unveiled in the Dunedin City Council chamber in September. When the council first announced Richardson had been hired, an Otago Daily Times reporter cheekily asked if Chin would be posing nude.
Richardson’s most recent commissioned work has been international: painting the portraits of affluent London-based Kiwi financier Keith Lloyd and his American wife, Rhonda Lloyd.
The couple, introduced to the artist’s work by a Washington-based friend, paid a substantial fee for two paintings in oils, and covered his return airfares to London and Italy.
They also invited him, along with his wife and two children, aged two and four, to stay with them in their elegant house in exclusive Belgravia, central London – one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in the world – and at their holiday home, a 16th-century palazzo in Gallipoli, southern Italy. From July until October last year, Richardson and his family swapped their comfortable cottage in serene Broad Bay on the Otago Peninsula for the lifestyle of London’s well-to-do.
According to stereotype, serious artists are expected to wear holey cardigans and work in grotty studios, not swan around city mansions. But as a full-time artist for the past 15 years and with a family to support, 37-year-old Richardson is happy to have some guaranteed income, and one of his portraits can be worth up to $30,000.
Accepting commissions doesn’t necessarily mean compromising artistic freedom, he says, although he admits that can depend on the attitude of the sitter. He points to the Italian Renaissance tradition of artists creating portraits for wealthy patrons.
“There was a time where everything that an artist did was a commission, that was the way that you survived. A lot of the painters that I really love are from that era.”
A good portrait should have significant input from the artist and reveal something of the sitter’s personality as well as simply capturing their likeness, he says.
His paintings of Keith and Rhonda Lloyd are designed to complement each other, and both have an earthy, muted palette and an unsettling strangeness to the subject’s gaze. He looks to one side, as if distracted, and she stares directly, but inscrutably, at the viewer.
The subjects of Richardson’s non-commissioned work are drawn from his immediate domestic sphere. They include his son and pregnant wife standing on their back lawn (Waiting for Mila, 2008), a lonely image of his father-in-law barbecuing sausages in the dark (Night Barbeque, 2007) and his dad in a duck-hunting outfit (The Artist’s Father Duck Shooting, 2008). Richardson paints what is familiar and real to him in intimate, meticulously textured detail.
It was Grahame Sydney who encouraged Richardson to follow his gut instinct and develop a realist style at a time when it was considered outdated. Sydney has been a mentor and a strong influence on his career since their first meeting when Richardson was a student at Otago School of Art. Sydney, an invited guest, gave a less-than-flattering critique of his work. It was a turning point for Richardson.
He made the decision to eschew fashionable conceptual art and instead started drawing the most concrete, genuine thing he could find. That turned out to be, at least initially, himself, and many self-portraits followed.
“It’s a bit like when you watch television for a day you just feel a bit uneasy. But if you read a book for a day you feel good afterwards,” he says. “That’s how I felt about the difference between trying to make things out of thin air and this really solid observation and drawing. It just gave me a real buzz.”
His friendship with Sydney also led to his meeting Anton Oliver. Sydney showed his art-loving friend Oliver a photo he’d taken of a Richardson still-life of a cup of tea and a piece of toast smeared with red jam. Oliver immediately wanted to buy it.
When the sportsman and artist met, they found they had a surprising amount in common, and the pair remain close friends. Oliver posed again in 2007 for a painting of him dozing in a chair, casually dressed and barefoot (Portrait of Anton Oliver).
Portraits evolve slowly, like the relationship between artist and sitter, Richardson says. He is direct but also hesitant, almost shy, in his manner and it takes him some time to relax at a first meeting. Because he spends hours working on initial sketches, he also gets to know his subjects and breaks down barriers of self-consciousness. His goal is to create paintings that are more revealing and memorable than complimentary.
“I want them to be … unusual, really. I’m not out to make a painting that’s flattering, but I do want it to feel like I’ve contributed something; that I’ve got to know something about the sitter.”
Richardson is working towards another exhibition, which he hopes will be held in Wellington next year. The subjects of many of the paintings are everyday domestic objects – such as a washing basket full of crumpled baby clothes – that he finds satisfying and challenging to recreate on canvas. “What I really like is work that’s centred around what you see every day, things that are part of your life. They’re mundane but they can be beautiful.”
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