London

Tony Bevan

Tony Bevan is a figure painter. Rather than portraits, though, his figures are amalgams of images and incidents that he has seen. Their strength lies in the fact that they are not social or physical “types” but recognizable individuals for whom the lineaments of psychological and cultural patternings are a reality. Bevan works by applying pigment directly onto the canvas without first mixing it into paint, a technique that gives his color the appearance of a kind of crust lying over the figure. In Tender Possessions, 1986, for example, a bag lady sits staring out at the viewer. The strong black lines with which she is drawn are emphasized around her eyes, as if she were decorated with punkish war paint. In her clasped hands she is holding a handkerchief, lighter, cigarette packet, and cigarette, objects that, though trivial, seem too important to relinquish hold of for a moment. The only color in this version of the image (Bevan often produces several variations on a theme) is an area of bright orange between her upper chest and right shoulder, a physical excrescence that signals emotion and, through Bevan’s understanding of its function as a scab, serves to contain it within the figure.

In other works, marks act like scars. Final Chance, 1983–84, shown here in two versions, depicts the head and shoulders of a young man, his face smudged and in places almost obliterated by additions of flesh-toned pigment. Even a pushpin from Bevan’s studio has found its way onto one of the canvases. As a visual metaphor for fortune’s slings and arrows, the marks are obvious but highly effective.

What was revealed most clearly by this exhibition, a review of Bevan’s works from the ’80s, is his powerful use of color. The show provided groupings and comparisons that added to the resonances of individual paintings. This was particularly true of a trio of works displayed down the main axis of the gallery: In Yellow, Underbody, and Self-Portrait, all 1987. In Yellow shows a man in a blue shirt, seen from slightly above and set against a bright yellow background, staring intently at his empty hands. His gaze is quizzical and surprised, as if he’d just understood the connection between hands and body. Underbody is a three-quarter-length study of a man whose right arm is held protectively across his chest. Beneath his orange jacket his blue shirt is articulated with flowing black lines, making visible an emotional fragility that the arm attempts to contain. Beyond these two works, looking down the length of the gallery, was Bevan’s Self-Portrait. He has depicted himself sitting, dressed in a purple suit and blue shoes, with elbows resting on knees and knuckles interlaced, against a silver background. It is an unsettling work, a result of the way its various strange elements—the color scheme, the red flesh markings that give it a flayed look, the extraordinary rendering of the hair, almost like nails driven into the scalp—all seem so perfectly acceptable. This sense of disquiet is as much a feature of the apparently innocuous works such as Double Portrait, 1984, of a girl and a smaller, but powerfully muscular boy, as it is of more startling images such as The Prophet, 1982, in which a handcuffed figure with a pair of scissors sticking out of his head folds his hands and contemplatively places forefingers to closed lips.

Michael Archer