Book Review: Clive Head

Heading off the Photorealists

An interesting monograph about one of Britain's best realist painters. The book does, though seem to be about two art styles: Photorealism and photo-rendering realists. Clive Head, through the essays of Michael Paraskos, says he is not a Photorealist but for my money, I think it's a term he's going to have to live with. For me the style is essentially American, evolving originally around the late sixties. Head, like the first and second-generation Photorealist artists use photos to create their own interpretation of reality (mostly of the commonplace environment). They use them to get a correct fix on the huge amount of detail required for this painting style.

Throughout the three chapters, there is a reference to Photo-rendering realists and explained in a footnote quoting from a 2005 Damian Hirst New York exhibition: "Take a photograph, and copy it meticulously, until your painting and the photograph are indistinguishable". This is not Photorealism at all but copying a photo, hardly even an art form and certainly nothing like Head's complex paintings though his work would be impossible without photos for reference.

The essays by Michael Paraskos fill ninety-eight pages and I thought they could have done with some editing because they take ten more pages than Head's paintings. The first (rather exotically called Metastoicheiosis) takes a lot of text to reveal that the paintings are not precisely like real life but a creative montage of reality. Pages ninety-one and two show thirteen transparencies that were used to create the 'Coffee at the Cottage Delight'. Looking at the painting (Plate ninety-five) it's easy to see how Head picks and mixes the visual information in these photos to make his wonderful picture. Just like any Photorealist would do. The other two essays reveal a lot of art theory and how it relates to the paintings. Missing, I thought, was any detailed description of how Head actually works: what sort paints, brushes; canvas; how is the initial drawing created using the photos et cetera. There is a fascinating photo on page six showing Head drawing up a canvas for 'Leaving the Underground' and it clearly shows what a superb draughtsman he is. The essays could certainly have done with some editing to reduce paragraphs for a more readable format. I read one at ninety-nine lines and another at 142.

The ninety-six paintings in the book's Plates section are arranged in date order, from 1988 to 2010. Nearly all are exterior cityscapes, street scenes or interiors of coffee shops. One characteristic of so many of the works are lines that start at the bottom of a painting and zoom into the detail. It could be a balustrade, wall, railings, road markings, a windowsill or frame but they all take the eye on a journey of discovery through shapes and color in the rest of painting. Head's style has certainly changed over the years. Page twenty-eight has a painting from 1991: The Riviera, that is very reminiscent of Robert Cottingham's rather flat graphic style. The last works in the book are a mixture of close-up street scenes cleverly using interiors and exteriors at the same time, allowing for reflections in windows to add to the dazzle of detail.

I thought the book's production worthy but bland with some editorial sloppiness: the three essays ending with short columns on the page, for example. What I found most annoying was that several plates were not as big as the pages would allow. 'Brooklyn Heights' (pages 136/137) has far too much empty page space and it could easily have been much bigger. Head paints a large canvas with plenty of detail and it seems nonsense not to have them as big as possible within the book's grid. Because of this, I've given the title four stars.

The book's back pages have a listing of exhibitions and a short bibliography but it seems that there is nothing that has as many examples of Head's work as this title. Incidentally, he had fourteen paintings in Louis Meisel's 2002 book: 'Photorealism at the Millennium' where Meisel stated that Head '...deserved to be recognized as an artist with a sincere dedication to the Photorealist style'. In 2011 I still think that's true.

Clive Head is available at Amazon (US | CA | UK | DE | FR | IT | ES | JP | CN) and Book Depository

Clive Head - 01
A spread on Head's work that appeared in Louis Meisel's 'Photorealism at the Millenium', published in 2002.

Clive Head - 02
Title spread.

Clive Head - 03
Head doing a work-up for Leaving the Underground, 2010.

Clive Head - 04
Partially completed Coffee with Armin, 2009.

Clive Head - 05
Head painting South Kensington, 2009. The work is 63 by 110 inches.

Clive Head - 06
Actual size detail from Coffee at the Cottage Delight, 2010.

Clive Head - 07
Some of the photos taken to create Coffee at the Cottage Delight, 2010.

Clive Head - 08
The first painting in the Plates section: Kingsferry Bridge, 1988-1990. It really should have been bigger to use up all that empty page space.

Clive Head - 09
Sloane Square, 2000.

Clive Head - 10
South Kensington, 2000.

Clive Head - 11
Fresno, 2001. Head took photos of this corner and you can find it on Google street view: San Francisco, Fresno and Kearny Street

Clive Head - 12
Piccadilly, 2007.

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