Feature: Gaela Erwin at the British National Portrait Gallery

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Louisville artist Gaela Erwin was selected for the highly prestigious British National Portrait Gallery’s BP Portrait Award 2018 Exhibition. Erwin flew to London in June to attend the opening, and the exhibit is on display through September 23, 2018.

This was Erwin’s second consecutive entry into the BP NPG show. “They only accept oils and I had been working in pastel for three and a half years,” she explains. “During that time I was able to dabble in oils a bit to try to get my skills back. I typically will alternate the two mediums exclusively over long periods of times. I switched back to oils and put away my pastels in earnest to qualify for this competition.”

"Portrait of Neema Tambo" by Gaela Erwin, Oil on panel, 48x36in, 2018

"Portrait of Neema Tambo" by Gaela Erwin, Oil on panel, 48x36in, 2018

The accepted painting, “Portrait of Neema Tambo”, is an image of a woman who has been featured in at least one other of Erwin’s work. “Licia and Neema” which was a part of the artist’s 2016 exhibit at The Speed Museum, Reframing The Past. In contrast to the posed, costumed figures depicted against scenic backdrops that populated that show, “Portrait of Neema Tambo” is plain and straightforward, bereft of ornamental detail, Tambo stares directly at the viewer in an almost confrontational manner that holds us firmly in its thrall.

“It is quite significant that a Louisville artist has made a successful entry into this competition,” states Curator John Begley, formerly of Louisville Visual Art and the Hite Institute of Art. “Getting into this show is no small feat; there is an extensive double jury process, including shipping the actual piece to London if you make it to the second round. Its a great expense without guarantee of final success to the artists, particularly for those outside of Great Britain.”

The BP Portrait Award is generally considered to represent the very best in contemporary portrait painting. With a first prize of £35,000 ($44,500), and a total prize fund of £74,000 ($94,000), the “Award is aimed at encouraging artists to focus upon and develop portraiture in their work. Over the years this has attracted over 40,000 entries from more than 100 countries”.

The BP Portrait Award is in its thirty-ninth year at the National Portrait Gallery and twenty-ninth year of sponsorship by BP. Since its launch it has been seen for free by over 6 million people.

The exhibit is at St. Martin’s Place in London, England, before it travels to Wolverhampton Art Gallery (Oct. 13 — Dec. 2) the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (Dec. 15 — Mar. 10, 2019) in Edinburgh, and the Cartwright Hall, Bradford, England (March-June 2019).

The competition was judged from original paintings by this year’s panel:

Dr. Nicholas Cullinan, Director, National Portrait Gallery (Chair)
Dr. Caroline Bressey, Cultural and Historical Geographer, University College London
Rosie Broadley, Head of Collection Displays (Victorian to Contemporary) and Senior Curator, 20th-Century Collections, National Portrait Gallery
Glenn Brown, Artist
Rosie Millard, Journalist and Broadcaster
Des Violaris, Director, UK Arts & Culture, BP

"Licia and Neema" by Gaela Erwin, Pastel on paper, 68x48in, 2016

"Licia and Neema" by Gaela Erwin, Pastel on paper, 68x48in, 2016

Written by Keith Waits. Entire contents copyright © 2018 Louisville Visual Art. All rights reserved