Catalogue essay 2009 ~ Aidan Quinn

It’s hard being black. You ever been black? I was black once, when I was poor. ~ Larry Holmes

Nathan Ford’s latest collection of work for the most part features close-up portraits of heads, most of these black males. They are as ever, fragmented, on the edge of dissolution. What may be termed the sensory features; ears, mouth, nose, hair, are in the main shrouded or blocked out, giving an introverted, contemplative feel to each visage. It is as if the artist is looking for something essential in the deadpan, vulnerable yet often forthright expressions on these faces. Who is in there? As Francis Bacon once persisted in painting the image of the nurse’s screaming mouth from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, Ford often homes in on one eye in detail-‘otherwise the world comes in and there is too much distraction’, he reasons.

There is a fundamental element of face-to-face communication that he is attempting to portray with this collection of heads. Two feet from another human being, rather than ‘locking into’ what someone may be saying, we will often home in on or get distracted with a facial feature; a scar, a prominent nose, a gap in the teeth. What Ford often allows to shine through in these portraits is the eye, the ‘traitor to the heart’. ‘Perhaps it is just shyness’, he suggests, ‘when confronted with another person, another human heart that has beaten many thousands of times, blood coursing through the veins, all I want to do is escape, disappear into the cocoon of my studio’. It is essentially the panic of communication that he tries to put into paint. ‘It is always hard to face people’, as John McGahern put it.

Whether during time travelling in Uganda, where he was often referred to as mazungu (Swahili for white man), or, as in recent years, spent living in a small former mining village in South Wales, it seems that the differentiation as a black man (as opposed to, say, an artist) is one that he is forced to return to, even if thinking of his identity predominantly in that way is something the painter himself left behind with adolescence. ‘Part of me is sick of being foreign’, he says.

For the series of 12 head paintings (Black Male 1 to 12) Ford, again as Bacon was wont to do, uses the reverse of pre-primed canvasses, preferring the textured, organic ground that seems to blend with the emerging faces so well. Whether they are knowing or innocent, all these faces seem shorn of self-consciousness, attention sometimes averted. At other times the viewer is faced starkly, with a frankness which brings to mind the last of Rembrandt’s self-portraits (1669). Though all the faces are black there is a diversity of ethnicity, and clear variations in skin colour. Ford has in the last couple of years adjusted the mix of pigments he uses and enjoys the challenge of the subtle tonal variation of the colour black itself. However it is also noteworthy (perhaps not entirely without mischief) that these portraits, unlike previous, smaller series of heads, but in common with many paintings in the not so distant past, are given a title which makes reference to a generic racial distinction rather than a first name.

Familiar also are the pencil lines on the portraits, reminiscent of Giacometti’s ‘scribbled’ portraits. This comparison is further accentuated in the drawings in the exhibition itself. Familiar too are the lonely protagonists on the margins of fragmented cityscapes, a modern melange which feels on the edge of chaos. The sense of panic is stronger in Carbon Lung than Usera, both of which have their genesis in Madrid. The latter has a softer feel, as if the day is warming up, a morning painting perhaps. In Souk the claustrophobia, the quiet whisper of a threatening world is very much there, as a child (recognisably the artist’s son) looks around fretfully towards a cloaked figure in the background.

It is noticeable in Souk that the foreground figures have the space to be dwarfed, to be hemmed in by the market trailing off behind them and the balconies and overhangs above. Ford seems in possession of a confidence which belies his youth, and certainly paints with a brighter palette now. This confidence is also evidenced in the Black Male series, paintings with a marked and arresting individuality in paint if not in name. The canvas is still obviously the battleground for this young artist, it is where he pits his wits against the reality that he sees around him and for the moment at least it would seem from this collection of work, it is a battle that he is excelling in. As a painter I think Ford would go along with Bacon. ‘You could say that I have no inspiration, that I only need to paint.’

Aidan Quinn 2009