Borrowing from the 'Old Masters' of art

Brit artist Ross Chisholm explore the rudiments of portraiture with his new show


Ross Chisholm talks about his macabre portraits inspired by 18th century English aristocracy.

In his latest exhibition ‘Testament’, on now at the city’s Green Art Gallery, British artist Ross Chisholm borrows techniques from Old Masters. A former student at London’s prestigious Goldsmiths, University of London, each of Chisholm’s paintings are inspired by high society portraiture from the 18th century.

Chisholm’s abstract, deconstructed works, while sharing colours and extremely loose forms of their sources, are otherwise difficult to decifer from their original pictures. The paintings that comprise Chisholm’s show are designed to play on our concept of ‘truth’, alluding to art’s relationship with authenticity and veracity.

‘I’ve always been into it [18th century art]. It’s the identity of the artist and how that’s changed over time and I think this particular period of British artwork was important to our understanding of the artist,’ he explains. ‘These artists were doing bespoke works in the early days of industrialisation and I’ve always liked the idea of playing around with these kind of identities and the formative element of becoming one of those artists and bridging time by making these paintings now.’

Often using the works of famous English portrait artist Thomas Gainsborough, Chisholm reveals that his work sometimes takes several years of re-visitation before he ‘can live’ with his creations. The paintings alone aren’t Chisholm’s only inspiration however, as he mentions the work of the great Argentinean magical fiction author Jorge Luis Borges. ‘There’s a story called Pierre Menard where he tries to recreate [Spanish novel] Don Quixote but he doesn’t copy it – he just wants to live the same life which will result in him recreating word-for-word the exact book and because it’s magic realism, he does it years later and despite it being word-for-word and exactly the same as the original, he reckons it’s far superior because of the contextualisation of his work and the life that he led to get there. He sees the subtle differences in his work and I like playing around with that idea.’

The original works on which Chisholm’s paintings are loosely based are a result of commissions where artists were paid to paint their patrons in a flattering light, ensuring they were dressed in their finest garments and containing aspects of their achievements through symbolism. When challenged about whether there’s a social or political dialogue within his work, Chisholm concedes that this is inevitable, reasoning that ‘you can’t really avoid making those assumptions because the source material is very much a bespoke art for the landed gentry and there’s always that political play in the work.

‘It’s not really criticism of the artists or the art’s role at the time, it’s a formulating culture that we’ve lived with over the years and this idea of art that verifies hierarchies is still a bedrock of our [British] understanding of the history of art.’

During a recent trip to the US, the Englishman visited the Yale Centre for British Art and became fascinated with the idea of the decay and conservation and the different layers of that gave birth to the original works. He’s also open to the idea of displaying his paintings alongside the originals one day but procrastinates about the effect this might have on his own creations.

In keeping with his philosophical nature, Chisholm reveals that part of the reason he opted to exhibit in Dubai after he was approached by the Green Art Gallery is his curiosity to see his paintings in a new light and context. To this end, Chisholm says he is planning further, mainly abstract works, ‘with a more oblique angle’ and foresees returning to his studio in the coming months.

He is also planning to make a film with a friend based on a novel in his hometown by George Tomkyns Chesney called The Battle of Dorking – a book which paved the way for later science fiction works by the likes of late British writer HG Wells. He’s vague about the nature of the project, aside from admitting the original novel will only serve as a point of orientation. What remains instantly clear however is that Chisholm’s drive will keep driving his prolific work ethic for the foreseeable future.

The Lowdown

Exhibition: ‘Testament’ runs until March 10 at Green Art Gallery, Street 8, Alserkal Avenue (04 346 9305).
Artist: Ross Chisholm (04 346 9305).

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