“if putting photographs online is the first step in projecting a fantastical image of oneself, turning that image into a painting is one step further.”
Beau Gabriel is a painter based in London, born in New York. His art explores the evolving nature of figurative representation. A fascination with Renaissance and Baroque art pervades his work, merging with the modern world of online influence and self-styling. In the interview we examine his relationship with the tradition of painting, and its role in the modern digital age.
Interview by Simek Shropshire
You have stated that your practice engages with the "messy tradition of oil painting" while striving to "reconcile [the medium] with modern themes of influence, memory, and personal representation." How do you conceive of the tradition of figurative painting in relation to modern digital photography found on social media platforms? In what ways does the perception, representation and role of the subject differ across the two mediums?
I was thinking about the traditional role of painting, a significant aspect of which was the portrayal of beauty and influence. Paint was, for centuries, the most powerful instrument for communicating position, style, and personal narrative, whether realistic or aspirational. Looking through Instagram, I was struck by its resemblance to a classical gallery: the bombastic displays of taste, fashion, or wealth, the carefully considered poses and costumes, all wrapped up in this desire to express a particular image of oneself. Ultimately, painting is a rather crude, even louche medium. It’s essentially dirt and bits of mineral suspended in oil. Historically, painting always balanced a high, sensual refinement with a rawness and primitive experimentation: the Renaissance palette contained all manner of toxic pigments, and the daily existence of painters was often anything but glamorous.
I saw a similarity between these themes and the work of projecting one’s image on social media: both feature seductive visual portrayals set atop this veiled foundation of obsessive perfectionism, vanity, and striving. I suppose, if putting photographs online is the first step in projecting a fantastical image of oneself, turning that image into a painting is one step further. Painting allows more fully for the whimsy, quirk, and imagination of the artist. The Italian Mannerists are a powerful inspiration: their studied manipulation and strange experimentation with form, light, and perspective resonates particularly with a current impulse towards the fuller representation of the human being. Painting lets me revel in the inherent beauty of these images, while also playing in various ways with the historical threads that underly the medium in general and the evolution of figurative representation in particular. It also allows for a good deal of humour. At the end of the day, we all know that Instagram is ridiculous, but that is what makes it so wonderful.
Can you elaborate on your practice of choosing the subjects of your paintings from Instagram? Are the subjects strangers to you or acquaintances?
I wish I could say that my methods were more refined. Honestly though, it’s mostly haphazard scrolling. I do keep an eye out for faces, clothes, and poses that recall certain classical work. I came across an influencer the other day whose head was bent in the mirror image of a Baldovinetti Madonna. That’s always fun to find. But it mainly consists of taking screen-shots of anything that seems usable, and then flipping through old art books to find something with a similar vibe. Of course, these found images are often cropped in such a way that I’ll need to fill them out for a particular composition. I have the help of some very generous friends who provide various arms, legs, and hands. After my final exam at the RCA, I received a comment about my paintings depicting a coterie of subjects from my own “milieu.” I found this particularly amusing, as my own existence is at a pretty far remove from what I paint. But I also balance these kinds of paintings with very personal ones. The foxes, for instance, come from the memory of a vixen and her cubs who lived behind my house when I was little. And sometimes I’ll mix the two: a portrait of one influencer, originally photographed lounging next to an infinity pool, features the world’s first ironclad warship USS Monitor, a model of which I built as a kid using a tin can and an old plank.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your background? Where did you study?
I was born in New York City, grew up in its northern suburbs, and went to Yale for my undergraduate degree. I had spent the summer before reading Anna Karenina, and fell so completely in love that I resolved to learn Russian. By the end I was reading mostly poetry, especially Pushkin. But I also played the oboe and became fascinated by baroque music: for a while I harboured the dream of becoming a professional musician, but realised I didn’t quite have the discipline. After graduating, without a terribly clear idea of what to do, I went to Paris where I worked as a paralegal. It was in France that I started to turn more seriously towards drawing and painting, which I had always been doing, but to which I had never devoted myself with any particular rigour. I eventually was accepted at the Royal College of Art in London, where I studied illustration. Over the course of two years I gravitated with increasing force towards painting, which has become my overwhelming obsession. I live and work in London.
In late July 2019, you exhibited at the Hackney Wicked art festival. What work did you present?
I showed some work from my degree show alongside others. I had one big canvas that strays a bit from the other things I’ve been working on: it shows a battle scene that my twin brother and I imagined as children. We marshalled our stuffed animals into an 18th century township in Northern England, perpetually in conflict with invading rabbits and bears, animals we had decided were pernicious: don’t ask me why ! We spent hours drawing these skirmishes, and the landscapes and characters are still vivd in my imagination.
How do you go about naming your work?
My approach to naming is fairly straight-forward. The picture of a fox in blackberries is called “Fox in Blackberries.” Titles are, of course, potent things. I do feel that some painters go too far with their titles, whose grandiloquence comes off as a prop for the painting itself. But I love language and when the tone seems right, I’ll indulge a bit. For instance, Les ambassadrices is a slightly theatrical reference to the fact these two friends had come to visit me in London from Paris. It also pays an admittedly unsubtle reference to Holbein’s painting in the National Gallery.
What artwork have you seen recently that has resonated with you?
When I was last in New York I had the luck to see Pontormo’s recently restored Visitation at the Morgan Library. Pontormo is one of my absolute favourite artists. Everything has this weirdness, a slight discomfort, that imbues his paintings with an amazingly human beauty. In the corner of the Visitation, revealed by the removal of old varnish, there is a little donkey sticking his head out from around a building. I love those kinds of details.
Is there anything new and exciting in the pipeline you would like to tell us about?
For the moment I am concentrating on a series of larger canvases. It can be slow work, but is very rewarding. In September I will be showing work with Mint Gallery in South Kensington as part of the London Design Festival. And early next spring I have a solo show with Unit G Gallery in Hackney Wick.
All images are courtesy of the artist
Publish date: 21/08/19