By Julia Armstrong
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Heads Roll

This article is over 5 years, 10 months old
Issue 438

In the age of the selfie and endless posts of faces on social media, what can the artistic portrait tell us about how we see ourselves and others?

Sheffield-based artist Paul Morrison, who is well known for his often unsettling pictures of plants and horticultural subjects, looks at a completely different genre of art in Heads Roll, which he has curated.

I’m not sure the exhibition, which pulls together works from Sheffield’s art collections with those of contemporary artists, succeeds in its stated aim of “subverting portraiture”, but it’s a very interesting collection nonetheless.

There are several artists’ self-portraits, including a small Rembrandt etching, Julian Opie’s stylised version of himself and an even more pop art-looking Michael Craig-Martin with purple skin and pink hair. Famous faces staring out from the walls include Barack Obama, Victorian actress Sarah Bernhardt, artist Winifred John drawn by her sister Gwen and a cartoonish James Joyce.

One of the most disturbing images is Dawn Mellor’s Janet Leigh from Psycho, her screaming severed head being covered in a shower of shit from an anus/plughole. Nearby, Ged Quinn presents terrorist Carlos the Jackal as St Paul in a triptych-style frame with a dark Cubist background and imagery from art history around him. In contrast, further along is a large-scale, airbrushed portrait of a beautiful young woman close up, with one eye green and the other blue.

Two works are painted directly onto the wall. One, by Elsie Legal, shows Lucy from the Peanuts cartoons, saying “I feel torn between the desire to create and the desire to destroy”, a quote from one of the cartoons. The other, by Jessica Diamond, on a silver background simply says the words, “Oh small small head, Beautiful brown bead, Pink white orb, Speak!” It apparently anticipates a baby’s first words.

The second room is dominated by a beautiful blue headless nude, Glenn Brown’s “Die Mutter des Kunstlers” (which translates as the mother of the artists), with the woman’s nipples, navel and pubic hair forming a kind of face. A Jacob Epstein bust of Paul Robeson’s son, his face full of life, looks across at “Dark Thoughts (Joan)” by James White, a haunting monochrome portrait of a young black woman with downcast eyes.

While you’re in the Graves, go and see “Comfort Blanket”, Grayson Perry’s large-scale tapestry in the form of a huge banknote, wryly commenting on Britishness. Or pop across the road to the Millennium Gallery for Art Against War: Peter Kennard and the CND Movement, an artist whose work has been protesting against nuclear weapons for more than 40 years.

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