John Beard - Artist Biography - Liverpool Street Gallery, Sydney


John Beard

"John Beard: Self portraits and the rock" by Anthony Bond

John Beard is an important contemporary painter whose struggle to maintain a dynamic tension in seductive images that investigate the structures of representation comes to a head in his recent Self-portrait series and the latest paintings of Ayers Rock. 

The series began with a large number of studies of an isolated rock off the coast of Portugal made while John was living in Sintra, near Lisbon in 1993. This rock, surrounded by sea in all its moods, seemed to entrance him for several years. In the Adraga series it first became clear that the rock had become a figure or a head. John makes no concessions to mimetic suggestions of anthropomorphism, it is simply the intensity of the focus on the singularity of the form that makes an inanimate rock into an identity. 

In recent years he has made a number of portraits, mostly of himself. The heads fill the canvas vastly bigger than life, but curiously not monumental in the sense that large-scale political portraits can be with their assertion of dominance. The paintings have great presence, but the imagery has been layered over and over with scumbled screens of paint so that the image is almost invisible. At their best the likeness seeps out at you almost like something seen in the dead of night. It looms up at you then recedes. In part this is a kinesthetic effect of light on the surface that requires the viewer to move with the work and the direction of the light. They are more alive to variations of lighting than most pictures I have seen. 

The paintings of Ayers Rock pick up on the singularity of a geological form, this time surrounded by flat land. The iconic status of the rock undergoes a transformation here very similar to the manipulation of the portrait heads. The works are like tonal under paintings, greatly reduced in contrast but effectively accurate renditions in monochrome. The surface has been built up in many layers producing a kind of network of paint that does not draw the form, but actually seems to ignore it. This accretion of paint may be thought of as equivalent to the dumb dotting of the bubble jet print - the marks are detached from the subject, yet they combine to produce the tonal image. Oddly enough these black and white paintings seem to glow with Naples yellow or ultramarine under the veils of white and yet there is no pigment there. 

Beard is a painter of the late 20th century whose subject is as much painting itself as the objects he renders. In the history of portrait painting there is a fascinating debate that goes back to the mid 19th century. This is the question of authenticity of the image. It is not an issue of faithfulness to the illusion, but to a kind of presence that is realized through the facture of the work. For example the processes that compound our awareness of the paint as material and how this might function as a metaphor for the primordial matter out of which consciousness arises. This expression of process and touch also emphasizes the close proxy presence of the sitter to the viewer (1). When Beard manipulates the image and the viewer into a dance with the light he is pushing this tactility to new heights. 

Contemporary practice and theory 'complexifies' the very idea of authentic and in-authentic as exemplified by Richter, and it is here that Beard comes into play. The manipulation of viewing positions between the painted surface and photographic incident may be seen as deconstructing simplistic notions of authentic experience of pictures, however it seems to me to bring the viewer back to greater consciousness of the visual and tactile effects of images as objects. There is a modern trajectory from this such as the Number paintings of Jasper Johns. These works attract our attention by their heavy impasto and promise revelations of meaning through the numbers, but finally offer nothing but a return to the quality of the surface, hence a return of the gaze to self consciousness (2). 

Since the mid 90s there has been renewed interest in a kind of authenticity most noticeable in relational aesthetics, concerns with contiguity and the index, and particularly in the appearance of narrative in film/video where an attempt is made to evoke the immediate, the everyday and the intimate. While Beard’s use of film/video with his paintings may be rudimentary in engaging these processes, it seems to me to provide a very useful pivot for prizing open these issues and significant opportunities to explore important propositions about the role of painting in the 21st century. 

1. Paul Barlow describes this process in his discussion of Watts and Millais in an essay on the National Portrait Gallery in a book of portraiture edited by Joanna Woodall at the Courtauld Institute London. 
2. Ian Burn noted this of Jasper Johns in an exhibition catalogue, “Looking at seeing not reading” for Ivan Dougherty Gallery, Sydney. 

Born in Aberdare, Wales in 1943, John Beard studied at the University of London and the Royal College of Art. He has held numerous solo exhibitions and participated in group shows around the world including HEAD On: Art with the Brain in Mind at the Science Museum, London (2002), Painting the Century, 101 Portrait Masterpieces 1900-2000 at the National Portrait Gallery, London (2000), and the Possibilities of Portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra (1999). The British-Australian artist's solo exhibitions include Visao Fugitiva at the Gulbenkian's Centro de Arte Moderna, Lisbon (2005-06), an installation in 1999 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales of selected works from Beard's solo exhibition, After Adraga, which was shown at the Tate Gallery, St Ives, UK (1998) and Heads Phase I and II as a Level 2 Contemporary Project at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (1999). Beard has also held solo exhibitions in India, USA, Spain and New Zealand.

In 2005 Beard was awarded a major grant from the Pollock Krasner Foundation.In 2006 he won the Art Gallery of New South Wales Wynne Prize and the Kedumba Contemporary Drawing Award, was invited to participate in the Australian Drawing Biennale and made a Visiting Professorial Fellow at the College of Fine Art, University of New South Wales, Sydney. In 2007 he won the Art Gallery of New South Wales 2007 Archibald Prize for Portrait Painting in Australia.

In 2009 held a part survey exhibition - Headlands works 1993-2007 (curated by William Wright) at the Australian National University Drill Hall Gallery and exhibited in Gesichtslos-Die Malerei des Diffusen (Faceless-The Art of Diffusion) Kunsthalle Darmstadt, Germany 2009/2010.

In February 2010, was appointed a trustee of The Art Gallery of New South Wales, in Australia.

His work has been collected by major Australian and international public and private institutions including National and State Galleries across Australia, the Gulbenkian's Centro de Arte Moderna in Lisbon, Bibliotheque Nationale de France in Paris and the Tate Gallery in London. Beard lives in Sydney and is represented by John Buckley Gallery, Melbourne, Liverpool Street Gallery, Sydney, and The Fine Art Society, London.

A major monograph was published in 2011. As the first documentation of John Beard’s work, this definitive monograph provides a visual chronology of Beard’s work from 1978-2011. Featuring a highly original design presentation and exacting production standards, this beautifully created book contains essays by Stephen Bann and Anthony Bond with an introduction by Charles Saumarez Smith.Their sympathetic and comprehensive appraisal of Beard’s art is complimented by over 300 reproductions spanning the artist’s 40-year career.

Please visit the artist’s website for more information: