Liam Gerrard takes subjects from the fringe of modern society and throws them under a harsh spotlight. In his monumentally-scaled realistic portraits, every feature and flaw is exposed, no matter how unflattering or malignant. Through this process, Gerrard is able to call attention to the buried absurdities of contemporary and historical conceptions of beauty. As a result, his work may be seen as a subversive exploration of the aesthetic hierarchies of Western art and wider society.
Executed in charcoal, Gerrard’s portraits are technically faultless. Light and shadow are expertly rendered; the tonal range of the work is vast. Each detail is painstakingly realised, regardless of the subject matter, a prodigiously difficult task when working on this scale. At close proximity, however, the representational nature of the work gives way to formal abstraction as the patterning of his repeated marks becomes obvious. In this way, Gerrard’s practice may be seen to challenge the traditional techniques of Realism.
Gerrard’s stark, realistic style encourages viewers to reflect on the motives behind his compositions, whether social, political or simply formal. As with much Realist art, what is left out is just as important as what is depicted. By selecting banal and sometimes marginalised subjects, figures deemed ugly or unworthy of attention, Gerrard forces the viewer to consider their own preconceptions about the value of beauty, the nature of aesthetic ideals and the equality of society.
Similarly, Gerrard’s depictions of animals with ambiguous and unexpected expressions suggest a willingness to dismantle representational clichés. This same disruptive desire is evidenced in his drawings of Maori figures, which react violently against the innocuous tradition and reverential treatment of artists like Goldie and Lindauer. In this regard, Gerrard’s works are deliberately provocative; while there is no overt or explicit social commentary, the humorous though brutal renderings of these figures indicate deeper conceptual concerns underpinning the work.
Gerrard’s compositions are relatively simple—isolated heads or objects against a white background—creating a necessary distance from any immediate context. By abstracting the figures in this way, Gerrard allows the viewer to reconsider his subjects outside of their usual situations, reconfiguring their aesthetic value. He is also resistant to attempts to endow his figures with complex psychologies; facial expressions are arbitrary and ambiguous, though generally chosen for their unconventional qualities.
The contextual and emotional distance in these works creates an ambiguity in meaning, preventing them from ever becoming overtly ideological—though Gerrard’s choice in subject matter may sometimes be seen to gesture toward a political position, an apolitical façade is maintained. Gerrard’s disinclination to political posturing means that these drawings may be viewed in purely formal terms and his talent for portraiture makes such a reading extremely rewarding. Ultimately, the primacy of the image itself outweighs all other concerns.