“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… (His) 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.”
Arron Santry, p. 42 The Artists: 21 Practitioners in New Zealand Cotemporary Art 2011-2013, Beatnik Publishing, 2011
Liam Gerrard’s technically faultless charcoal works demonstrate his expert renderings of light and shadow across a vast tonal range. Each detail is painstakingly described; difficult enough in a medium as notoriously hard-to-handle as charcoal, but made an exponentially more difficult task when working on this scale.
While almost brutally representational, at close proximity Gerrard’s works offer an alternative reading, with the patterning of his repetitive mark-marking becoming obvious. Small circles, dots, and dashes applied over and over generate a bewildering and highly believable array of possible textures from a distinctly anti-gestural methodology.
As in previous bodies of work, Gerrard has retained a relatively simple approach to his compositions, with heads isolated against a white background, divorcing the subjects from the distractions of any immediate context. This abstraction allows the viewer to reconsider his subjects outside of their usual situations, reconfiguring their aesthetic value and symbolism.
Across the exhibition, the selection of the subjects themselves is almost a symbolic act. Diverse figures such as Frida Kahlo, Debbie Harry and Elizabeth Taylor are presented alongside pigs, b-grade film characters and NZ Cricketer Scott Styris. Gerrard treats these subjects, from the art-historic to the pop-cultural, with the same ambiguous irreverence, calling into question his intentions as a portrait painter.
In addition to the diversity across the body of works, individual pieces also juxtapose unexpected elements within the compositions – Liz Taylor with tusks; a decomposing skull wearing a cricket cap; Debbie Harry with horns – to disrupt representational clichés. While the grotesque humour of these pieces is immediately obvious, the motivation for why each element has been selected is not. This deliberate ambiguity requires the viewer to scan a list of available cultural references to decide the significance of the objects, requiring engagement to complete the ‘reading’ of the work. Although Gerrard describes himself as ‘a very superficial artist,’ this belies the contemplative depth these works possess.
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