Photography / Editorial / Print

Asking questions of who are the icons of today and the celestial equivalents of our modern age, Mitch Griffiths latest exhibition at Halcyon Gallery, Iconostasis, sought to explore who we worship, in an age when fame is at its easiest to achieve. "I wouldn't class myself as religious, agnostic I suppose," ultimately it's about belief, "celebrity culture has almost become a new religion" and the work exposes the immoral pretences of our time. In early Christianity the Iconostasis was a screen that separated the nave from the sanctuary of a church, a role Griffiths sees as now being performed by iPads, glossy magazine covers, rampant advertising and mobile-phones. The connections we have with the world are continually changing, shifting, but it is through the surface of paint that Griffiths seeks to explores his iconography.

Working in oil paints and echoing the tableaux of the Old Masters, Griffiths produces figurative paintings that address issues of identity and inclusion, obsolescence and conflict. Employing a single light source, the chiaroscuro is used to great effect, as the delicate interplay of light and shadow bring a greater sense of life to the subjects. In comment on the lighting, "It is the exact opposite of how people like Simon Cowell or other people on TV want their faces to be lit. All they want is their eyes, nostrils and their teeth on show, completely uniform, no shadows whatsoever," The height of vanity and self-obsession it seems.

Robert Lenkiewicz is a painter Griffiths draws inspiration from, as well as "Caravaggio for light and Rubens for compositions." The harsh directional light employed in the works, either from the side or straight above, create powerful imagery that shadow and highlight his figures on the canvas. "I want the paintings to look real, but I particularly don't want them to look like a photo, not to be super detailed, but there should be detail in paint." Never trying to hide the paint, as some hyper-realists do, the detail is key, "I want it to still have the identity of an oil painting. If it is too detailed, you almost get a deadening CGI effect. I want to maintain an organic quality."

Griffiths has a background initially in graphic design, "before computers became all encompassing and completely took it over. Graphic Design was much more dependent on hand skills, artwork, logo, gouache, painting in flat colours and so on." He completed a Diploma in Graphic Design in 1987 at at South Devon College  "I also did an illustration course, but was dismayed that 95 per cent of people on it had no draughtsmanship skill at all. If you did anything in a kind of realist way, you were looked down upon. They preferred experimentation, asking me 'Why are you here?' Still to this day, I have never changed my approach to art." He started work as a commercial illustrator, on projects ranging from murals to magazine material, supplemented by a variety of temporary jobs, such as sheet metal work, to help pay the bills.

His studio is based in Devizes, Wiltshire, an hour and a half commute to London. "I like coming to London to get an injection of the capital. The studio is near my house, which is close to a nature reserve and whenever I want, I can go walk my dog. It's on a mini kind of industrial estate, has a 
car mechanic one side and a hot tub showroom on the other side," he laughs. "I like it, you can hear the mechanics working on the cars, but also their banter as well, which I think is quite important. It's almost like a microphone to whats going on, I don't have to pick up a copy of the Daily Mirror or The Sun, because these guys talk about what's going on all the time, each with their own opinion." He has a gym set up in his studio, "If I do a few exercises or sets, I feel re-energised, almost like revving your engine in a way, when you do it, your mind does it as well."

There is a image of someone being water boarded, "Often with a lot of my ideas, I treat them as a circuit board. Have a whiteboard, brainstorming, quotes from media, something I've seen." The Absolution painting with champagne in place of water and S&M undertones, speaks of the consumerism in contemporary society. "He is like the archetype of the person being blamed for the situation the banks are in now financially. Hedonism, you knew this was going to happen, you knew we couldn't keep on borrowing the way we did." Another reference can be seen in earlier works such as Crown of Credit, "I remember seeing something about the debt crisis, trillion pounds in debt article, which was the source of inspiration for this. Credit cards can ruin lives." The paintings are both peculiarly beautiful and profoundly disturbing.

The portraits of Ray Winstone and his daughter Lois, explore patriotism and views we hold about the Union Jack. In one, a dejected young woman huddles in a grubby Union Jack, worn from conflicts and battles fought. In the other, a celebrated Hollywood film actor stares out from a shroud of red, white and blue, exuding confidence, positivity and pride. Both works explore the pursuit of identity in our post-colonial melting pot and our association. We also see it used in Hypertrophy, with Lady Justice,  an allegorical personification of the moral force in judicial systems, wearing the Union Jack but also have poker chips in the balance scales held in one hand and a bat in the other. For society to move forward, divisions need to be addressed and broken, as a whole we are stronger. The work also alludes to the weaknesses we also feel individually, succumbing to gambling and greed that are a blight on the social fabric of not just Britain, but globally.

His first break came from painting portraits of the boxer, Chris Eubank, in the 1990s which were used to promote his matches. Eubank became a patron for three years in the 1990s, setting up a studio for him at his business centre in Hove. Does he still keep in touch? "I last saw him a year ago, he showed me footage on his mobile phone of his son being trained by a very famous boxer from the 80s, Mike McCallum, The Body Snatcher, they used to call him. The last time I saw his son, he was six in a spider man costume, now he's this huge fighting machine." Some of his favourite boxing matches are of Eubank, "I was privileged enough to be ringside for a few of those, but if I had to pick something else out, it would be Thomas Hearns vs Marvin Hagler, only a few rounds long, but it is quite something."

Following this, Griffiths became artist-in-residence at a luxury retreat in Cornwall called Hustyns, where many boxers trained, also setting up the Bishop Phillpotts Gallery in Truro, Cornwall. His distinctive figurative style was honed during these early years, making several visits to London's museums to examine seminal works of and explore the culture of the Old Masters. In 2001 Griffiths entered the National Portrait Gallery BP Portrait Award, with the piece used as the exhibition's promotional poster. Halcyon Gallery started permanently representing Griffiths in 2004, with exhibitions Reality (2006) and The Promised Land (2010) giving even greater exposure to his work, not least the giant portrait of Ray Winstone, The Flag Bearer, which was used to conceal work at The Halcyon Gallery.

Video installations and monochrome photography prints are an exploration of other forms of new media for the artist, offering another view of what constitutes an icon. Rapture Raptor sees the use of the Twitter logo and colour take form as wings. "I wanted to make it into a more classical image, an Icarus kind of image, mixing words, social media. She is a social creature, phonetic thing, wanting to be looked at, wanting to be adored. Not only fame, but an obsession with status." There are people with twitter accounts with only a few followers, yet thousands or irrelevant tweets or status updates, "who is it that they are talking to? A lot of celebrities fall foul of twitter when posting something inflammatory, often removing and apologising for tweets later on." In this day, when a comment can explode and be shared by millions within minutes, you cannot escape. The clipped Twitter wings are taken further in The Final Word, a packed figurative piece hinting at the persecution and imprisonment of social media, all to the march of beating drums and megaphones.

The portrait of singer-songwriter Bob Geldof, almost seems haunting, covered as he is by large rats, some climbing up his chest, others nuzzling at his shoulders and neck, with the frayed fabric of his blue suit torn in places by the razor sharp teeth. You immediately think of his band, the Boomtown Rats, but then try to pair the controversial imagery with the humanitarian works Geldof is widely known for. Seemingly at odds, the portrait hints at morality and the balance of good and evil we 
face on a daily basis. It is through such emotive reactions, that the work questions the sense of self, patriotism, responsibility and consumerism, with the likes of Bob Geldof, Kiera Knightly and Ray Winstone used to hammer home uncomfortable political, social and cultural messages. It is this identification we are exploring and in doing so, Griffiths unearths the moral codes of society we may often shun, hide away from or only touch the painted surface of.

Interview and Portrait: Nardip Singh

Artwork images supplied by Halcyon Gallery
Copyright © Mitch Griffiths

Mitch Griffiths Artist Interview as featured in Unfolded Magazine Issue 14
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