The child as a symbol of hope, purity and innocence triggers a protective reflex that taps into society's instinct to cherish and protect its young. Any tarnishing of this ideal is naturally going to provoke controversy, with art, literature and advertising strewn with instances of iconoclasts who have upset the moral applecart. (Henry James' novel The Turn of the Screw, the sinister paintings of Balthus, or the candid photographs by Sally Mann, are all examples.) It is within such company that Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein rests, as his controversial works cause people to sit up and take notice whenever he exhibits. Certainly, shocking images of deformed babies, Nazi ephemera and pseudo-religious overtones are not for the faint-hearted. However, the majority of the portrait paintings on show in the current exhibition at the Fenton are perhaps more palatable for the general viewer, as the imagery is comparatively sedate in terms of narrative and symbolism.
Indeed, the hyper-realist painting style will certainly captivate and astound the viewer. The painstaking detail draws you into the picture as you attempt to disentangle the overlap between painting and photographic techniques. The illusion partly explained through his method of tracing images from photographic projections - a precedent previously exploited through the use of a camera obscura, by among others, Vermeer and Caneletto.
However, the exquisite control of the paint seduces the viewer into a false sense of security, as the vivid representation of the children demonstrates a worldly awareness that belies their tender age. Expressions range from melancholic to near comatose, unsettlingly ecstatic to the distraught. The complex gamut of human emotion means, that yes, these young people are engaging for the spectator. But also, the overtones are distinctly menacing and at times, make for uncomfortable viewing.
Runs until October 7th