Art lovers seeking the real Robert Lenkiewicz (1941–2002) will have no fewer than 30 different versions of the artist to choose from at Ocean Studios in Plymouth’s Royal William Yard from 2 April to 3 May. The exhibition Self-Portraits is a long-overdue reprise of the show which appeared at London's Ben Uri Gallery in 2008. The paintings range from journeyman works of Lenkiewicz's teenage years to the time-worn self-portraits of his last decade.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is an enormous diptych, which stands over three meters tall, titled The Deposition - The Burial of Education (detail above). The painting was a dominant presence in Lenkiewicz's Barbican studio for many years after its creation in 1986 as part of the Project Observations on Local Education. It features one of Lenkiewicz's most striking self-portraits, wrapped ironically in a Union Jack flag as he observes the mourning for a dead child; his metaphor for liberal education sacrificed to the expediency of the free market.
Lenkiewicz is celebrated for scrutinising the lives of the solitary and excluded in a number of his large-scale ‘Projects’, all exhibited at the time in his studios. The first, Vagrancy, shown in 1973, was followed by Mental Handicap (1976), Old Age (1979), Suicide (1980), and Death (1982), in which he challenged the viewer to reflect upon the human condition through his eyes. “You’re born alone, you die alone; and you cheat yourself out of that realisation as agreeably as you can,” he once wrote, yet through his art he attempted to refocus our attention away from the endless distractions of consumerism and back to “the business of living” and the sense that “life is a tragedy, but a liveable one”.
Although often considered sensationalist by the art establishment, in 1997 Plymouth City Museum & Art Gallery showed his work for the first time since he took up residence in the city. A record 42,000 visitors flooded through the doors. Lenkiewicz, on his own terms and without prestigious gallery support, had established a large, interested following that cut across social divides amongst a public that scarcely ever set foot in a gallery. The first Lenkiewicz exhibition at the Royal William Yard, Human, All Too Human (2012), drew more than 6,000 visitors, and later toured in expanded form to Leipzig and Nuremberg.
It’s left up to the visitor to decide whether they can discern the effects of time and tragedy in the painter’s own self-portraits. Lenkiewicz himself was, however, somewhat sceptical of the supposed special significance of self-portraits. ‘I wondered what it would be like just to paint myself; to paint what I saw in the mirror repetitively,’ he said of his tenth Project. ‘Well, within half a sitting I became aware that all I was doing was painting a picture of a mirror; there just happened to be something there reflected in the mirror.’
Robert Lenkiewicz (1941–2002)
Ocean Studios, The Factory Cooperage
Royal William Yard, Plymouth PL1 3RP
2 April – 3 May 2016
Opening: Tues-Sun 11am-5pm; closed Mondays (open bank holiday 2 May)
Contact: Rachael Gomery, exhibition co-ordinator
Tel: 01752 221450
Mob: 07875 635318