On 7 June 2016, the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia, together with Halcyon Gallery, will unveil 21 works by celebrated British artist Mitch Griffiths as part of a remarkable new exhibition: Realisms.
The paintings, selected by Dimitri Ozerkov, Curator and Director of the Contemporary Art Department at the State Hermitage Museum, will be available to view at the historic institution until 18 September. The unique opportunity to exhibit at one of the world’s largest and most prestigious museums of art and culture marks a seminal moment in Griffiths’ career, and follows the success of the artist’s most recent solo exhibition, Enduring Freedom, at Halcyon Gallery in 2015.
Working in oils and echoing the tableaux of the Old Masters, Griffiths produces modern paintings that address issues of identity and inclusion, obsolescence and conflict. A virtuoso painter, he employs a hyper-realist technique, working the canvas through the traditional chiaroscuro and utilising a single light source to both shape and highlight his figures on the canvas. Touching on themes of nationhood, iconography, ‘cult beauty’ and celebrity culture, Griffiths is holding up a mirror to society.
The collection on display at the State Hermitage Museum, which includes two diptychs and two triptychs, spans the breadth of Griffiths’ artistic concerns for more than a decade, beginning with an ode to corporate greed (21st-Century Boy, 2006), musings on the impact of war upon individual souls (Finest Hour, 2015) and the most recent, never-before-seen The Things They Carried (2016) which references the current refugee crisis with breathtaking urgency.
In an impassioned essay for the accompanying exhibition catalogue, Dimitri Ozerkov, Curator and Director of the Contemporary Art Department at the State Hermitage Museum, expounds upon the British painter’s work: “This is literally and truly painting: the laborious application of paint to canvas, careful orchestration of the composition and the search for a subject and its accompanying attributes. Griffiths borrows his topics from contemporary life and his compositions from art history, imbuing the potentially banal scenes with seriousness and epic force.”
Musing upon the exhibition’s title, Realisms, Mitch Griffiths explains, “When I’m standing at an easel, painting, I tend to inhabit my own little pocket of reality, trying to create my own reality on the canvas. I think everybody has these different levels of reality.”
Along with works by Griffiths, pieces by American artists Jim Shaw and Tony Matelli will also be on display, capturing the different facets of realism and engaging with the realistic method in art practice: interacting with the wider context of the historic Hermitage collection, engendering further meanings and enabling viewers to continue to define the form and content of the world’s realistic art.
Realisms will be shown as part of the 20/21 Project - one of the most ambitious projects undertaken by any national museum. The State Hermitage Museum, which owns one of the world’s greatest collections of Old Master paintings, important Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works, Classical antiquities, European and Russian applied arts and Oriental art, did not acquire contemporary Western art for most of the 20th century, from 1917 to 2000. The purpose of the 20/21 Project is to collect, study and exhibit 20th and 21st century Western art, bringing new audiences to the State Hermitage Museum and putting the museum firmly on the worldwide contemporary art map.
“Art can be seen as a mirror of modern culture that reflects all of us. Therefore the Hermitage 20/21 Project is addressed to those who want to be up to date with things, for both amateurs and professionals, savvy connoisseurs and the youngest viewers,’ Dr Mikhail Piotrovsky, Director of the State Hermitage Museum.
Mitch Griffiths was born in Nuneaton in 1971. In 2001 he was nominated for the National Portrait Gallery BP Portrait Award with Armoured Heart. The piece was chosen for the exhibition's promotional poster, which resulted in wide exposure for his work across London. His first solo show in London was mounted at the Enid Lawson Gallery in Kensington in 2002. During this period Halcyon Gallery became one of his favourite haunts, following an exhibition of work by the painter Robert Lenkiewicz that caught his interest. A chance conversation with a gallery representative and an opportunity to show the sketchbook he was carrying resulted in what has become an enduring creative collaboration; Halcyon Gallery started permanently representing Griffiths in 2004.
His first show at the gallery, Reality (2006), examined the power of brand names in such works as 21st-Century Boy – a portrayal of a figure in Calvin Klein underpants with a Coca-Cola trademark branded into his skin. Credit cards encircle the man’s head like a crown of thorns, and his chest and arms bear cut marks that suggest self-harm. The Promised Land (2010), another major solo show, exhibited 25 paintings that delve into the pain and contradictions of modern British life. Griffiths took the Union Jack as a recurrent theme, wrapping figures in it to raise provocative questions about patriotism and identity. He drew attention to society’s fixation on appearance in The Fitting Room, to its voyeurism and inconstancy in The Muse is Dead.
Griffiths’ exhibition Iconostasis (2013) which featured portraits of famous figures including Ray Winstone, Sir Bob Geldof and Keira Knightley, took its concept from ecclesiastical architecture: the screen of icons dividing the sanctuary from the nave of an Eastern Orthodox church. Griffiths’ latest exhibition Enduring Freedom (2015) alluded to a sense of disillusionment and abandon typical of many post-war 20th century paintings - through the theatrics of his compositions, Griffiths achieves a sense of 21st century history painting, dripping in symbolism, iconography and ancient mythological reference.