Painting in oils and echoing the tableaux of the Old Masters, Mitch Griffiths produces modern portraits that address issues of identity and inclusion, obsolescence and conflict. ‘Many people say my paintings look photo-realist’, he says, ‘but it’s not what I’m trying to achieve. I’m trying to make the viewer enter MY reality.’
Quoted in Amah-Rose McKnight-Abrams, ‘Mitch Griffiths’ Promised Land’, 23 April 2010, dazeddigital.com
British, b. 1971
Griffiths was born in Nuneaton in 1971 and had an early passion for drawing that was fostered by his school, which he represented in various art competitions. Planning for a career in art, he enrolled at South Devon College, completing a diploma in graphic design in 1987. This was followed by a higher national diploma in illustration at Southampton Institute. His initial work as a commercial illustrator, on projects that ranged from magazine covers to murals, was supplemented by a variety of temporary jobs, such as sheet metal work, which brought in more reliable income.
Griffiths’ first artistic success came unexpectedly in 1994. An avid boxing fan, he painted a portrait of Chris Eubank and sent a photograph of it to Eubank’s agent, Barry Hearn. The boxer was delighted with the piece, wanting to use the image to promote his matches, and he initially commissioned a series of pictures and then offered Griffiths a job. Eubank became his patron for the next three years, setting up a studio for him at his business centre in Hove.
Through Eubank, Griffiths met the entrepreneur Terry Johnson, who owned a luxury retreat in Cornwall called Hustyns, where many boxers trained. Griffiths became artist-in-residence and for the next five years created over 100 paintings to be displayed at the centre. He also helped to set up the Bishop Phillpotts Gallery in Truro, Cornwall, holding three solo exhibitions there in 2001 and 2002.
During these years Griffiths’ distinctive style of figurative painting in oils began to emerge. He immersed himself in the culture of the Old Masters, reading widely on art history and making frequent visits to London’s museums to examine seminal works. Returning to his studio, he would try out their painting techniques, their composition and lighting, toiling until he had honed his abilities to a level where he could replicate and then advance creatively from his models. ‘His pictorial language is not so much old-fashioned as reborn out of the pervasive and at times almost pornographic vividness and in-your-face quality of much of our current visual culture’, explains Philip Wright.
While his artistic language owes a debt to the past, in content Griffiths rigorously addresses the issues of the twenty-first century. Large complex canvases, packed with detail, expose the immoralities and pretences of our time. Many of his images appear to echo familiar religious iconography. However, their symbolism reflects a modern quest for redemption – from the overriding self-obsession and consumerism of contemporary society, with its vanity and greed, addictions and needless suffering.
In 2001 Griffiths entered 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 Twenty-first 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.
Iconostasis (2013), Griffiths' second exhibition at Halcyon Gallery took as its starting point the screen of icons that divides the sanctuary from the nave in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Featuring large-scale allegorical canvases the show, which also included portraits on such famous figures as Ray Winstone, Sir Bob Geldof and Keira Knightley, drew parallels with the way magazine covers and mobile-phone screens separate us from modern idols.
Griffiths’ most recent solo exhibition at Halcyon Gallery, Enduring Freedom (2015), presented an entirely new body of work which alluded to a sense of disillusionment and abandon typical of many post-war twentieth-century painting. The central majestic triptych, First Person Shooter, draws upon a plethora of references ranging from Dulce et Decorum Est, a poem by Wilfred Owen (1893–1918) a veteran of the World War I who denounced the glorification of war and exposed the true horror of it, to the popular video-game franchise Call of Duty.
As Griffiths explains, ‘This series looks at ideas I have been having regarding the triumph of the human spirit set in contrast to the more tangible authority held by various institutional or governmental structures of human society. The struggle for power can be found in the everyday rat-race or in the upper echelons of global politics.’
In June 2016, the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia unveiled 21 works by Griffiths as part of the remarkable 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 the collection on display, which includes two diptychs and two triptychs, spans the breadth of Griffiths’ artistic concerns for more than a decade.
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.’
1992 Higher National Diploma in Illustration, Southampton Institute 1990 Diploma in Graphic Design, South Devon College
1998–2002 Hustyns, Wadebridge, Cornwall
2016 Realisms, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
2015 Enduring Freedom, Halcyon Gallery, London
2013 Iconostasis, Halcyon Gallery, London
2010 The Promised Land, Halcyon Gallery, London
2006 Reality, Halcyon Gallery, London
2002 Enid Lawson Gallery, London 2002 Bishop Phillpotts Gallery, Truro, Cornwall
2001 Bishop Phillpotts Gallery, Truro, Cornwall
SELECTED GROUP EXHIBITIONS
2015 Pelé: Art, Life, Football, Halcyon Gallery, London
1994–1998 Various commissions from private, corporate and celebrity clients
2004 BP Portrait Award, Artist, Model and Critic, National Portrait Gallery, London
2003 BP Portrait Award, Sending Message: Be my Wife, National Portrait Gallery, London
2001 BP Portrait Award, Armoured Heart, National Portrait Gallery, London; featured on catalogue cover
2016 Realisms, exhibition catalogue with essays: Mikhail Piotrovsky, ‘The Hermitage as a Place for Discussions. Realisms’; Dimitri Ozerkov, ‘Realisms’; Catherine McCormack, ‘The Real World as Image and the Image as “Real”’ (The State Hermitage Museum & Halcyon Gallery)
2015 Pelé: Art, Life, Football exhibition catalogue with essays: Brian Winter, ‘Why Pelé Still Inspires Us’; Dr. Bernard Vere, ‘Andy Warhol, Pelé, and the ‘Athletes’ Series’ (Halcyon Gallery)
2010 The Promised Land, exhibition catalogue with essay: Philip Wright, ‘No Portrait can be Silent’ (Halcyon Gallery)
2006 Reality, exhibition catalogue with Foreword by David Lee (Halcyon Gallery)