| Art

The Life in Portraits: Charlie Schaffer

An interview with Charlie Schaffer ahead of his Scalpel-Like Eyes exhibition

After Goya I, Oil on Linen, 60 x 50cm, 2019_web

It was just after he won the Bp prize for Portraits in 2019 that Trebuchet visited Charlie Schaffer in his Brighton studio. Human forms emerged from all corners, captured in the kinetic brushwork, the energy of the room burst with colours and a deep well of personal connections. It might be that anything worth calling a portrait captures the feeling of the subject, usually in somnolent repose, but Schaffer’s collaborators punch out from the canvas. They demand to be acknowledged and his brushwork, with its murmurations of tense tight lines and cyclonic movements, creates rich vortices of emotion, personality, and potency. These aren’t paintings as demonstrations of status, identity or attractiveness but the baring of souls.

Featured in Trebuchet 7: Portraits Schaffer was open about his artistic process, how he connects with his subjects and how the process of working with someone transforms the painting from where he starts to defining the paintings closure, the moment when the painting reflects the energy of their experience.

Self Portrait, Oil on Canvas, 100 x 100cm, 2016
Self Portrait, Oil on Canvas, 100 x 100cm, 2016

“It was more just the way that I actually paint. When I paint people—I say I paint people. I don’t say I paint portraits. With portraits there’s a connotation you’re making a picture of someone and it’s meant to capture their essence, you know? Like with a writer, you might show their hands being a bit writer-y, or something weird like that. I don’t care if it looks like a person whatsoever. That’s not one of my goals, at all. I basically want to make painting that’s alive, so I basically want to steal the life of the person. I just happened to paint people because I get sad and lonely on my own. That is essentially the fundamental basis. I’m not one of those painters that can just get up in the morning, just go and make a painting on their own in a studio.

Imara in Her WInter Coat, Oil on Canvas, 130 x 100cm, 2019_web
Imara in Her WInter Coat, Oil on Canvas, 130 x 100cm, 2019

I paint people because when someone comes and sits, you sit down two or three times a week, for two or three hours at a time. Close the doors, nothing else, no phones, nothing like that, and you just sit and you chat. So for me, the whole point is that people speak, they move; they’re not staying still and quiet.” – Schaffer in Trebuchet 7: Portraits.

When last we spoke Schaffer was looking to expand on his practice and investigate how the techniques he’d developed could be used to reinterpret old masters. Now in 2023, he’s putting on an exhibition of his work, Scalpel-Like Eyes, bringing the scope of his practice to an audience who might have thought the opportunity to see his most famous works had now gone. Happily, we have a chance to witness their force once more. Schaffer explains;

“To be honest, I’ve had quite a lot of people close to me telling me that I should really put on an exhibition of my work, especially considering I’ve never had a proper solo show before. I know it’s a wise thing to do, or at least it’s the done thing, but until now the concept of organising and putting on a show never brought much joy with it, primarily anxiety.

I feel there’s two sides to having an exhibition: one side is that you’re doing it for people who genuinely just want to see your work (still a bewildering concept to me that anyone beyond myself cares for these pictures) and also that you’re doing it for yourself (so that you can see the works hang together outside of the studio and see what is reflected to back as a whole); the second is the art world side, which entails convincing people that you’re relevant/worth investing in (financially and temporally). Surprisingly enough, the second of these two doesn’t fill me with too much excitement….

Fortunately, I met Jack (the curator) through a mutual friend and he’s taken over the running of it all, so that has made me feel much more able and supported and as though I can still concentrate on the painting itself. 

It also feels like enough time has passed since winning the Portrait Award in 2019. After lockdown, for various reasons, I have definitely become considerably more hermetic, so having a show seems like a good way to re-enter the world of the living once more.

After Goya I, Oil on Linen, 60 x 50cm, 2019_web
After Goya I, Oil on Linen, 60 x 50cm, 2019

I’m not so sure people will be able to see too many thematic differences in my works since last exhibiting; it’s still very much the idea of using painting as a means through which to spend time with people in an intense manner. So it’s still entirely about relationships for me (either with another, with oneself or with picture making in itself via the old masters). 

Charlie Schaffer, Scalpel Like Eyes, Edited Photos by Reece Gibbins

I’m excited for this show because we’re actually doing a retrospective of work from the last 9 years. We’re loaning back major pieces (including the Portrait Award piece) and all of my old master paintings. So it will be fascinating (including for myself) to see the work hanging together and to see which similarities run through them. As technique for me is purely a means to an end, I know that all the paintings are done through a different way of thinking and seeing (I.e how to make a mark etc.) but painting has always been about trying to be truthful to the actual experience of doing the painting. My emotional and physical state has fortunately and unfortunately gone through some quite severe ups and downs, so although it will be fascinating to see all of this in the works hanging together, I am also incredibly wary of having to quite bluntly confront all these elements of myself over the years.

Charlie Schaffer by Kailas Elmer
Charlie Schaffer by Kailas Elmer

This exhibition is going to be quite a large one – about 8 or so Old Master paintings (painted at the National Gallery) that are being loaned back from collections, and then the rest will be portraits and self-portraits. There will also be an area devoted to drawings (self-portraits and studies from the national gallery)”

BWG Gallery is proud to invite you to Charlie Schaffer: Scalpel-like Eyes. This will be Charlie Schaffer’s first solo exhibition, and his first public exhibition since winning the Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery in 2019. Please join us to celebrate the opening on May 18th.

17.05.23 – 30.05.23 | 10:00am – 7:00pm
, Launch Event | 18.05.23 | 6:00pm – 9:00pm

15 Bateman St | Soho | London | W1D 3AQ 

Tickets to the 18th | Book here: TICKET RSVP
Artist & Exhibition Info | View here: VISIT EXHIBITION

Trebuchet 7: Portraits – featuring Charlie Schaffer

Trebuchet issue 7 portraits
07: Portraits

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