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  • Miles Hedley

ROD KITSON at The Art Of Isolation, Surrey Quays

Updated: Jul 3

The best art exhibitions always have a real sense of theatre with their emotion-racking drama, their absorbing cast of characters, their thrilling narratives and their rapt audiences. It’s what makes the prospect of any show so delicious.

Normally, of course, those of us who visit a gallery constitute the audience. But in a rather brilliant inversion of expectation, I arrived at Rod Kitson’s Where Are We Now to find our roles had been reversed.

Nearly 400 faces on 12x12-inch boards line the walls of the Art Of Isolation gallery in Surrey Quays and the overwhelming feeling is of stepping out on to a stage in front of an audience, some smiling in anticipation, some looking concerned, many simply indifferent. It’s incredibly effective.

The faces are the product of nearly five years’ work by Kitson, who captured each in a two-hour sitting either before, during or after the pandemic and has hung them in chronological order and without any retouching.

This warts-and-all approach inevitably means a certain amount of variable quality among the works. But Kitson’s decision to insist that the show should be “human, flawed, as we all are” is spot-on – it gives the enterprise an honesty and integrity that lifts it above any nitpicking criticisms of technique.

And the way the portraits are presented mean you actually get to enjoy two exhibitions for one. Firstly, you have to process the scale of the neat rows of random, unknown faces such as you might see in the auditorium of any theatre. It takes a while but it’s worth every moment. It would also be enough in itself to justify a trip here.

But be patient. The deeper pleasure comes by walking slowly along the rows and studying the individuals, noticing the half-smiles or the seriousness, the openness or the introspection, the delight or the melancholy. Especially moving are the handful of mounts containing no face at all, reflecting the nationwide trauma of loss during the pandemic.

It’s fascinating to see the evolution of Kitson’s style over the course of this epic project. His early paintings are in some sense quite traditional sketches in oils. But as the years pass, the paint becomes thicker, the brushstrokes looser, the vision more abstract and – I would suggest – Kitson himself gains in stature and self-confidence. It reminded me of Picasso’s dictum that painting is just another way of keeping a diary.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that one of the paintings is of me. My wife said she immediately recognised my somewhat austere expression, which rather took me aback because I always think I present a sunny aspect to the world. It seems I was wrong!

Kitson plans to continue his portrait-collecting for another five years, starting with live painting sessions in the gallery while the exhibition is on. It’s a wildly ambitious plan and also a important one, not only for us as individuals but also for the wider community.

What’s more, if the next 400 portraits are anything like as good as these, we’re all of us in for a treat.

Where Are We Now runs till 20 July at The Art of Isolation, Upper Floor, Surrey Quays Shopping Centre, Redriff Road, SE16 7LL. Free entry. Opening times: Tues/Weds 11-6pm, Thurs 5-7.30pm, Fri 12-7pm, Sat 11-5pm, Sun 2-5pm, Mon closed. Further details at

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