Toby Rainbird is a Jersey-born*, London-based artist who explores intimate moments of quietude in his subjects, focusing all of his attention on people and objects that are at rest, in contemplation or fixed states.
His artworks are constructed through a combination of direct observation and imagination – often with the desire to focus solely on the individual making up the whole image. He views the people in his work as being a necessary sort of vessel to project a sense of stasis and stillness onto. The work portrays subjects who seem to be in self-reflection, indifference, or a patient, benevolent calm. Toby takes his time forming his images, having no desire to reach a fixed pre-meditated outcome. Through processes of accidental and deliberate alterations, the finished works can take months or even years to arrive at.
The monoprints that make up this series are a departure from his usually vibrant-coloured oil portraits. The black and white works on paper were drawn from reminiscence of friends Rainbird was separated from during the first London lockdown. Ordinarily, he would have preferred to work from direct observation of his subjects, but of course due to Covid restrictions, he was forced to devise an expedient workaround. Rather than drawing his friends from zoom sessions or skype calls, however, he opted to mine his own memory for recollections of them, exploring the traces remaining in his mind’s eye of his otherwise nearest and dearest, who, for obvious reasons, could not be physically present for a sitting. The isolation from friends and loved ones is a universally recognisable circumstance by now, but this artist has creatively approached it in a charmingly nostalgic and wistfully analogue manner.
*(That’s Jersey as in the Channel Islands, UK, not the Jersey Shore, New Jersey!)
There is a ghostly quality to this set of monochrome monoprints – they are portraits of absence, with traces of prior presences.
Eldi (Dundee, Curator, SHG) asked Toby about the significance of the figures with the eyes closed, intrigued that the only open-eyed portrait in the grouping is of Rainbird himself.
Dundee: “The closed eyes remind me of death masks, which during [C]ovid, feels a bit [too] close to the bone to mention. ([They also remind me of] those Victorian portraits of dead relatives in repose.) Is there a reason why you’ve depicted your friends from memory in this way? I feel like it’s a question people will have.”
Rainbird: “I like to think people who have their eyes closed or covered naturally allow[s for] a lot of ambiguity – resting, awkwardness, still[ness], distress, focus, etc. I don’t think about it too much or [want to] impose too much on how others read the art; the work just comes out that way. It’s very nice [that people] can find [their own] things within the work.”
Perhaps the fact that deaths and death counts were being reported on the news and social media several times a day throughout those lockdowns, the work was subconsciously imbued with a sense of melancholy, if not by the artist, then by the curator reading these things into the work at the time the proposal was submitted.
And perhaps it’s that a year later, when Britain is said to have arrived at ‘herd immunity,’ and we are a week past the Spring Equinox – with places cautiously beginning to open up again, and things are collectively looking ‘up’ somewhat – that there is this inference of Zen about these sensitively composed works: a welcome simplicity, a meditative detachment, and an air of acceptance that perhaps were there all along. Almost as with the Kübler-Ross cycle of grief…
A year ago the character in the sunglasses may have felt like a jarring and incongruent intrusion into this grouping – too disrespectful, too rebellious. But now, as the sun is shining again (in the Northern Hemisphere, anyway), and as Covid’s grip on us as a society (in Britain at least) seems to be easing that little bit more than before, we can start to allow ourselves to feel that the future is looking that tad bit brighter and dare to feel a tiny bit more hopeful.
“It’s very nice [that people] can find [their own] things within the work.”
More of Toby Rainbird’s work can be found on his instagram: @toby_rainbird_art