Facing Out: Exhibition Review

‘Facing Out’ by artist Lucy Burscough at Whitworth Art Gallery.

What a let down. Sorry to be so blunt, but I had really high hopes for this exhibition. I really thought this was going to be one of those stand out exhibitions that I would remember for a long time. But instead, it fell at the waistline. That may be a little harsh, I’ll rein it in. I just know that Whitworth can do better, and I don’t know if this was the best way to display the artist’s work – which was truly amazing, so that was the disappointing thing! The work itself was incredible, but the overall exhibition missed the mark. It was just a really shame.

‘Facing Out’ is the new exhibition by artist Lucy Burscough. The flyer and poster image is a painting, a close-up of a mans face, which is disfigured. The blurb says;

An exhibition of portraits of people who have experienced facial cancers together with their choice of artworks from the Whitworth collections. Burscough is interested in what happens when someone experiences cancer and surgery that alters his or her appearance.

At this point I need to put my hands up and admit that I totally overlooked the part about the added pieces from Whitworth collection, as I wasn’t expecting that element. But it was that that let the exhibition down! I wanted to be in a room, surrounded by huge paintings of people with disfigured faces. I wanted to be overwhelmed by the images, I wanted to be moved by their portraits. Part of me was moved, but not to the extent I was hoping for.


There’s a photographer named Bruce Gilden, I saw his work at Manchester Art Gallery, maybe last year or the year before. He prints humongous photographs of people’s faces extremely close-up. You see every wrinkle, every clump of mascara, every nose hair… They can be quite grotesque and truly dramatic. That’s what I wanted! I wanted massive paintings, that you couldn’t possibly ignore, that screamed ‘look at me and my face!’

I’ve just realised I’ve rambled and haven’t really told you what the exhibition was actually like. What the reality was like compared to my expectations. Well, firstly, we couldn’t find the damn exhibition! It was hidden in that weird downstairs space of Whitworth, right at the back. It was like a forgotten box of random things you pack and tuck away in the basement – if you have a basement!


Then, I couldn’t quite believe what I saw when we found the exhibition. I kept looking round thinking, this isn’t it, is it? I honestly thought it would be a huge exhibition filled with portraits. I thought they’d be more, but there were 5 if I remember rightly. And instead of being surrounded by paintings, we were presented with a mixed bag of newspaper clippings, massive strange sculptures and the Beatles!

The absolute best part of the exhibition were the portraits themselves- amazing portraits – but hidden behind glass cabinets, which were filled with extra, random products. You have to fight through these added items, artefacts that are placed with the portraits, photographs of the person, their shoes or medals, paper cuttings, things like that. Alongside all this was the subjects chosen painting from the Whitworth collection. All these things were meant to make you understand the person more, that was meant to add another element to the exhibition, but it was actually more of a distraction, taking away from the detailed and intriguing portrait painting. And the glass cabinets too, they created a barrier between you and the painting, between you and the person.

Another issue we had was that the day we visited ‘Facing Out’, was a really sunny day. With everything being presented behind glass, it made it impossible to see the work through the reflections. I found myself stretching and dipping, trying to change the angle of my gaze to view the work. When it came to taking photographs of this, well, that was hard work! The glare just overpowered everything.

OK, I understand that they need to put the weird artefacts in a cabinet but leave the paintings out! Let us see the work up close and personal, which reflects the nature of the pieces themselves! Getting close and personal to the person. You want to be welcomed in by the subjects, to get to know them and their stories, yet you feel closed off because of this glass barrier.

It’s about time I actually talk about the paintings, as they really were amazing. They were moving, emotional and heart-warming. Miles better than some of the portraits we’ve recently seen on Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year – have you been watching it? Anyway, these portraits were detailed, and you really got a sense of the character, both through their expression and their suroundings.

Let’s start with ‘Graeme’, the image used in the advertising. ‘Graeme’ is a fantastic piece, it was really moving. It is a series of small portraits (no where near as big as the advertising makes out) showing Graeme’s development following operations to reconfigure his face. It is fascinating to see the progression and the changes he went through. To think about the emotions he must have felt, the changes not only to his face, but to his confidence, his demeanour, how the cancer must have affected every aspect of his life. It’s truly emotional. But this exhibition does shed a light on the power of people, the sheer determination to keep going and battle through. It was that side of the exhibition I really did love. Looking at the portraits and reading the little blurb about the people, reading their stories.


It is ‘Annie’ that loves the Beatles. You see her painting, laughing with a brew in hand, next to a photograph of her all dressed up, and her tap shoes displayed all elegantly, set next to a wallpaper print of the Beatles. And then of course, there are the additional painting from the Whitworth collection. I know it may not be feasible to pick their favourite painting ever – you can’t exactly take the Mona Lisa out of The Lourve – but having to pick an image from Whitworth’s collection, kind of feels forced on them. And the overall effect is kind of like these people have died, these are their memories, their artefacts. The way I see it, and I said it before, these added bits I felt weren’t needed. Her portrait alone is a great testament to the woman and to the artist.


So here’s my summary. I loved Lucy Burscough’s paintings, I thought they were extremely moving, highly skilled, and enticing. I just wish Whitworth could have given this exhibition the space it deserved. I wish the portraits were bigger but I can overlook that. I also wish the cabinets and extra bits weren’t there. While I’m at it, I wish I could win the lottery… But we don’t always get what we wish for right?

Facing Out‘ is on at Whitworth Art Gallery from 22nd February till 2nd June.

See more exhibitions and events on our What’s On Calendar.

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