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The Saatchi Gallery

Laura K Jones on Annie Kevans, Portobello Road, London


It's not as if painter Annie Kevans was suffering from a lack of interest in those devastatingly spare and downy portraits she paints - her entire St Martins' BA show was famously bought up in one job lot three years ago and she has attracted ongoing further attention not least as a star of 'Anticipation', the central London group show that attracted so much notice last week.
But it looks like her recent solo exhibition of new works has pretty much cemented the rise to stardom. 'Swans' opened last Thursday in Portobello Road. Its curator, the ubiquitous Flora Fairbairn, told me that it "went really well and pretty much sold out - including lots of paintings that we had in the store room that weren't in the show. Annie did so well that she's resigned from her job as a secretary!" This is true; Kevans, a relatively late starter who enrolled at St Martins for her BA in Painting when she was 24, could finally resign from her part-time pay-the-rent job thanks to the backing of Fairbairn's ArtWork Productions and this sell out show.
'Swans' is inspired by the reality TV show in America of the same name, whose producers creepily took it upon themselves to remodel and revamp plain young girls, or 'Ugly Ducklings,' into surgically enhanced, aesthetically acceptable 'Swans'. What perturbs Kevans most about this so-called transformation is that the people who take part actually believe that it's a radical step they are taking, that it will help them feel better, whereas really she sees "the startlingly identical clones that emerge as only the ugly progeny of Society's apparent obsession with youth and beauty".
Obsessed with the notion of self-invention, particularly as it manifests itself in America, Kevans has followed this ideal of the American Dream by researching many real life stories of children who have found themselves (or put themselves) in an adult world.
The centrepiece of this current body of work is a startlingly sad oil on paper portrait of an exhausted looking Jessica Dubroff, a seven-year old pilot who, encouraged by her parents to become the youngest person to achieve a solo-flight across the Atlantic, tragically plunged to her death mid-flight. Her death, along with that of her passengers, was watched and filmed by a rash of camera crews and journalists who had gathered for the spectacle. "Ironically", says Kevans, "Jessica made headline news not for a record-breaking flight, but for her untimely death."

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