The fact that I have to ask someone whether Gavin Tremlett's paintings are totally his own (and not some classical reworking) suggests that his style is a pretty near perfect classical rendition. If he'd gone with a kind of Chapman Brothers-style artistic modification I would not have been keen. But Gavin's works – on show this winter at Charlie Smith London – are in fact built from scratch in a lengthy process of layering and disguising, using oil, charcoal and graphite. Gustave Courbet is one obvious influence.
Gavin is clearly a talented painter and draughtsman and will gladly show this off; his style in parts is verging on photo-realistic, but he's painstakingly removed areas, left parts unfinished and created something which essentially is quite creepy. If you look closely they just aren't quite right. In one painting of a girl's face, everything is perfect except her left eye which is slightly misaligned and wrongly angled and left partly unfinished, leaving her with a disturbing finish. This is clearly no technical fault and as you move into a smaller room at the back of the gallery his intentions are more clearly reiterated. Faces look as though their distortion might melt them off the canvas and one girl's eye peeps out at you over swollen cheeks, carefully created through a lack of shading or adding of a facial boundary where it should not be.
Then there's an added twist: these classically styled pieces are in fact inspired by pornographic poses. Move over Courbet and make way for Robert Mapplethorpe. Or just sit quietly together. Tremlett has cleverly worked in a contradiction, a strange kind of entwining of opposites: innocent, yet promiscuous, their glares inviting, yet frightening. And all titled 'Amusement', numbered 1 to 11. Is this the amusement of the artist with his clever little japes? Or the amusement of the sitter inviting you in and then mocking you quietly from behind the screen with your voyeuristic advances? Ha ha ha.
One might associate pornography with exploitation but these youthful subjects seem to possess both power and cunning. Some are wistfully beautiful, others entirely unsettling, and I don't know how I'm meant to feel. But I just can't help but look, examining Tremlett's revealings and concealings and trying to glean some understanding from these bizarre and provocative human visions.
'Amusements' is on at Charlie Smith London from Friday the 10th of December to Saturday the 29th of January 2011.