Felix Chesher’s ascent to becoming one of the UK’s most buzz-worthy portrait artists was at once accidental and inevitable. “I started my career as an artist at the beginning of lockdown,” he tells Man About Town. “I think that may have helped me not give a shit because I wasn’t painting to please people or for sales, I was painting to keep myself sane and busy.”
Whilst the lockdown venture wasn’t a complete pivot for Chesher – he had graduated from The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art a year prior and worked briefly as a freelance scenic painter in the West-End – the gradient of his rise since turning his attention to human subjects sets him apart vastly from the average graduate. However, he makes excellence look effortless – fast-forward to 2023, his work is now held in private collections across the UK and North America, has been shortlisted for the National Portrait Gallery and BP Portrait Award and exhibited in Mall Galleries’ ING Discerning Eye Exhibition, and see him become the UK Winner of the 2022 Saatchi Art For Change award.
His realist portraits take an intimate look at the male form, capturing subjects, and often himself, in quotidian moments – brushing teeth, lighting a rollie or even receiving a DIY lockdown haircut. Celebration of the LGBTQIA+ community is often at the fore, an element at the heart of his 2021 debut solo exhibition, turning his gaze to subjects from the community, at-times of an illustrious calibre, see Sir Ian McKellen, above, as a case in point.
Sitting down with Man About Town, Chesher talks celebrating Pride in 2023, expressing queerness in his work, and why queer art in the 2020s is as important as ever.
What does Pride Month mean to you as a queer person in 2023?
Pride to me is the celebration of inclusivity and acceptance of love in a sometimes unfriendly and judgemental world.
Do you think through your artistry, you’ve become more acquainted with your own queerness?
I think I was aware of my own self and queerness before I started my career as a painter. I suppose I’m reminded more of my queerness by being surrounded by my works every day. My work often [documents] everyday moments of my life so it’s inherently ’queer’ (or at least portrayals of queerness), but it’s not something I’m ever consciously trying to force.
What has your own journey with expressing your queerness in your work been like? Is it something you always felt comfortable doing?
I’d like to think its been consistent. I never found myself holding back on the perhaps ‘queerness’ or ‘erotic-ness’ of my works. Sometimes I cringe when I’m aware certain people have seen my work, but that’s not because it’s queer art, I think it’s more that it’s stills of my personal life in sometimes intimate settings.
Have you ever faced hurdles in expressing queerness in an unvarnished, authentic way?
I’d be surprised if there’s a queer person who hasn’t faced difficulties in expressing their queerness, whether personal or societal, mine being the latter.
What do you think makes an environment conducive to expressing queerness without constraints?
I think education is key in creating a society where queerness can be expressed. We aren’t born homophobic, transphobic etc, these forms of discrimination are learnt and influenced. Expanding the standards of compulsory sex education and presence in mainstream media are steps to [creating] a gradually more queer-accepting society.
Was there a lightbulb cultural moment or product that you consumed as a child that was impactful for you as a queer person?
From a young age I’ve been intrigued by the lives of lots of queer artists such as Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, Claude Cahun etc. I don’t think its anything to romanticise though as lots of these artists faced huge challenges in their life but their ability to express that through art fascinated me.
Nowadays, when you’re not making art yourself, where do you find yourself turning to to consume queer culture?
I don’t read or watch much TV or films but I attend lots of exhibitions and galleries around London which often have lots of queer culture within them. Queer events and spaces are also something I prefer to attend for a night out and London’s luckily got a lots of them!
What do you think the power of queer art is in the 2020s?
Queer art in the 2020s is just as important as it ever has been, and I think the same should be said 100 years on from now. I think it is a critical outlet for expression of people who are continually marginalised in society, I feel like we (society) has progressed in some ways, but there is still more that needs to be done. Theres still a need to produce and be exposed through art etc. Also incredibly important in being visible to younger generations of queer people.