Figurative painting, it seems, is destined to be contemporary art’s perennial sidepiece: always available for a fling, never for very long. The last time one could admit to a passion for it without committing social suicide in the art world was probably around 2003, when the painter John Currin had his midcareer survey at the Whitney Museum of American Art bedeviled collectors with lewd portraiture. The year before Currin’s retrospective, an exhibition curated by Alison Gingeras at the Centre Pompidou, in Paris, “Dear Painter, Paint Me…Painting the Figure Since Late Picabia,” had opened to acclaim. As the critic Roberta Smith observed in The New York Times, “reports of painting’s death have been exaggerated for about 30 years.”
When you’ve been around as long as Titian, you’re in perpetual danger of falling out of fashion—especially after Picasso depicted the body in a manner that eventually dispensed with realism, making way for abstract art. Even Gingeras admits that she had to get over her own prejudice. When the curator was cutting her teeth in the Whitney’s Independent Study Program, she recalls, there was hissing around the water cooler when the Museum of Modern Art put on a three-person show, in 1997, featuring Currin, Peyton, and Luc Tuymans, whose stylistic sensibility was considered reactionary. “People just could not get over it,” Gingeras says with deadly seriousness. “It was not okay to like it.”
But now, just like that, the human figure is okay again. After MoMA PS1 opened its “Greater New York” quinquennial last fall with a noticeable crop of talented young figurative artists, the website Artspace exulted: "The figure is back, baby!" Four days later, during the Frieze Art Fair, in London, The New York Times trumpeted: "The Triumphant Return of Figurative Art." And in December, during Art Basel Miami Beach, the über-dealers Jeffrey Deitch and Larry Gagosian joined forces to put on a splashy, market-friendly show of figurative painting and sculpture. Titled “Unrealism,” it featured both old hands such as Marlene Dumas and rising stars like Mira Dancy, known for reinvigorating the female nude with electric colors and a feminist gaze.
So what does the art world suddenly see in that most basic idea, paintings of people? It could be a simple case of absence making the heart grow fonder. “It’s bizarre,” says Deitch, the former director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, who has reopened his New York gallery in SoHo. “There are always good figurative painters, but tell me, when was the last time you saw a great survey of figurative painting in an American museum?”
When Deitch first arrived at MOCA, in 2010, he was intent on staging two major surveys: One was of figurative painting, and the other, of abstract painting. Only the latter—“The Painting Factory: Abstraction After Warhol”—was realized. “I decided to do that first because the big, new exciting thing was all this achievement in abstraction,” he says.
Build a major museum show and the copycats will follow. The innovations in—and, of course, the bullish market for—this wave of abstract painting, including the works of Wade Guyton, whose huge “paintings” are extruded from ink-jet printers, led to an outpouring of derivative “process-based” art (Look, I spray-painted this canvas with a fire extinguisher!). Dully handsome and all too plentiful, such collector bait has inspired a lot of colorful nicknames—“crapstraction” is a personal favorite—but the most enduring has been “zombie formalism,” coined by the artist and writer Walter Robinson (who, it must be said, is known for his figurative paintings).
“The body in crisis is increasingly present in our daily lives,” notes MoMA PS1 curator and associate director Peter Eleey, who headed up the “Greater New York” 2015 curatorial team. “Whether it’s in reference to the refugee situation”—he didn’t specify which one, but there are plenty—“or the way the media is processing Black Lives Matter, abstraction has been comfortable—for us. But it doesn’t give shape to the discomforts and questions that I think a lot of us are grappling with.” Deitch seconds that, adding, “This is not a time when a ponderous Mark Rothko painting about myth is relevant.” He ventures that figurative painting allows for more-diverse cultural content—clothing, skin color, setting—than abstraction ever can.
This seems logical and could explain the swift rise of, say, Jonas Wood, 39, whose intense inspection of the textures and colors of his domestic life with his wife, the ceramist Shio Kusaka, reads like memoir. But when I propose the idea to the Los Angeles painter Njideka Akunyili Crosby, 33, whose work borrows heavily from everyday life in Enugu, Nigeria, where she grew up, she hesitates. “I’m just wary of pitting abstraction and figurativism against each other,” she says. “When I started out, people were like, ‘Why are you doing figurative painting? It’s over.’ But instead of abandoning it, it became a new challenge: How do I make it relevant now?”
In her work, Akunyili Crosby, who has had a solo show at L.A.’s Hammer Museum, is introducing foreign elements—like the patterns from Nigerian textiles—into a familiar mode of painting (she’s inspired by 17th-century Spanish painters like Diego Velázquez). “Now there’s greater freedom not just in the way a work looks, but in terms of ideology,” Gingeras says. “One can borrow from a host of sources. Everything’s legitimate.”
Take fashion illustration, which, until emerging stars like Ella Kruglyanskaya, 37, reimagined it, was considered, at best, art-adjacent. When I visit Caitlin Keogh at her studio in Brooklyn one morning, she is rushing to complete one of her exquisitely feminine paintings that recall fashion illustration of the 1930s, when Surrealists like Salvador Dalí and Jean Cocteau were proudly practicing it. At 34, Keogh is coming into her own: She had a breakout solo show at megadealer Mary Boone’s midtown Manhattan gallery last year and was part of a well-reviewed group exhibition, “Flatlands,” at the Whitney this year. She pauses from her work to tell me a story from when she was in art school, at Cooper Union: One day an instructor brought in a famous Cecil Beaton Vogue story in which models are posing in front of Jackson Pollock paintings. It was presented to the class as shameful—high Abstraction being dragged through the muck of commercial figuration. Softly, with conviction, Keogh says, “That struck me as false.”
And when I drop in for a chat with Jamian Juliano-Villani, 29, I manage to fill pages of my notebook just listing all the strange and wonderful references she has placed in her dense paintings as freely as if they were clip art: Jean-Michel Basquiat; Lamb Chop; “Frank Sinatra’s art book”; Asterix; The Art of the Puppet, by Bil Baird; “bread people”; Will Eisner; “that John Cleese commercial”; and so on. “Someone looks at a painting now, it’s only for three or four seconds,” Juliano-Villani says. “Which is nothing. So I’m going to give them some shit to look at.” While she doesn’t agree with the notion that artists today are tailoring their work to the aesthetic demands of Instagram, her figures floating in flat space can appear as though they have been Photoshopped.
The flattening of the figure—“Flatlands,” which latched onto this, also featured Juliano-Villani’s work—is a product of the way we see today. “I’m really interested in that idea right now,” says Jonathan Gardner, 33, whose smoothly stylish scenes of figures at leisure look flat but possess a deceptive, trompe l’oeil depth, bringing to mind the work of Fernand Léger.
Even if common wisdom holds that the more flat and graphic a painting looks, the more “likes” it will get, there are notable exceptions: Until three years ago, Genieve Figgis, 43, was toiling away in a small town in Ireland, producing ghoulish costume dramas with a dreamy, blurred look that resulted from pushing thick paint around a canvas. “The past 12 years, I’ve just been hearing feedback from my family: ‘You’re crazy, you’re insane, you’ll be locked up!’ ” she admits, laughing. “That’s why I put the work on social media, to see what would happen if other people saw it.” Richard Prince discovered her on Twitter in 2013, and since then, Figgis has had major solo shows in New York and London.
Because the art world has a short memory, it can be helpful to point out that some artists who have lately become hot commodities have actually been making similar work for years. The painter Brian Calvin, 46, for instance, whose portraits of alluring slacker girls are currently in high demand, had been mining that vein long before Gingeras included him in “Dear Painter” in 2002.
It’s a lesson that seems to demand relearning every few years: For all the talk of figurative painting’s death in the face of technology and newer movements, the human body will never cease to fascinate, nor will artists ever stop tinkering with it. The body, Keogh told me, “is the site of affect.” Roughly translated from artspeak, it means, Get the body involved, and people will react. Gingeras, who is contemplating a sequel to her Pompidou show, heartily agrees: “Figurative painting can be populist—you know, your mom can like it. But that can also be its locus of transgression.”
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