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“If you can’t do it well, do it big.” I often think this when I’m wandering around Manhattan’s Chelsea gallery district. Large-scale photographs, industrially produced sculpture, and huge paintings are the norm. Honestly, I’m tired of it. It’s not that big work can’t be special, but the honeymoon is over; we’ve been desensitized. And because it’s so often overdone, I find myself increasingly critical of it. Yet, I walked into the exhibition space at the New York Academy of Art recently and was blown away. The current exhibition The Big Picture presents a surprising and considered look at an alternate kind of large-scale painting. Five figurative artists — Vincent Desiderio, Eric Fischl, Neo Rauch, Jenny Saville, and Mark Tansey — involved with the institution in some way present monumental canvases based at least partly on the human figure.
What immediately struck me was that, despite their size, the works on display are all of a relatively intimate and human scale. Sure, the works are physically huge (they elevate a medium often associated with the easel and moderation to a hulking epic-ness); however, they also feel relatable, accessible. Jenny Saville’s “Bleach” renders a young woman from the shoulders up in the artist’s signature style of raw, razor-wire impasto. The effect is arresting and totally disturbing — the kind of shit that ruins your day and leaves you feeling somehow thankful for it. The scale is massively oversized, and you can’t but help feel like you’re being swallowed by the rough, mismatched folds of bruised and bloodied paint-flesh.
Saville’s painting is raw, impolite, and next level — a direct contrast to Eric Fischl’s “Corrida in Rhonda.” In Fischl’s work, a stabbed bull lies as if at rest, bathed in a golden field of light. The obscured face of the nearby bull fighter makes his rigid, macho-laden stance all the more humorous. He is a generalization and an action figure. The focus is on tone, color, and the deftness of paint on canvas, but unfortunately, the whole thing seems too neat, divorced of real humanity or feeling.
Two works by Mark Tansey had me wondering why I don’t hear more about this artist. He was hugely popular in the 1980s and is still represented by global megadealer Larry Gagosian. His two blue oil paintings on canvas are monochromatic landscapes featuring intrepid, anonymous figures. Tansey derives his images from photographic source material, lacing his paintings with subtle allegorical references to history, art, and philosophy. The execution of the paint itself walks a fine line between photorealistic exactness and the subtle nuances of 19th-century landscape painting. It’s this tension between the graphic wall power of an image and its ability to prod the viewer into taking a slower, closer look that makes these paintings so successful.
Neo Rauch’s “Hausmeister” is a masterwork of confusion and appropriation. A schoolroom or midcentury living room is haunted by a cast of vintage characters — stale ghosts reenacting incomprehensible acts of the everyday against a bizarre mash-up of superimposed imagery. This canvas exemplifies the aspects of Rauch’s process that have been lifted from billboards and commercial art. I would love to see this work posted up on the interstate.
Vincent Desiderio was the one name I wasn’t familiar with coming into this exhibition. There is a kind of delicacy to his work, a hard beauty that comes from understanding paint, color, and light; he’s a master of technique. However, his vague, lavishly painted subject matter in the piece “Quixote” seems like a faux conceptual attempt to justify his kind of painting. Stop trying so hard — it’s been 30 years since the New York–centric art world of the 1980s brought figurative painting back into vogue.
Unfortunately, this work seems to color the rest of the exhibition. Curator Peter Drake’s point might have been made more convincingly had he not attempted to rest mostly on the laurels of one particular moment. (Fischl, Desiderio, and Tansey became famous in New York in the ’80s; Saville followed closely on their heels in London, backed by Charles Saatchi.) The result feels like looking at a handsome model dressed in a particularly dated suit. Still, the show does promise to help assert the continued relevance of figurative painting in today’s anything-goes, hodgepodge art world.
The Big Picture is on view at the New York Academy of Art (111 Franklin Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through March 2.