LOS ANGELES — A Shape That Stands Up at Art + Practice (A+P) gallery, in partnership with the Hammer Museum, claims to “[examine] the space between figuration and abstraction” — a great starting point unless you have the sneaking suspicion that this space disappeared decades ago. In the 21st century, I find it hard to hold abstraction and representation in distinct categories. What matters now, and has always mattered most, is the artist’s visual language and how it suggests and even creates a specific experience of being in the world. Curating a group show is itself an abstract exercise in figuration, and with 15 artists curator Jamillah James has done an impressive job of representing artists of varying ages, races, genders, and sexualities.
The exhibition’s thesis on the interplay of figuration and abstraction finds four basic expressions among the featured artists. First is the slightly abstracted figure, a strategy exemplified here by Torey Thornton, Carroll Dunham, Henry Taylor, Jamian Juliano-Villani, and Jason Meadows. Second is the slightly figurative abstraction seen in Amy Sillman, Math Bass, Sadie Benning, and two late works by Robert Colescott. Splitting the difference between these two approaches is a third, employed by Sue Williams, D’metrius John Rice, and Tschabalala Self, in which an even balance is found between figuration and abstraction, neither quite getting the upper hand. Finally, Brenna Youngblood and Kevin Beasley take a fourth path, using metonymy to conjure the figure.
From Dunham there are six untitled 2010 pencil studies for his well-known bather paintings; the drawings are all assholes and pussies, with every face scribbled out. The full series of paintings includes many female nudes that, with few exceptions, do not show the woman’s face, her sex always the focus. What distinguishes Dunham here is not his relationship to figuration or abstraction per se, but rather what has always set him apart: a cartoonish drawing hand which creates forms by turns angular and round in service of a trippy energy that is often violently comedic.
Jamian Juliano-Villani, whose work has become highly sought after in recent years, disappoints in the first room with “Native Woman” (2013), a clumsily painted, didactic painting about the salacious male gaze. But the artist soars in the back with “To Live and Die in Passaic” (2016), a bizarre image of a Jesus-like orange peel carrying its own exposed flesh as it walks on the surface of what appears to be a swimming pool. The colors glow, and the paint is beautifully handled, with brushstrokes starting full and wet then crumbling away as they describe the skin and fruit of the orange. Looking at this picture is like waking from a dream as emotional as it is indecipherable.
A few feet away stands a sculpture by Brenna Youngblood, who provides a heavy-handed one-liner: a door sliced down to about four feet high, with its top border cut to mimic a small section of an electrocardiogram line (home/heart and all that this implies — get it?). There is not really an experience to be had with this piece, for reasons having nothing to do with representation or abstraction: it is a facile conceptual maneuver that disappears right after the conceit registers.
Tschabalala Self, a newly minted Yale MFA (2015), presents two powerful 2014 paintings of a fragmented human form, almost genderless but for an emphasis on curves that suggests a female. They are made using what look like block printing techniques on canvas, involving a jumble of limbs and body shapes in earthy reds, gold ocher, and black, compressed into the center of the rectangle with the edges left vacant. The bodies harbor a violence, somewhere between dismemberment and painful self-organization, as though marshaling their forces for action, perhaps a leap outward at the viewer. Self works from a premise similar to Dunham’s: the female body flattened into simple shapes, but she arrives somewhere worlds apart. Where Dunham offers an objectified body (delightfully, it must be said), Self projects a simmering agency that feels about to boil over.
Henry Taylor’s “The Darker the Berry, the Sweeter the Juice” (2015) steals the show with the most traditional figure painting in this exhibition, imposing at over six feet in height, of a young black woman standing outdoors in what might be an empty parking lot. She is painted a solid, featureless black except for a streak of white on her arm, and the pale colors of her loosely worn, mostly white dress. Only the quiet details of her silhouette tell us she is staring over her left shoulder, away from us toward what is likely a bland hotel. I am reminded of Gerard Richter’s 1988 portrait of his daughter Betty, where she too looks away, but while Richter delved deeply into the details of her hair and patterned clothing, Taylor gives us much less. We are denied access to this woman, a refusal literalized by the featureless black paint and carried further by her rotated head; the vivid beauty of the painting is sensual poetry.
In the mid-20th century, arguments about representation and abstraction could easily end with somebody getting punched in the face. Philip Guston infuriated just about everyone when he abandoned abstraction in favor of dumpy Klansmen and Cyclops heads. I have heard people lament the fact that nobody is drawing lines in the sand anymore, but I disagree. Allegiances to specific ways of working are inherently anti-critical, leading us to overlook powerful art that does not conform to our notion of what artists should be doing at any given moment. Over the past decade everyone was focused on abstraction, and now the pendulum is swinging back to figuration. Hung beside one another in a corner of the gallery, the works of Henry Taylor and Tschabalala Self could not look more different, but they are each uniquely riveting constructions of the female form. Where do they fall on the continuum of traditional representation to complete abstraction — who cares?
A Shape That Stands Up continues at Art + Practice (4339 S. Leimert Blvd, Los Angeles) through June 18.