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New York City galleries are raining down a smattering of group shows that showcase figurative painting. Some of the notables are Me, My, Mine: Commanding Subjectivity in Painting, which recently opened at DC Moore Gallery, and Painting Forward, which recently closed at Thomas Erben Gallery. Into this fray has come Kent Fine Art with On Painting, an exhibition of human and landscape subjects. All of the shows have something in common that can be gleaned from the press release for Painting Forward, which states, “newly relevant positions [for painting] are found by abandoning artifice and irony, and depicting subjects in unadorned and direct ways.”
How to make sense of a show of painterly, figurative art in 2016 is part of the fun when taking in On Painting. As background, I’ve found it helpful to peruse Fan Zhong’s recent article on the subject, in which she does an excellent job of tracing the ups and downs of figuration over the past few decades. Zhong discusses the pivotal exhibition Dear Painter, paint me…Painting the Figure since late Picabia, which opened at the Centre Pompidou in 2002. That show, acknowledging the strain photography and mass media had placed on painting, posited artifice and irony as the only acceptable strategies for figurative painting to avoid being outmoded. Fast forward to our current decade, and the possibilities seem to have widened quite a bit. Many figurative painters are engaged in what the critic Roberta Smith has referred to as “Modernism Redux,” sifting through the nooks and crannies of art history for inspiration and a “style-reviving vitality.” This freedom to source past styles is present throughout On Painting, in ways that are alternately rigorous and adamant, and wan and amorphous.
Janice Nowinski and Kyle Staver both powerfully marshal firsthand and mediated sources that suggest a rich lived experience. Working from snapshots and postcards, in deep, muted colors, Nowinski paints anonymous people and places with dense, choppy strokes in a manner reminiscent of David Park. Her series of small and abstruse domestic scenes documents discrete moments unfolding before our eyes. On a much larger scale, Staver’s two simple compositions here illustrate the plights of Europa and Pandora, each caught writhing and gesticulating mid-drama. Staver is a master of chiaroscuro, imbuing her scenes with luminescent sea-green and peach that illuminate her atmospheric black nights. Glints of moonlight dot the edges of a woman and a bull, or a serpentine monster, as well as diaphanous wings, scales, skin, fins, tusks, hair, and gossamer water.
Eve Ackroyd’s intimate works of disembodied eyes, heads, hands, and torsos read like a collection of serialized images stolen from a personal cache. Her gouache and oil paintings have the languid touch and symbolic eroticism of Francesco Clemente’s frescoes. Jon Campbell depicts full-body figures in crowds or cluster formations where unique personhood gives way to dystopian symbolism. His large acrylic paintings on adjoined sheets of paper have an innocent, child-like sensibility. Campbell, who’s also a musician, crafts songs that remind me of Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. His music as well as his paintings have a charming, slackerish affect, conveying the dreams and fantasies of a global flâneur.
Stefan Pehl and Heidi Hahn add some keyed-up color to the show. With saccharine swathes and trippy washes, Hahn paints what look like teen ghouls smoking a bowl or moping on a bed. There are allusions to Edvard Munch and Odilon Redon in the physiognomy of her characters, but psychic despair is replaced with a leering despondency. Pehl creates whisper-thin landscapes by applying light washes, pooled colors, and scratches of pastel, each with its own lyrical palette, from rust to burnt umber to mint green. Although more overtly representational and evanescent, Pehl’s works share an airy openness with those of the late Friedel Dzubas, whose monumental “mural paintings” are on view at Tower 49 and tend to linger in the mind.
With all of this work in mind, it’s interesting to revisit the catalogue essays for Dear Painter and their emphasis on the antihumanist trends that were feeding painting at that time — the idea being, according to curator Alison M. Gingeras, to “perturb the humanist model of portraiture: the authentic translation of a human subject’s physical or psychological likeness into paint.” Reading this had me thinking of another essay, Lisa Ruddick’s “When Nothing is Cool,” which struck a nerve in a lot of people last year. In the piece, Ruddick discusses the exhaustion and toll taken by antihumanistic impulses in the humanities, particularly on students in English departments. As Ruddick’s essay was gaining traction, the art historian (and Hyperallergic contributor) Robert C. Morgan was saying something similar in a talk titled “On Throwing Down the Key: Rethinking Art as Tactile Involvement” at New York Studio School this past February. Both expressed a sense of loss that comes from sacrificing one’s total self at the altar of the strictly theoretical.
I wonder if this is why the recent retrospective of figurative painter Nicole Eisenman at the New Museum reverberated for so many people. Her work is conceptual and political, but also tactile and human. It’s not regressive, but neither does it throw out the entire canon of formalist painting with a skeptical dismissal of authenticity. Like Eisenman, the six painters in On Painting reiterate the influence of their forebears, the pleasures of a chosen medium, and a larger connection to mankind. If such aspirations were considered retardataire by yesterday’s standards, could it be that artists today are once again craving beauty and sincerity?
On Painting continues at Kent Fine Art (210 Eleventh Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan) through July 29.