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MIAMI — There are many stories about the origins of art: ancient Greek historian Pliny suggested art was born when a Corinthian maiden traced the outline of her lover’s shadow on a wall, while an Asian legend tells of a young man who could not paint the Buddha because of his enlightened glow, and so was forced to paint his reflection in a pool of water. What these two stories share is the emphasis on the rendering of people as a foundational element of art. Fast-forward many millenia, when the story of high-priced contemporary art is vastly different from those origin stories, and walking through the latest incarnation of Art Basel Miami Beach, I was struck by the marginalization of the human form in the blue-chip work on display. What happened?
Today’s high-end commercial art world is awash with abstraction of all types or collections of objects that convey their meaning in a manner far away from the representation of the human figure. And when the figure appears, it is often in the form of commentary on a historic ideal. Works like Nick van Woert’s sculptures at Yvon Lambert grapple with idealized classical forms; in fact, many of the figures on display throughout the fair — like Francesco Vezzoli’s Art Kabinett display or Daniel Silver’s work at Galería OMR — either directly quote or reference classical sculpture in some way, and when the human figure appears, it is often in a broken-down, precarious, deconstructed, or mysterious manner. The absence of the form is most noticeable in Jose Dávila’s cut-photo series, Topologies of Indentity, which was on display at Travesia Cuatro. In this collection of well-known photos of famous 20th-century artists, Dávila cuts out the artist so all we are left with is his or her setting as clues to the identity of the missing person. Some, like Jackson Pollock and Marcel Duchamp, are obvious, others less so, but it is the artist’s erasure of the body that creates the tension in the works. While I would argue that these pieces aren’t particularly successful at resonating past the tired old strategy of topologies, they transform the figures into something that looks more timeless, feeling more like classical silhouettes than mid-century photographs.
A more common tendency in the work at Miami Basel was to construct a figure out of common objects that together form a disjointed semblance of a person — a move not exactly emotionally engaging but that makes you conscious of notions of consumerism, domesticity, or representation. David Altmejd’s “Untitled 4 (Bodybuilders)” (2012), Justin Lieberman’s “Colleen” (2012), Sarah Lucas’s “Beefcocktitbuster” (2012), and Gabriel Kuri’s “Double Self Portrait as Coordinate V8” (2012) all fit comfortably into this category. The human form has no coherence beyond a suggestion of a head, eyes, genitals, or some other shorthand that your imagination has to fill in.
That’s not to say that these figures don’t have personalities, like the very Doctor Who-suggestive scarf in Lieberman’s “Colleen,” but in essence they are simply armatures for a message, or in the case of Kuri’s work, a self-portrait of sorts. Why has the figure disappeared or been deconstructed to such a degree? Surely there isn’t a lack of talent, as any visitor to an open-studios event can easily see that there are countless artists capable of rendering the human form with varying degrees of success. The answer may be in the strange conundrum we find ourselves in as a culture that is increasingly embracing its diversity but hesitant to impart value judgments on bodies of different kinds. Unlike the classical era or the Renaissance, there is no one body ideal that encapsulates contemporary culture.
With the emphasis away from ideal bodies, artists often resort to popular celebrities to portray idealized notions of the human form, although I would argue that strategy is the ultimate lazy cop-out. Rather than grappling with ideals of beauty or touching the sometimes contentious third rail of identity politics in contemporary culture, artists seek refuge in the safety of suggestion rather than representation. It’s no surprise to me that some of the best artists grappling with the human figure at Miami Basel were artists of African heritage, like Hank Willis Thomas, whose work often deals with portrayals of African Americans in the media and how those ideas have shifted over time. His “Baron of the Crossroads” (2012) is a fitting commentary on the shifting ground from which we find ourselves seeing figures and human forms. In this poignant work, the picture blurs when you look at it directly, but at an angle the image is in focus; it plays with your preconceived idea of how you should look at the image and what it means to see something correctly. Across from Thomas’s work, and also in the Jack Shainman Gallery booth, is a painting by London-based artist of Ghanaian descent Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, whose dark female figure almost melds into the background so that from certain perspectives she appears to almost disappear or, at best, be rendered in silhouette. These two works make it tough to see the figures clearly, but each forces you to look closer and not take the act of looking for granted.
Another thing I noticed was that the few paintings that directly portrayed figures tended to be by older artists, like Chuck Close, Alice Neel, Mel Ramos, Duane Hansen, or Philip Pearlstein; they created their works decades ago, or, if the piece was more recent, it was the continuation of a body of work (strange how we use the word “body” to refer to a grouping of art) they started a generation ago.
But all this is not to say that the figure has completely disappeared from the halls of Miami Basel. Some artists, like Yinke Shonibare, Leigh Ledare, and Jack Early, grapple with it in their own way, and while Shonibare’s work seems like a rather dull depiction of the figure using mannequins, Ledare and Early resort to photographic images, suggesting that photography has come to dominate (monopolize?) our understanding of the human form. Other artists like Betty Tompkins and her infamous Fuck series choose the extreme close up to disorient you and force you to focus on a part of the body not normally writ so large. Sculptor Rachel Kneebone offers a suggestion of Rodinesque figures but abstracts them until it is hard to tell if something is a limb, torso, or something else. Performance artist Marina Abramović, another artist exhibiting at Miami Basel, suggests the body in her work through crude mannequin heads spiked with crystals or odd-looking chairs that can’t help evoke how uncomfortable they would make anybody attempting to sit in them.
I refuse to believe that there is nothing original to say about the figure, and it would be foolhardy to think that could even possibly be true. There were a few artists who were doing interesting things in their portrayals of bodies that I want to note. Three artists provided some hope for new directions, even if the ideas don’t feel fully developed. Jiro Takamatsu’s beautiful shadow paintings are exciting works that suggest the human form without the specificity of culture. While they evoke the work of Lee Friedlander and Marvin E. Newman, they seem to go beyond their renderings, as they remove the shadows from their suggested sources and box them in, creating forms that are elusive but moody. Street art twins Os Gemeos also consistently use the human form in their work. If their painted figures lack a wide range of facial emotions — a strange quirk of their art — the bodies contort on the surface of the painting against colorful backgrounds. In “Untitled” (2012), a number of figures join together to form a two-headed animal, which is neither coming or going. The body feels recognizable as it slips into abstraction and different pockets of space here and there.
Perhaps the most curious work that evoked the human form beyond any straightforward representation was Markus Schinwald’s “Untitled (legs) #29” (2011), which was seemingly made from, or at least based on, furniture legs. The spritely form was sandwiched between two walls and seemed to contort into place. You could almost feel the muscular movement of the sinewy object trapped in place and not clearly climbing or descending anywhere. Even if there is something flawed and clumsy in Schinwald’s work, it humanizes the form so that it feels emotional, which is the basis of being human, isn’t it?
Which brings me back to the original premise for this post. In a fair dominated by colorful abstraction, large-scale photography, mirrored works (often with text), and highly designed objects, the human form is no longer as central to this strata of the art world as it may have once been. If modernists kept themselves busy ripping the body apart into shards and facets, or rendering it into biomorphic forms or gestures of color, in the contemporary world those explorations tend to happen in the worlds of photography and video, which are both art mediums that were represented at Miami Basel but felt less prevalent than the sculpture, installation, and paintings all around. I would even argue that video was marginalized throughout the fair.
Painters and sculptors long ago ceded the terrain of the body to photographers and video makers in search of new frontiers, just as painters in the 19th century sought innovation in optics and other representations of the “real” when photography could easily render the world around them in crisp detail. Part of me hopes that the body will reemerge as a central focus of contemporary art, but another part of me knows that that boat has sailed, while all of us are left on the piers looking at the world through the disjointed consciousness of contemporary life.
Art Basel Miami Beach 2012 (Miami Beach Convention Center, 1901 Convention Center Drive, Miami Beach) took place from Wednesday, December 5, to Sunday, December 9.