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The Figure Revealed: Contemporary American Figurative Paintings and Drawings

May 3 - June 29, 2008


The Figure Revealed: Contemporary American Figurative Paintings and Drawings, the first major survey of contemporary American realist figurative art by a Midwest museum in more than 10 years, opened at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts May 3, and continues through June 29, 2008. Curated and mounted by the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, this exhibition contains 50 works by 25 of the leading American figurative artists of the past three decades.

Realism is one of those apparently self-evident concepts that disintegrates under scrutiny. Chuck Close's minute examination of faces leads to abstraction; René Magritte's matter-of-factly represented everyday objects are pressed into the service of mental conundrums. Even the 17th -century Dutch still-life painters -- those über-empiricists -- had eschatological ambitions.

Paradoxically, what you see is not what you see.

The human figure has had an abiding presence throughout the relatively short history of American art, persisting even when the prevailing mood was openly hostile toward artists who chose to depict it in naturalistic, representational terms. This was particularly true during the mid-20th century, when Abstract Expressionism was in its ascendancy and the attention of the art world was focused on New York City. Art critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg were the ruling purveyors of taste, and their influential views sanctioned non-objective art and denounced representational art as reactionary. But by the late 1950s the movement had begun to exhaust itself, and a few intrepid artists were making tentative explorations, raising new possibilities for creative expression. These artists found ways to assimilate what they had learned from their training as abstractionists, trying, as painter Philip Pearlstein said, "to figure out how to be a realist, but not in the old terms."

It was artists such as Pearlstein, Alfred Leslie, Jack Beal, James Valerio and Martha Mayer Erlebacher who carried the torch for realism from the 1960s on, making acceptable once again the idea that one could work directly from observation, relying on traditional practices and modes of perception honed from long and careful study of Western art. Others less openly in the vanguard like George Tooker were quietly continuing the stylistic approaches adopted by social realists in the 1940s, such as Reginald Marsh and Paul Cadmus. It became apparent that there was no single defining characteristic within the broader term of realism under which these -- and the artists that followed -- could be classified.

Labels such as social realism, magic realism, superrealism, photorealism, new realism and classical realism were attempts to organize art into more comprehensible categories, but these turned out to be inadequate signifiers unable to accommodate the breadth of the artists' aesthetic concerns.

The Figure Revealed: Contemporary American Figurative Paintings and Drawings looks at a selection of important artists whose work depicts the human figure. While demonstrating a variety of different artistic aims, these artists draw from the human experience by using traditional methods and materials of execution. The exhibition includes artists who reached their mature styles after 1950, as well as mid-career and younger artists who continue to find new sources of innovation and inspiration in the figure.

Some general distinctions can be made in the stylistically diverse nature of works in this exhibition. Like Philip Pearlstein, Jack Beal adapted the lessons of abstractionism in his realist paintings to create structured compositions, often within a clearly defined shallow space. While Pearlstein's figure-groupings function as still lifes, Beal invests his figures and the objects around them with an emotional energy. Janet Fish incorporates the figure into the vibrantly colored still lifes for which she is best known, and which play on abstract qualities of movement and light. Martha Mayer Erlebacher is interested in the narrative and allegorical potential of the human figure, imbuing it with dignity and grace. In Three Cats at Dusk the sensual figures of three nude women exist in a surreal landscape under a darkening sky. This otherworldly quality also pervades the work of James Valerio, whose ambiguous narratives offer more questions than answers. In Pruning, the quotidian act gains emphasis by the glow of light infusing the scene, the skillful rendering of details, and by the painting's large size.

Sidney Goodman, another long-time realist painter, combines dream-like elements with myth in his Horizontal Nude and Laocoön. A priest of Apollo who refused to accept the gift of the Trojan horse, Laocoön further incurred the wrath of Apollo when he broke his vows of celibacy with his wife in the presence of the deity's image. For these transgressions, Laocoön was crushed by the coils of serpents along with his sons and cast into the underworld. Goodman adds a nude female to the entangled forms of the men and serpents, and a lone figure in the background looks on.

Portraits and self-portraits have long held a fascination for artists and viewers alike. Over the course of his career William Beckman's succession of heroically scaled and unflinchingly rendered self-portraits are autobiographical statements documenting his personal relationships along with the aging process. In a portrayal of the artist and his wife, Separation No. 4, a strong psychological tension is emphasized by the uncompromising frontality of the figures and their spatial disjunction. This searing intensity of focus is also a hallmark of the style of his friend Gregory Gillespie, presented in Beckman's full- scale, riveting Portrait of Gregory Gillespie. Gillespie's self-portrait from the KIA's collection captures complex shifting emotional states ranging from guardedness to sorrow. In Kent Bellows' Gluttony Self-Portrait, the artist is a Bacchus figure at a banquet table laden with sumptuous food, while candles smolder and behind him a storm brews. Possibly he is moralizing about the dangers of excess. Or perhaps he is humorously alluding to, as writer Molly Hutton suggests, "the possible pitfalls into decadence and overabundance such an intense life of critical scrutiny (of himself and others) threatens to produce."

Artists whose work falls almost exclusively within the domain of self-portraiture include Susanna Coffey, Julie Heffernan, and Susan Hauptman. Their work introduces questions relating to issues of identity, gender, and the nature of the self. Hauptman's meticulously rendered face and body startle with their matter-of-factness.Citic Barbara O'Brien writes,

"The Western European iconography of female nudity is imploded. This is not nudity driven by a narrative -- the passion of the martyr or the come hither nudity of an odalisque; this nudity. . .is dispassionate, observational, the way that any of us might look at ourselves in the full-length mirror on the back of our bedroom door. This nudity is quiet and insistent and based in the theatrical possibilities of the studio life."

Susanna Coffey's deft and assured paintings also allude to the infinite number of ways that the selfcan be reinvented in art. In Self-Portrait (masque, queen helene), her face is partly obscured by a blue facial mask and posed against a pastel floral background, calling into question notions of beauty and femininity. The impression of lightness and vulnerability conveyed by the softly patterned background and the mask is dispelled in Self-Portrait (cloudy). Here, an oppressive weight is suggested by the perspective of the viewer who looks up at Coffey's face set within a dark, nebulous space. Julie Heffernan's fantastical creations are allegorical ventures into what she calls her "second self." Seeming to emerge with Baroque excess out of Spanish and Italian still life painting traditions, her "self-portraits" are freely spun exploits into an imaginative world, created with consummate skill.

Two artists whose subjects hail from very different milieus are Stone Roberts and Steven Assael. Narrative is emphasized in the work of both artists, but while Roberts draws inspiration from town and country scenes of domesticity, Assael focuses on the edgier inhabitants of the city. In Roberts' Portrait of a Marriage, a woman in a red business suit sits demurely on a Persian rug scattered with papers and an overstuffed briefcase, while behind her a man peers at a computer screen. Assael, who paints exclusively from life, examines questions of individuality and identity in works such as At Mothers. The pierced, tattooed, spiked-haired and chain-and leatherclad gang, who hang out at the club in New York City's meatpacking district, could not be further removed from the more sedate environments characterizing Roberts' interiors, yet each artist effectively evokes his chosen world.

Such is the enduring strenght of the realistically-depicted human figure in art. In carrying on a dialogue with historical precedents, realism testifies to the scope and richness of possibility in addressing the contemporary condition. Such is the power and timelessness of an art that compels us with its celebrations of everyday life, astonishes us with the force of its craft, and fascinates us with its meditations on the mysteries at the heart of the human experience.


(above: Jack Beal, "Self-portrait with Rudbeckias and Daylilies," 1988, Oil on canvas)


(above: Susanna Coffey, "Self Portrait (cloudy)," 2002, oil on linen)


(above: Susan Hauptman, "Self-Portrait (with Branch)," 2005, charcoal on paper)


(above: Kent Bellows, "Gluttony Self-Portrait," n.d., oil on canvas)

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