Late Modernism, the last and least worthy phase of a wonderfully creative 150-year movement, petered out before the births of most of the painters in this show. In its wake, the art world, then mostly western in emphasis, embraced a new pluralism that has since come to include a vast international range of stylistic choices. These artists, raised in that environment, made a curiously old-fashioned choice: to keep making pictures by hand, using simple drawing materials, and a grand old medium, oil paint. Once the king of visual media, oil paint is just one choice amongst many now available for visual expression. Its continuing appeal rests on two enormous strengths: the great collections of western painting accessible to museum goers, and the human desire to draw and design. That desire is as natural as any of our other appetites, as irrepressible as the need to sing or dance. Upon entering university art departments, many of those students have been nudged from drawing and painting into more modern technologies, and told painting was dead. Not surprisingly, the paintings made in those departments are often the best evidence of that thesis. The work in other media often suffers, too, from a lack of what drawing and painting have to teach. Beyond the walls of the institution, people still seem to like painting, even if it has been hard to find the real thing. In this show, we have it.
This is an exciting exhibition. Artists like these drive the international resurgence of figurative painting. Five painters are exhibited; four of them work together closely, often at Manifest Gallery and Drawing Center. Daniel Brown curated the show. (Full disclosure: Daniel Brown is editor of Aeqai.) The preeminent artist is Emil Robinson, who has exhibited at prominent galleries in New York and London, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, and presented a solo show at the Taft Museum. In addition to exhibiting widely, these painters are having a significant impact on the visual arts of their own city and, through their teaching, on the next generation of artists.
Thoughtful presentation of a scene can evoke deliberate feeling, leading the viewer into imagining some before-and-after implications. Robert Anderson’s painting, Pick Up Your Shoes, does this beautifully. A young man, half-dressed, stands lost in thought. His reverie and pose tell us he in his own home, as he stands by the back door, silhouetted by the glowing daylight coming in through the window. His attention is directed at a pair of women’s shoes, neatly placed by the exit. We can guess at the young man’s emotions, not so much from the expression on his face, but from his pose, the darkness of his backlit figure, and the painter’s cunning placement of the figure at an exit. It is not possible to definitively state what has happened, or might happen, but the picture is quite effectively melancholy.
Anderson has used himself as the model, but we should read nothing autobiographical into this. We would not do so upon listening to a singer deliver a lyric in first person. Models are difficult to schedule, and to direct. It is possible the painter photographed himself because he would be the least troublesome model. That is part of the mundane management that goes into creating an evocative work. His skills–in drawing the figure, and in painting light–transformed the photo. The half-nude figure, standing in contrapposto, is a reminder of the classical tradition that has been the foundation of painting since the Renaissance, and is alive for these artists today. The use of photography, common in contemporary painting, often goes un-admitted by the artists who use it the most. Here, the artist uses it in a declamatory manner, intelligently. He is able to do so, in part, because of his uncommon life drawing skills. For artists of this generation, the century-and-half presumption of conflict between photography and painting has disappeared.
The renewal in America of traditional drawing and painting skills encourages confidence in painters thinking about how to use photographic technology. They are post-Post-Modern; that’s all just history. For them, photography (and all its offspring) has always been ubiquitous and easy, like our industrial diet. Many of their generation are involved in Slow Food activism, which is likely to have a widening social impact. These artists are leaders in what might called the Slow Picture Movement.
Jamie Sleeping, a much larger painting by Anderson, demonstrates the artist’s joining of modernist and classical approaches. The sleeping figure, described with great skill, is carefully arranged to deny us a clear parallel with a pose from the classical or old-master precedents. The position of her lower legs does it: the artist has conveyed tender feeling while recording their awkward placement, which by the way, fit perfectly into the geometry of the overall composition. The house in which Jamie sleeps is not fit for habitation despite the beauty of the color and light within it. It does not represent reality, but Anderson’s thoughtful conversation with artists of the past. If Velazquez suggested the figure, Richard Diebenkorn designed the house, and developed the neighborhood, too. Both of them were dead before this painter graduated high school; they are all part of the history that a contemporary young artist feels able to draw upon.
Tina Tammaro shares the same impulse to join figurative tradition with brilliant color. I Am Filled With Space shows a woman in a room, gesturing upward with both arms as if dancing. It is not a material space, though, but a psychological one. More than any of the other painters in this show, Tammaro addresses the inner world. An expressionist, she is not as devoted to the classical drawing practices that inform the other works in this show, with its emphasis on illusionistic volume. Her figures, floating in fields of color, are often ephemeral presences. Vibrant hues clash against each other, simultaneously beautiful and chaotic, characterizing the human relationships depicted.
Tim Parsley is devoted to a genre inherited from 17th century Dutch painters: the domestic interior. He updates it, both thematically and visually. Many of his drawings and paintings in this show describe a household or garden task, usually with a single figure ensconced in a complex space. End shows us a man washing dishes, presumably at the close of day. We see only his torso and arm, draped in a white t-shirt; his head is cropped out, emphasizing the task, not the individual. The artist has created visual excitement out of a routine task in a dim kitchen. He has studied carefully the works of painters like Pieter de Hooch, who first made the daily life of the house into serious art. Parsley, a modern father and husband, shows us a man, rather than a woman, taking care of household chores.
End is a splendid example of modern design combined with an historical genre. The horizontal format is surprising; it denies the verticality of the figure, emphasizing instead the space of the kitchen. The action is framed on the left by a startling dark angular shape, so flat and abstract that the eye is momentarily puzzled before reading it as cabinetry. The man’s belly and the flowing folds of his shirt, rounded in contrast to the cabinets, are illuminated by light from a window. The light ennobles, perhaps even beatifies, this anonymous figure, and the task. The dish is beautifully placed, a curvilinear form bracketed between the rectilinear shapes of window and sink.
Aside from using traditional materials, these painters devote themselves, at least in part, to another old practice: working from “life”. To use the term invokes particular values: admiration of past accomplishments; identification of the human figure with beauty and meaning; the importance of carefully observing and depicting the visible world.
When I was a student, in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, life drawing and painting classes were common enough, but the pedagogy for teaching them well was severely diminished. Instruction in cast drawing and anatomy, the preparatory training for life study, had been almost universally rejected: most students never even heard about it. The emphasis in classes was on expressive mark-making and individual temperament, rather than knowledgeably observing the figure. In some schools the dismantling of life study was already complete. The painter Eric Fischl recalled his student experience at the California Institute of Arts in 1970:
“Everybody was naked,” Fischl recalled of one of these “life classes…. Half the people were covered with paint…. The two models were sitting in the corner absolutely still, bored to tears. Everyone else was throwing stuff around and had climbed up into the roof and jumped into buckets of paint. It was an absolute zoo…. They didn’t teach technique at Cal Arts.”[i]
It wasn’t like that everywhere. The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art still maintained a tradition of life drawing and painting which reached back continuously to its founding as the oldest art school in the country. It was one of a small number of schools[ii] where one could find instruction from serious, competent figurative painters. The mission of those schools was notably augmented in 1982, with the founding of The New York Academy of Figurative Art, which placed life drawing, anatomy, and the craft of oil painting at the core of its curriculum. Now, there are many more schools that teach this art. The best join the thorough craft practice developed from the 15th to the 20th centuries to the students’ contemporary experience. These teaching studios represent a distinct movement in contemporary art, which has now found its footing. The artists in this show provide evidence of its success.
Daniel O’Connor is a recent MFA graduate of the Pennsylvania Academy. Four Feet of Spring is an impressive picture, a tour-de-force in which the artist displays his youthful talent. A woman leans against a bookshelf in a small, tightly organized apartment. Whoever lives here reads a lot, sews, and likely makes furniture instead of buying it: an intellectual and a craftsperson, possibly a couple. Her hand pushes gently against the upright wall of the shelf, just hard enough to dislodge a book. Someone on the couch (we see only the feet) watches this action, or sleeps through it, perhaps to be awakened when the book meets the ground. The falling book evokes both anxiety and amusement: a little accident forever in progress, ultimately inconsequential.
The composition of the painting is as cleanly organized as the living space, made of angular shapes, with true rectangles at the heart of the design, framing the woman. The warm glow from the lamp arcs toward the figure of the woman, meeting her at the greatest contrast of light and dark in the picture. The contour that runs down her back is the liveliest element in the composition, swooping and decorative in contrast to the interlocked polygonal composition, like a melodic phrase that rises above background harmony.
In Towel Rack, O’Connor shows us the insight that results from a commitment to painting from life. The cardboard tube, with its forlorn scrap of tissue paper, had to remain on the rack undisturbed for as many days as were required to finish the picture.[iii] There are no figures seen in this little view of a domestic interior, but it has a very human subject, steadily observed. Who owns these dull objects? We do. No one escapes this part of life; the image is as universal as a memento mori[iv]. The earthiness of the subject is slyly contrasted with the delicate geometry of the design. The tube meets the rack just to the left of the center of the image, but leans right, as if longing for the stability of centralized symmetrical design. The rack, which ought to be a level and forgettable object, will have none of it. It cavorts, challenging the horizontal format of the picture with its tilt and curve. This perfectly choreographed arrangement can make us forget, briefly, the uses of towels and tissues. But then that little scrap of paper on the roll reminds us. Its ragged edge stands outs as bold as any Zip in a Barnett Newman canvas[v].
Our bodies are invoked in one more way in this picture: the curvature of the towel rack results from our natural binocular vision, of which the painter is keenly aware. He has recorded the melding of two perspectives, one for each eye. Our brain normally finesses that joining, so that we overlook it. O’Connor has overlooked nothing. Vision, the noblest of the senses, lifts our thought and transforms this subject.
The most prominent painter in this show is Emil Robinson. His mastery of the full range of genres, in both drawing and painting, is evident throughout. Showered is a compelling portrait of his wife Catherine. It has been honored with exhibition in the National Portrait Gallery[vi]. Estuary is an examination of a dirty studio sink that lifts it to the status of a sacred spring. The subject is chosen knowingly, and with ambition, since it refers also to sinks painted by Lucian Freud, Antonio Lopez and Vincent Desiderio. In it, the clarity of the light reflecting off the faucets and the running stream of water contrasts strikingly with the grimy accumulation of paint on the sink and walls. Transformation (Study), a stunningly beautiful drawing, portrays a young woman beginning to undress, changing a subject that could have been merely a pretext for titillation into a dignified, complex sculptural presence.
Under The Tree by Emil Robinson is a painter’s painting. Some gallery-goers might be understandably surprised to learn that painters I know have raved about this picture. We see a cluttered corner of a room, in which a mass-produced ceramic cast of a Christmas tree, the kind offered for decoration at do-it-nearly-yourself hobbyist shops, stands alone on a simple table. It is white; so is the table. Beyond it is a dark closed wooden door and a white wall, on which hangs a round mirror. The mirror has a smear of white paint on it, and reflects the tree, a wall, a storage rack, and a dark opening. Below the table is a heap of cardboard boxes, empty, partly open, and, like the tree and the mirror, mass-produced. One of them is white.
The painting is a conceit. That is, it is a subtle and unlikely comparison, in which the objects stand for other things, creating a second image in the mind. Here, in the painter’s studio, it might be Christmas: the gifts are beneath the tree. That ceramic object on the table, tree-like only in a very bizarre way, and utterly devoid of Nature’s grandeur, stands above the “gifts”: those dismal empty boxes, heaped in the usual manner of discards. It is no wonder that most viewers would find this painting inscrutable, or bleak. The painter is no Santa Claus.
Yet neither is the painter a Grinch. There are gifts in this picture, for those who have the patience to look. For one, a sense of humor, something too often overlooked in the rush to find meaning, or feel sentiment. The conceit is a joke that ripens slowly. But jokes rarely satisfy our need to be convinced that art has been achieved; we require something lofty. Which brings us to why this is a painter’s painting. The light and color in this picture are wonderful. There are many white surfaces in this picture, and yet none of them are the same, and none of them are actually white. The light on the studio walls ranges from red-violet to blue-violet, except for where it is pale green in the distance, reflected in the mirror. Why did the painter spend so much effort on describing that kitschy tree? He has delicately judged the glowing warm shadows; carefully varied the tones that capture the play of light over the lustrous surface. [vii] It would be lazy to say that the purpose of such painterly description is to celebrate the commonplace. That tree is not merely commonplace. It is the enemy: a low imitation of something natural and sacred, mass-produced so that it becomes an aesthetic and spiritual threat. But here, it is imprisoned, scrutinized and forced to play its part in this clever ensemble, and so it is transformed. It is transformed by light, by thoughtful mimesis, and by Robinson’s marvelous sense of color.
The mirror is a circle, an ideal geometric shape, one of the timeless bases of artistic form. So, too, are cones and cubes. But the cubic volumes of the boxes are not idealized. They are exploded and jumbled. And the ceramic tree is a corrupted cone, covered with conical protrusions that were meant, in unwitting grotesquerie, to pass as branches. The mirror floats above these objects, not quite part of this material world. It is not quite perfect, in that it is cropped, and lightly smeared with paint, but close enough. How does that mirror stay there? There is no sense that it hangs upon a nail, leaning slightly forward as might be expected. It has no frame, and casts no shadow. In this little world of concrete objects, it seems otherworldly. It is more like a window, an opening, than an object. In the mirror-world the “tree” is transformed: we see its shadow-side, and it has the color and shape of dung. In contrast, in the brilliantly lit studio, the ugly object is made simultaneously beautiful and funny. And one more transformation: the shadow of the tree cast upon the wall shimmers in many hues and resembles a building, with a steeple.
– Sheldon Tapley
Narrative Figuration is on view at the Alice F. and Harris K. Weston Art Gallery through June 5, 2011. 650 Walnut Street Cincinnati, Ohio 45202-2517. Tuesday-Saturday: 10 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. Sunday: 12 p.m. – 5 p.m.
Sheldon Tapley is Stodghill Professor of Art at Centre College, where he has taught drawing and painting since 1983. Emil Robinson was his student.
[i] Robert Hughes, Nothing If Not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists, Penguin, 1990. Page 346.
This is from his review of an Eric Fischl exhibition at Mary Boone Gallery. In that same review, Hughes comments: “Art education that has repealed its own standards can destroy a tradition by not teaching its skills, and that was what happened to figure painting in the United States between 1960 and 1980.” Link: http://www.artchive.com/artchive/F/fischl.html.
[ii] Other schools that continued to produce well-educated painters included Boston University, Indiana University, Maryland Institute College of Art, and Brooklyn College.
[iii] Thus, O’Connor’s houseguests, using that little room only with the admonishment that they were not to disturb this setup, could spend a few minutes contemplating the gap that separates art and life.
[iv] A Latin phrase (“Remember you must die.”) that is synonymous with a traditional artistic genre. From Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memento_mori
[v] Newman refused to be reminded of the body, preoccupied as he was with lofty metaphysical themes. “Onement, I”, in 1948, was his breakthrough to the other side. Image: http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=79601
[vi] Showered was a finalist in the 2009 Outwin-Boochever Portrait Competition, held annually at the National Portrait Gallery.
[vii] That kind of mastery, in earlier times, would have been reserved for the silk garments of an aristocrat or the sweaty sheen of a martyr’s skin, not devoted to describing a object. Those subjects are no longer commonly painted, especially not as paid work for commissioned artists. We don’t need to mourn their loss, since to do so would signal regret for the lost social structure that required them. The disappearance of those subjects from the artistic mainstream signals the change in the artist’s role. Modern egalitarianism has deprived the craftsman of aristocratic patronage; modern materialism has deprived him of ecclesiastical patronage (and given him fake Christmas trees). Today, the artist, like all of us, is required to be an individualist. Thrown on his own resources, he must find his own subjects, and provide his own reasons for painting them.