Currently on display at the Miller Gallery on Hyde Park Square, is an exhibition featuring 25 artists whose work offers outstanding examples of contemporary realist painting. A movement towards figurative painting among artists has accelerated in the past five to eight years. Whether artists are painting portraits, interiors or still lifes, the work is incredibly exciting. After many painters turned to abstraction in the 50s and 60s, and then abandoned painting for more conceptual work in the 70s and 80s, and then moved to mixed-media and video in the 90s and earlier parts of this century, it is heartening to see painting brought back into focus, literally.
One has to appreciate the incredible technical skill required of these artists as their ability to work with color and light is remarkable. With the digital advances that have been made in the past ten years, what I find most striking is that the work seems to take on a cinematic quality. We all have access to devices that capture images and video that we’re sharing all the time. It’s natural that this kind of storytelling would translate into painting as a reflection of our visual contemporary culture. Certainly you get this sense in the paintings of people—that you’re witnessing a scene from a larger narrative—but the still life paintings are also quite dramatic and seem to have narrative intent, as well as cinematic scope.
Precursors include figurative painters like Lucien Freud (1922-2011), or Eric Fischl (b. 1948), who have been working for decades. But while they were/are incredibly successful, they have been among the precious few who over time refused to relinquish their paintbrushes. John Currin is another such example, although his work manifests some of the distortions of Mannerism. This wave of contemporary realism—or contemporary figurative painting—is newer, and I believe has taken off. But because there isn’t a whole lot written about it, it is important to understand how the artists themselves talk about the work.
Pamela Sienna has several pieces in the exhibition, and her work is visually arresting. In Monument #I, the color is so luminous and vivid, it almost looks 3D. The subject looks like a bundle of three different brightly colored velvet drapes or throws, wrapped with two different types of rope. One’s response is visceral: it’s the color that does it. She says, “I allow my images to be as precise and elusive as poetic language.” She says that the wrapped forms suggest “both secrets kept, and the promise of a gift.” If we’re thinking about it like poetic language, I am reminded of someone like e.e. cummings. His words feel precious, carefully chosen, as do her folds of fabric and the way the light hits them.
Another artist, Eric Wert, says that “still life painting is about looking intensely.” His paintings visually reference the Baroque period and Dutch still lifes with their flowers and heavy brocade fabrics. However, in a work like Deluge, a vase of flowers is broken on one side and the flowers have fallen and scattered across the foreground of the painting. There is an element of storytelling as we’re left wondering what happened. Other subjects include a crystal bowl with a head of cabbage. Your eye explores the crevices and the green and purple veins of each leaf. The color of the cabbage is offset by the grey wallpaper in the background with a kind of white brocade print. It’s got a touch of irony though, because the scene looks somewhat delicate with its crystal bowl, fine lines and astonishing detail, but then Wert titles the work, Roughage.
Jonathan Queen also paints still lifes, but his subjects tend to be antique toys, and other vintage tchotchkes. Queen refers to his work as “toy narratives,” in that they too have a story to tell. He says he aims to develop an emotional rapport between the toys, the characters they inspire and the objects he chooses to include in the compositions. His aesthetic is reminiscent of an early-twentieth century carnival. There have been shows like the Daniel Knauf directed Carnivàle, or the more recent film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus that have taken on a similar aesthetic—a mix of nostalgia and an element of the supernatural.” It’s very compelling.
Given its success, the Contemporary Realism exhibition is going to become an annual invitational at the Miller Gallery. The current exhibition will be extended until October 18.
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(For more on this topic, read artist’s statements from painters featured in the Weston Gallery exhibition, Narrative Figuration from our May 2011 issue.)
-Laura A. Partridge