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« Made Me Think | Main | Austrian LitCrit »

August 12, 2003

Contempo Figurative Art

Friedrich --

I confess that I rather enjoy moaning and bitching about standards and the arts and how it's all going to hell -- and I'll defend this as a pleasure every arts person is entitled to enjoy. (You'd be a fool not to.) For a simple example: can't anybody really paint or draw anymore? Is a little recognizable technique and skill in art TOO DAMN MUCH TO ASK FOR???!!!

And then I stumble into an art show that makes me eat my grumpiest words. I recently dropped by one such at New York's Forum Gallery (here). Dazzling stuff, even if most of it's in a tightly-focused realistic style that doesn't speak to me. But, hey: you want talent? You want technique? These artists got both, and in spades. The samples I'm passing along here aren't the exact works that were in the show, but they give a good taste of some of the artists' work. Be sure to click on these images, which will pop up slightly larger than they appear now.

By Cesar Galicia

By G. Daniel Massad

By Kent Bellows

By Robert Cottingham

By Peter Greaves

Don't miss sampling the work of another one of the artists who's in the show, Alan Magee, a page of whose paintings is here.

That Massad image is a pastel, by the way. The textures and details he creates out of colored dust are really something to see live and up close. And the Peter Greaves? It's about the size of a postage stamp -- one intense little drawing.

Well, feeling ashamed of being such a fuddyduddy and a complainer can be a kind of pleasure too.



posted by Friedrich at August 12, 2003


You made my day.

Posted by: j.c. on August 12, 2003 01:24 PM


I do think someone should sue Franken for posing as a comedian. They haven't pronounced on that issue. Where's the outrage?

Now there's a slam-dunk case. He hasn't been funny since the "Al Franken decade," -- which was rather a long time ago.

Posted by: gyt on August 12, 2003 08:21 PM

thanks for the art fix! Some knock out talent.

You might want to check out a buddy of mine, Kevin Llewelynn. Met him while taking an anatomy class together a few years back ... serious talent ... and obscenely young (b. 1978).

Have you heard of Phil Hale by any chance? An Illustrator/Fine artist (more and more common to find artists blurring this classification edge) with painting chops that would make Sargent proud. I've thumbed through his book "goad" countless times. Dark humor and content, but delivered with a golden touch.

Posted by: bk on August 13, 2003 02:54 AM

The problem I have with this modern figure work is that...well...its so....dead. Super focuses on onions? Amazingly realistic fruit? I was tired of that when the Dutch did it. WHere is the drama? The allure? The narrative? The sex? The action/tragety? The mystical or scared?

The only new realist painter I was able to summon feelings for is Oxbridge (sic?) His loose, Sarget-like paintings of a floating cabaret world glow and seduce. Even his far-to-many route paintings of his wife in bed have a elegant offhandness and the kind of casual skill I admire (Thats the other thing, these new realist works are hard to do and they *look* hard. As if they are trying to get away from abstraction as far as possible.."See! See! I worked really hard on this! unlike other people!" I perfer an offhand, elegant masterstroke, labored over, but seemingly tossed off)

Posted by: JLeavitt on August 13, 2003 08:43 AM

Mr. Leavitt:

I'm a big fan of Rubens, and a fan--if a somewhat smaller one--of Sargent, so I can't take too much issue with your preference for facility over the visible effort of hard work in painting or drawing. (Although I must say, over time, that I've acquired a taste as well for very "slow" (if not visibly labored) painting as well: Piero della Francesca, Chardin, Braque, Freud. There are many mansions in the House of Art.)

But I think the issue is less the bravura (or lack thereof) in modern representational style than the lack of, or uncertainty surrounding, issues such as its relationship to the imagination, to society, to narrative. I've seen contemporary artists who can crank out the female nudes with stunning facility, and yet this very facility seems to derive from or at least be involved with their decision to prune out any narrative, sociological, or imaginative elements that go beyond a sort of superficial eroticism. I know when I go to galleries and see contemporary figurative painting it's this sense of a big vacuum surrounding the representation that sucks the life out of most of it. Don't you walk around many such exhibits scratching your head and saying, "Something's missing here, even if it's hard to put my finger on what would actually make this work as art"?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 13, 2003 12:31 PM

I think it's "all of the above" leading to why the figurative work remains closed and unengaging to the viewer. I find myself in the same boat as both of you ... I appreciate the work I'm seeing on a technical level and yet remain unmoved.

Where I really have issues (along with what's already been said) ... is that I stop believing in the moment when I look at the hyper real. There isn't anything happening, no risks being taken ... it seems to present a linear a to b approach that looks systematically contrived. I don't think this is only an issue of all the crisp edge work and labored surface quality (Andrew Wyeth still turns me on even with these qualities all too present ... it's detailed work, but passed through a very personal filter) ... for me it's the immediate connection between the artist and his work. That's the quality that makes it so intangible ... I can't tell exactly where the artist stops really seeing his work, but it's always apparent. A numb glazing takes over (I can relate) and art making switches over to rendering. Articulating the plane break in the form is more important than the fact they are dealing with flesh, fat, blood, muscle, and bone ... and a person beyond all that.

Narrative, rightfully, is an issue you both raised ... I prefer the Sargent touch when it comes to paint ... and I admire even popular artists like Richard Schmid that have that touch, but saying something along the way would be nice. Possibly, figurative artists have become such an anti-movement ... wanting to distance themselves from the story telling of illustration (a deadly association in fine art circles ... I have illustrator friends that change their names between the gallery and the illustrative work ... dirty secret day jobs) and the feely touchy world of abstraction that tossed them aside as obsolete. So, the current wave of figurative artists seem to fall into a nice polite quiet ... finding it's better to say nothing at all and just remain a pretty face.

It's this climate that makes Bacon and Lucian Freud such big players to this day ... very few have much to say with their skills ... too caught in the tail chasing of "greatness" to remember their personal identity. There's hope in Odd Nerdrum and Jenny Saville, but not nearly enough searching going on in figurative circles ... leaving only extremists to hoard the attention.

Posted by: bk on August 13, 2003 02:32 PM

Uh... I'm moved by a good landscape or still life. Really.

Perhaps I spend to much of my time enjoying the produce section of the supermarket and long hikes in nowhere.

Posted by: j.c. on August 13, 2003 05:49 PM

I agree with all of the above (A T C Cole landscape can fill a room with a universe) But the lack of Umph! Of sheer power to these works is very offputting and cold. Do they think they can't compete with the bravda of pop culture? Example, Moulin Rouge, not a great movie..but not lacking in aduacity...the glittering, all-singing, all dancing, colorful orgasm of the movie silences any quams about plot or character (or even good taste).

I think some modern painters could take cues from Indian art. Polite? Never. Good Taste? God no. But a screaming electric sense exposion. A drag queen Californa Sea martini. If that makes any sense.


Posted by: JLeavitt on August 13, 2003 11:51 PM aside. The Greaves is a step in the right direction. Spooky, alluring. I want to know more. My favorite paintings tend to be mysteries. Just what is Venus kissing?


Posted by: JLeavitt on August 13, 2003 11:54 PM

Bonnard once said that a painter with charm could acquire power, but not the other way around. Those skillful but inert painters at Forum are your proof. They handle two other artists, though, who are skillful and inspired: Richard Maury and Alan Feltus, both American expats in Italy.

Posted by: franklin on August 14, 2003 12:45 AM

It's not always realistic=dull and abstract=exciting.

Check out some of these sites:

Here are some still-lifes that pop:

But, It is true that these works would never be accepted in the High Art world because they "resort to narrative".

Posted by: SC on August 15, 2003 02:57 AM

Hey SC,

thanks for the links ... likey linky.

I like some of Whitaker's work ... the landscapes, in particular are potent. Jia Lu is brilliantly cheesecake and I hate myself for enjoying it ... but John Pitre does nothing for me. He's been riding the same bad dozen or so paintings for quite some time (try living on Hawaii for any period of time ... you'll tire of him quickly). If I'm going for a Maui based artist mixing silly surreal with sugary sweet commercialism for the tourists, I'd side more with Gil Bruvel. There's no attempt at pretension. The guy is an idiot visionary and is very up front about it ...

back to the general figurative art disscussion.
Here's something for contrast, Ann Gale.

I'd reference Ann's work in direct contrast to someone like Steven Assael.

I profoundly respect Steven's technical chops and would take nothing from him and his pursuits as painter and teacher ... but Ann Gale's work stirs something much deeper in me. I stop analyzing the object of human ... and get a sense of the spirit contained within. Not as a special effect of lighting and shadow, but contained within the treatment itself.

... and somewhere between these worlds there's a sweet spot ... such as the one Nicolai Fechin found years ago.
(that link doesn't do him justice ... track down his out of print book)

Posted by: bk on August 15, 2003 04:08 AM

Dear SC and BK:

Thanks for the links! And the descriptions!

Jia Lu is brilliantly cheesecake and I hate myself for enjoying it...

Hey, I'm on anything described as 'brilliantly cheescake' like white on rice. And, to top it off, that someone hates to enjoy! (Is there higher praise?) Also Ann Gale (despite not being very cheesecake-y) is quite intriguing. Her style echoes another painter I spotted in one of the "down-market" art publications a few years ago. Regrettably, I can't remember the guy's name, although I cut out a reproduction of one of his paintings and pasted it into a sketchbook. Like Ms. Gale, he uses unblended patches to suggest both the planar structure of the subject and to suggest atmosphere at the same time. Wiggy.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 15, 2003 04:48 PM

Go to the current show at the John Pence Gallery,click on the current show and go to Jean K. Stephens.Her landscape paintings are quite beautiful

Posted by: B.Stephens on February 3, 2004 02:23 PM

Go to the current show at the John Pence Gallery,click on the current show and go to Jean K. Stephens.Her landscape paintings are quite beautiful

Posted by: B.Stephens on February 3, 2004 02:23 PM

Posted by: duker on February 12, 2004 10:06 AM

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