Whitechapel Gallery has brought together the work of ten contemporary artists, all working with paint and figuration – both medium and subject matter experiencing a revival. It is one of the most exciting exhibitions of 2020 and a testament to the power and potential of paint to represent our lived experiences in the 21st century.
We spoke with Lydia Yee, Chief Curator at Whitechapel Gallery, leading up to the opening of Radical Figures: Painting in the New Millenium
Trisha D’Hoker: What do you think is driving this return to, or embracing of, figurative painting now?
Lydia Yee: I think people are interested in the figure broadly, all types of figurative painting, for various reasons. Artists and collectors are interested in the figure because faces and bodies reflect us. On the one hand, you might see portraits of people, whether they’re famous or anonymous, that is on the rise as well. A lot of the figures here are not necessarily any specific people, and the bodies are fantastical or imagined. Our bodies wouldn’t necessarily be able to fit into these positions, split in two or fragment or morph as you see in some of the works, but I do think you see this kind of interest in reflecting the human experience – that is on the return. And also reflecting that experience through paint rather than photography.
TDH: It’s interesting to consider painting in relationship to photography this way.
Yee: We look at images so quickly on our phones, and we look at so many of them, I think painting is a way of slowing down and looking at not just what’s represented but how it’s composed. What the surface is like – is the artist introducing other material onto the canvas? They’re also bringing in references through painting in the style of another painter or of using a similar palette, so it’s very much about creating a dialogue with history and the contemporary moment, which I think is much harder for photography to do.
TDH: And are these artists having dialogues with their contemporaries?
Yee: If you look at, for example, Cecily Brown, who is very much working between abstraction and the generation of (Lee) Krasner, the New York school, there’s a very gestural kind of quality to her work; but she’s also looking at figures from British history, people like Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud. It’s really a push and pull between these two, between the figure and abstraction. You can sometimes pull out elements of a figure but it dissolves back into the paint.
TDH: How did you choose the artists?
Yee: A number of them, I have been watching what they’ve been doing over the years, and some of them are younger, some more established. I wanted this slightly inter-generational dialogue. I also think that while a few of them have been painting since the early 1990s, their mature work has been in the past two decades. It’s also the rise of a new generation. Ryan (Mosley) talks about how he loved the work of Daniel Richter, so there’s already a dialogue between the generations.
TDH: Most of the artists here tend to be born in the 1960s or 1980s.
Yee: I think that is because if you were starting out in art school in the 1990s, that in-between generation was not looking at painting at all; they were looking at installation, performance, photography.
TDH: Do the artists here see themselves as part of a larger movement?
Yee: I don’t think they would think that. While they are grouped together in this exhibition, and some of them knew each other already, others met for the first time.
TDH: They could easily be grouped together with other artists for different exhibitions.
Yee: Yes, it’s a subjective selection of work and artists, so definitely I would not say it’s a movement. But I think it’s a direction, a reflection perhaps of things more broadly going on in society. We’re all trying to find ways of slowing down a bit.
TDH: The slow art movement.
Yee: Slow everything. People are interested in making things with their hands again, whether that’s making something, the tactility of materials. Hopefully, it will help counter-balance the amount of time we spend on our computers and devices.
TDH: This kind of work demands you spend time with it.
Yee: Yes, there’s so much going on, it’s not something you can swipe right.
TDH: How long have you been with Whitechapel Gallery and has there been a figurative painting exhibition since you’ve been here?
Yee: I’ve been with the gallery for five years. The last figurative painting exhibition was held here in 2010, Alice Neal, so it’s exciting to see what people are doing with that tradition.
In 1981, a return to figurative painting was heralded in the exhibition, New Spirit in Painting, held at London’s Royal Academy of Arts, co-curated by Nicolas Serota, who was then Director of Whitechapel Gallery. The return to painting and the emergence of Neo-Expressionism was seen as a reaction to the domination of conceptual and minimalist art of the preceding decades.
There was never a coherent theory underpinning the exhibition itself, but it had a sense of urgency and freshness. While it was a great hit, it also drew much criticism, with critics calling it regressive, both in the use of paint and of the figure. Some members of the public felt compelled to write and voice their disproval, as evidenced in the wonderful archival display exploring the impact it had at the time.
Submission correspondence from the time clearly demonstrates that paint was not the medium many artists wanted to submit. Performance art, sculpture, photography, even music was being proposed much more enthusiastically. Despite this, it was paintings by and large that Whitechapel Gallery exhibited in the early 1980s, including solo surveys of George Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer and Philip Guston – artists also included in the RA show.
Now, nearly forty years on, the conversation continues. In 1981 curators envisioned more than a return to figurative painting; they envisioned a return to the representation of human experiences. The artists in Radical Figures also concern themselves with representations of human experience but provide a much more diverse recognition of that experience. The figures on display here are polymorphous, abstract, fragmented – very much refracted through a 21st-century lens.
Michael Armitage (b. 1984, Kenya) paints in the style and palette of Paul Gauguin or Edvard Munch, layering the paint onto canvas made from Ugandan lobugo bark, a cloth typically used for wrapping bodies in after death. He has always painted figures, in work that reflects on the politics and attitudes towards sexuality and gender.
In the 1990s, when painting among her generation was on the decline, Cecily Brown (b. 1969, UK) relocated to New York. She too has always painted figures, but her work is a constant flow between figuration and abstraction. Bold brush strokes fill large canvases with fleeting figures and ethereal images, emerging and dissolving into each other and into the landscape. The sea is used in the pieces exhibited here as a place where identity and environmental issues play out – a theatre where all aspects of humanity converge.
Nicole Eisenman (b. 1965, France) incorporates a fluidity of styles, moving across genres, styles and subjects, using paint as her language. Her giant tableaux are both Renaissance-like and contemporary, full of figures, satire and allegory. The process of creating and her daily life are recurring themes throughout her work.
Sanya Kantarovsky (b. 1982, Russia) doesn’t often discuss his work in terms of figuration or abstraction, but his work often features figures. He combines the fast element of illustration with the delayed language of painting to create fantastical characters, often portraying uncomfortable relationships.
For Tala Madani (b. 1981, Iran) figurative painting has been her means of communication dating back to when she arrived in America as a teenager and used figuration and drawing as a way into society. Fluid and immediate, her work uses humour and satire to approach difficult subjects. She also has a background in animation, giving her work a surreal twist, hovering between comedy and grotesqueness. Her figures tend to be more or less the same; an attempt by the artist to focus more on the psychology of what’s happening as opposed to the figures themselves.
Ryan Mosley (b. 1980, UK) has always used figures, and believes painters have an inbuilt desire to paint what it is to be human. He is inspired by old masters and early modernists. Mosely worked as a guard at the National Gallery while studying art, and his narratives reflect this. Trading on the ambiguity of images, Mosely seeks to embody the contradictions inherent in his figures, using fact and imagination.
Christina Quarles (b. 1985, USA) uses polymorphous subjects, often intertwined and ambiguous. She is interested in what it is to live in a body, referencing Maria Lassnig (1919 – 2014) who felt that to paint truthfully was to paint the place we all knew and knew well – our own bodies. Quarles’ work often is fragmented, a reflection she says of how we view others as complete beings and see ourselves only as ‘fragmented messes’.
Daniel Richter (b. 1962, Germany) began to paint figuratively when he felt the need to engage more directly with the human experience, moving away from the abstraction of his earlier work. Benefitting from the less-crowded genre of painting at the time (early 2000s), Richter felt free to follow his own agenda, preferring the intimacy of painting as a way to work through ideas. He references current events and contemporary culture, here addressing issues from migrants to troubled masculinity.
Dana Schutz (b. 1976, USA) combines abstract design elements (think Bridget Riley) with monstrous creatures that could have been conjured up by (Max) Ernst, (Pablo) Picasso or (Max) Beckmann. She uses thick impasto to fragment and distort her figures. Schutz has described her work as figurative paintings of abstract situations –representing experience when words fail. Schutz sees the creative process as one of digesting, where ‘painting begets painting’, reflected in her Goya-like figures shown gorging on themselves.
Tschabalala Self (b. 1990, USA) does not use paint on canvas in the traditional sense, but nonetheless considers her work as painting, concerned as it is with the pictorial organisation of colour and space. She incorporates sewn and printed materials along with paint to her canvases, and it is from this collage element, built up in layers, that her figures arise. Recent work shown here depicts everyday scenes and associations from her New York neighbourhood of Harlem. Self believes in the power of art to change the way people see things, and uses her work to challenge dominant voyeuristic practices, asking us to appreciate her figures outside established norms.