Figuratively Speaking

Roberta Smith has a good piece in the NYT about the burgeoning wave of figuration in painting. I have been talking about this for a while now and it seems I prognosticated correctly. There is a populism inherent in figuration, insomuch as it gives the viewer an ‘in’. Much of the backlash against painting (including the rise of conceptual art as a whole) stemmed from Greenberg, et al’s draconian insistence on  the rules of flatness and objectivity. How much more can you abstract form after Donald Judd, Kasimir Malevich or Ad Reinhardt? Thus, figurative painting benefited from a stint in the wilderness and conceptual art’s hubris. That is not to say that painting isn’t conceptual; indeed, much of the work included in Smith’s excellent slide show is conceptual in nature. It’s just that less-inclined viewers are able to process recognizable imagery quickly and get at the concept readily without having to stumble over (or plod through) a wall text about what it all means. Another correlation is drawn to a revived respect for craft. Patrons who otherwise might scoff at painterly abstraction look on with envy at the artist who can make a vase look like a vase and still take about the glass industry and suburban lifestyles. Well, that might be a stretch, but you get my point.

Although I consider painting to be my parent medium, I recognize the importance of diversity of practice. It’s one of the reasons I don’t restrict myself to painting. There are some ideas that lend themselves to performance or installation or any other of the hundreds of different forms of expression. But I acknowledge painting’s history, its tradition, and its capacity for change. The breakdown and fracturing of form that followed the advent of photography has held sway for nearly 100 years. It’s actually surprising that a renewed interest in representation took this long. What makes the current revival so interesting is its reliance on the minefield of post-modern theory. Painting has awoken to the fact that a marriage of concept and traditional form has all sorts of things to say about our understanding and our society. I recently came across an interesting theory (floating around since 1990) that Michelangelo used the human brain as the model for God in The Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel. There’s also the dinner roll musical score in Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. If those two don’t prove that representational painting can be conceptual, well, then I just don’t know what. And it’s hard to believe any painter working today would be castigated for trying to paint like Leonardo.

Figuration has found a voice again after a long bout with laryngitis. Let’s hope it will be a long while before it goes hoarse again.


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