Shells of Our Selves
Guest Curator Kristan Kennedy reflects on an exhibition of contemporary figurative painting at the Feldman Gallery + Project Space.
To be of the body is to be of flesh and bone, but what is it to be a representation or a stand-in for the body? Between my head and my hand, there is always the face of death. is the title of this exhibition, but it is also a quote by the artist Francis Picabia. Picabia moved boldly through various movements of the avant-garde, from cubism to surrealism, producing paintings, poems, publications and manifestos. It was later in his life that he seemed to reject the coldness of hard lines and concepts to produce an unlikely body of work based on pin-ups from girlie magazines. In these fantastical scenes we see comically sensuous beauties posing and lounging without much purpose. At the time of their debut they were dismissed as curious kitsch, though from where we stand now it is easy to laud them for what they came to represent: a new moment in painting, which mashed together meaning by way of appropriation. This “moment” would dominate the art world from the years following the artist’s death right up until the present day.
In this exhibit, seven painters render our human form with a reverence for the architecture and meaning of the body without using “live” models as their source. The painters have reanimated imagery from film, art history, memory, kitsch and pop culture. Their works are less portrait and more portrayal, less body and more embodiment. Together, the paintings represent the kind of freedom ushered in by post-modernism and the figure post-Picabia. It is here between the energy of painting and the stillness of mechanization that the work exists.
Grant Barnhart’s and Amy Bessone’s pieces each reference moments of both great and everyday consequence in recent art and cultural history. Barnhart takes on the crushing weight of Modernism by repainting the works of Picasso and others. In his work Momentarily Indisposed (2010), he depicts a fort made out of his canvases; the artist has climbed underneath this precarious structure and we are left with his bare legs and masked face peeking out from either end. He is now implicated as a part of the continuum and his body is made of the lumpy painted organs of their art and his art. Bessone’s paintings are a departure from her past work wherein porcelain tchotchke’s were supersized and fetishized, but the preciousness of her earlier series is not lost. In Untitled (Nude with Ochre) (2009), a crouched figure pushes its arms overhead to pour out the contents of a vase-like blob. The scene could have been pulled from a cheap imported copy of an ancient pot. It acts as a window within a window within a window, and her de-historicization bastardizes a classical motif. The artist’s marks suggest a study or a sketch and yet the painting feels complete, beautiful and heavy: even within its thin picture plane it has dimension.
Disembodiment is brought into the light in Norbert Schwontkoswki’s dreamy beach scene Schirm (2006), in which two grey limbs stretch out on the sand. The composition is cut at the calves and reveals its emotional state not from a grin, but in the toes, curled in delight. The painting’s surface is composed of a gritty pigment, yet closely resembles goose bumps brought on by a mix of sun and cool air.
In Kaye Donachie’s work we experience the slightly out-of-focus flickering of film. Her figures evaporate into the bright yellow of light or melt into darkness with faces obscured and characters roaming in shadows. Here they pose as academic nudes, however they could be, and often are, references to bohemians dancing in a field, languishing in a horror movie, descending a staircase, or cavorting at a commune. They are listless and trapped in time.
Elena Pankova’s salon-style cluster of untitled paintings are cracked black mirrors dotted with fractured faces. They leave subtle kaleidoscopic clues and our minds easily fill in the blanks. Collectively, her paintings incite a gestalt effect which, when fully realized, forms a wall of family portraits. The family is any and all families; it is the family of man. A mundane houseplant hangs amidst this flattened matter and when the gallery is empty of visitors it remains as the only living body in the room. Another psychological narrative is present in Music Man (2010), Tala Madani’s animated lampoon of the masculine ego. Her story unfolds in a pile of brushstrokes where the artist’s hand is the conduit. Madani’s villain, a brawny thug, forces his capture to vomit; as each splatter of bile falls onto staff paper, it composes a silent score for the film. A jingle? In the victims embarrassment there is strife, but also comedy.
Merlin James’ singular painting takes its composition from Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde (1886). The point of view of the painter/lover/voyeur is outside of the frame. As we look down into the crevice of the figure, undoubtably alive with pale flesh, warm and glowing, the painting’s meaning is laid bare and tied inexplicably to its title. In Untitled (Finger) (2002), James gives us a dark window, similarly eroticized, but, like a memory, it is clouded and rearranged. Here the “origin” is obscured from view and turned topsy-turvy with another person’s finger inserted perhaps to explore, perhaps to point. We can’t quite make out the form; it is not for us to see, but to imagine.
Perhaps fittingly, Courbet’s L’Origine followed a winding path from its original commissioner, the Turkish-Egyptian diplomat Khalil-Bey, whose collection was acutely focused on depictions of the female form, into the hands of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. There is something to looking at the body or, in the case of this exhibition, paintings of the body. They offer answers about the state of the mind, the state of things. After all, throughout history we can look to artists’ portrayals of the human form to illustrate both existential and material experience. One can picture Lacan regarding L’Origine while contemplating the absolute nakedness of truth and desire, the mirror of the self. Lacan proposes that it is not possible to sense our selves in our bodies; he asserts that we understand the body as an accumulation of pieces, one that is only whole when viewed at a distance, with the help of a “mirror” or “other” self. The artists in this exhibition render the figure, in attempt to reflect what is unseen, but still somehow known. They force together pictorial parts, and compress our psychic space, our recorded history, and our shared lived experience into a vessel body. They are our mirrors.