The Figurative Continuum

January 8 - June 30, 2019 - Carl and Gini Weyand Gallery

Throughout the ages, the human figure has appeared in art, from early cave paintings to today’s computer-generated images. A fundamental part of studio training to this day, figurative art is defined as any art which contains a reference to an object or figure (i.e., the human form) in the real world. Therefore, the only true constraint of the figurative genre is that the figure needs to be, to some extent, legible. Focusing on figures in particular (as opposed to objects), this exhibition explores the place of figurative art in an art world historically governed by nomenclature and categorization, yet in a contemporary world increasingly concerned with finding new definitions in blurred boundaries, spectrums, and shifting limits. It proposes to look at figurative art as a continuum. Rather than presenting figurative art as totally separate from abstract art, it presents the idea that figurative and abstract art, although traditionally positioned at opposite ends of a spectrum, actually share blurred boundaries. Abstraction is present to varying degrees in most figurative work, and the various works in this exhibition take different places on the figurative continuum, from the realist style of John Ahearn’s Pat (1982) and Philip Pearlstein’s Two Models with Mirror and Painting (1982) depicted in carefully rendered detail, to an almost completely abstract shape, as in Hiram Draper Williams’s Myself Aging: Death Closing In (1988).

The visual theorist Georges Didi-Huberman postulated that as soon as something is represented it becomes figure, and everything represented is by essence disfigured. Representation being the subjective construction of an individual’s perception of reality, it is undoubtedly selective, which means that some abstraction is bound to occur, sometimes consciously, in order to gain an emotional response in the viewer, and sometimes spontaneously. Because of the repeated use of images since infancy, our brain can conceptualize the image of a figure in even the most minimalist forms, a familiar and automatic response that enables us to identify shapes and understand what they represent. In the present selection of artworks, one can wonder how close the representation is to nature and what effect it has on how we interpret the work.

Contemporary artists such as Kehinde Wiley continue to explore the genre of classic portraiture, suggesting the psychology and character of his sitter in a traditional manner, while also managing the tour-de-force of deconstructing the stereotypical genre by often painting unknown people he meets on the street. Robert Combas’s Autoportrait en Cuiseur d’Oeuf (1984), by contrast, looks more like a caricature than an actual human figure. The text and familiar objects in the piece are offered as further elements of narration, which lead to a tragicomic interpretation of the painting.

Narrative relationships between figures are important to many figurative works, and the range of feelings they convey is vast. Some suggest intimacy, such as Adam Fuss’s Jim and Joe (2006), Alice Neel’s Mother and Child (1982), and Rigoberto Torres’s sculpture Julio, Jose, Junito (1991-95). Some convey a heightened sense of physicality, with Deborah Kass’s homoerotic Making Men #4 (1992), intermingling images of wrestlers and dance steps, or Pearlstein’s nudes depicting what the philosopher Gilles Deleuze would call a somewhat voyeuristic “spectacle of waiting,” characteristic of sitting nudes. Some, on the other hand, suggest isolation, as Michael Felice’s Contrapositive VIII (1982), and perhaps even Julian Opie’s Walking in Rain, Seoul (2015), offering a glimpse of a crowd in motion, with thick black lines contouring each person, acting as a boundary between the figures represented in a graphic style of bold and flat color fields. Others propose a metaphor to represent the human condition today, such as Lesley Dill’s Dada Poem Wedding Dress (1994), or Williams’s Myself Aging: Death Closing In (1982), which explores the rapport between interiority and appearance, a theme that is key to figurative art.

There is a relationship of great intensity in multi-panel paintings. Peter Herrmann’s Matisse Lässt Nicht Locker (2006) is narrative-driven, with the feminine figures separate but looking intently toward the main male figure reading a book, whereas Edouard Duval-Carrié’s The True History of the Underwater Spirits (2003) is dominated by an intricate patterning which conceals the figures at first glance, but perhaps conveys a greater sense of harmony with nature (the figures depicted are Ambaglos, water divinities in Haitian folklore). These panels emphasize how the human figure works with elements of composition, patterning, and background to create a harmonious whole. Oftentimes, in the figurative continuum the higher the level of abstraction the more open-ended the interpretation. Sometimes the viewer also gets a sharper sense of the artist’s choice of medium. Whether it follows academic tradition or departs from it for a more subjective approach, figurative art operates on a continuum that cannot be clearly separated from abstraction. The variety of individual styles present in this exhibition, with their similarities and divergences, are a testament to the malleability of the figure as a subject, and provide a glimpse of the incredible breadth of that figurative continuum.

Figurative continuum 1

Installation view of The Figurative Continuum

Installation view of The Figurative Continuum

Orlando Museum of Art

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Testimony (Suite of 5 Photogravures)

Kara Walker

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