Contributed by Carol Diamond / Now on display at The Painting Center, the group exhibition titled The Body in Question, a phrase cheekily resonant of a coroners report, explores the body as a vessel for communicating experience through painting. Curators Ophir Agassi and Karen Wilkin have adroitly presented a diverse group of ten distinguished contemporary painters connected by their focus on the human figure. Collectively they cover a wide spectrum between clarity and ambiguity. But each piece tells a story with a figure that is living a life that the viewer can glimpse and share. Consequently, the show embraces and encourages empathy.
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The artists manifest an appreciation of the history of painting, framing antecedents as vital inspirations. At the same time, figurative painting not unlike sports, dance, and sex speaks directly through the body and thus imparts a sense of immediacy and sometimes urgency. Paradoxically, of course, achieving this effect requires years of practice and hours of deliberation. Graham Nickson, an influential artist and art educator for decades, must have painted many sunset skies to be able to create tears with liquid blue brushstrokes like those in his portrait Glancing. Less heroic in scale and approach than his larger pieces, the recent small portraits on view derive their power from deft calibrations of color and hence emotion.
Rachel Rickert also finds sublime color balance, in harmonized grays and pinks, dull hues and intense glowing light, suggesting an effort to channel the bodys core biology. Daily rituals are magnified in her tender images of hesitancy and anticipation tinged with anguish. Postures of transition at the start of the day reflect the anxiety of becoming, while broken strokes and regular patterns cordon safe spaces. Only a bit more extroverted are William Baileys female figures, exuding quiet poetry in an idyllic setting. Janice Nowinskis are aloof, suggesting private snapshots. She resists saturated colors, favoring muted greens, browns, and grays pierced with spots of blue, white and peach light. An internal dialogue of syncopated wit and tension is under way. Less nervous but still guarded, Jeremy Long uses light and geometry as building blocks of ordinary life. Multi-hued shapes intimate what occurs between figures in domestic interiors.
The imagery of Kyle Staver, Clintel Steed and Matt Blackwell eschews calm and tranquility, depicting the body in motion as a vehicle of angst and desire. In Stavers Death and the Maiden, the female protagonist reaches upward from darkness into light, enacting the drama of menace and passion. To comparably sobering effect, Steeds Fallen Warrior #1 presents limbs in tension, abstracted and broken in an ashen palette. As figure presses into figure towards the viewer, life seems to be at stake. Blackwell too is interested in the more tumultuous aspects of psychic life, using broad strokes to bypass surface detail and convey the whoosh. The intensely saturated colors and graffiti-like strokes in While You Were Sleeping keep a dreamlike narrative tenuously on the move.
The figure can demonstrate the authoritative knowingness of the artist. Enrico Riley uses a striking blend of cool clear colors in his image Untitled: Drummer, Keeper of the Forest. Here a crisply uniformed Black drummer is focused forward, brightly lit, wearing an expression somewhere between determination and doubt. Two worlds intersect in Alun Williams Thomas Paine Visiting the Thomas Paine National Historical Association, in which an abstract form of human scale follows a pathway towards the titular historical building. The abstract entity feels more real than the depiction of actual landscape, neatly revisiting a central question about painting: what constitutes reality in the illusion of visual imagery?
Painters may study in museums, and this fine exhibition radiates the spirits of Bonnard, Corot, De Kooning, and Guston, as well as the sensibilities of the graphic novel and ancient mythology. But painters also feel the art in their bones and express it in the act of making. Wisely and smartly, the show illuminates how they make art in response to contemporary circumstances personal, social, and political.
The Body in Question, curated by Ophir Agassi and Karen Wilkin. The Painting Center, 547 West 27th Street, Suite 500, New York, NY. Through December 31, 2021. Featuring William Bailey, Matt Blackwell, Jeremy Long, Graham Nickson, Janice Nowinski, Rachel Rickert, Enrico Riley, Kyle Staver, Clintel Steed and Alun Williams.
About the author: Painter, sculptor, and educator Carol Diamond is a tenured Associate Professor at Pratt Institute and teaches graphic design at CUNYs City College of Technology. Her work will be on view in in the Equity Gallery Members Invitational and, in spring 2022, at Zrcher Gallery.