Two shows demonstrate the power of figurative painting
Published: February 27, 2013
At the BMA through June 9
by Tony Shore
at MICA’s Pinkard Gallery through March 17
A naked woman stands atop a pastoral hill, one foot tied to a boar by red ribbon, the other to a small deer. Her breasts are thrust forward, but her vacant eyes seem to retreat inward; she holds a string attached to a toy airplane that flies through the blue sky.
The image—Erik Thor Sandberg’s “Given to Chance”—is arresting enough as one walks into Surreal Selves, the new show in the front room of the BMA’s restored Contemporary Wing, but it gains power from the way the curved panel swoops away from the wall just inside the doorway. Flanking the other side of the door, Sandberg’s “Receptivity,” also painted on a curved panel, is equally powerful. Another naked woman sits on another pastoral hill, but here she is surrounded by hundreds of birds. On her shoulder is a miniature owl, a sparrow pulls at a strand of her hair, and some sort of swan-like bird nestles in her crotch as an avian swarm gathers in the pale blue sky beyond.
The woman’s posture directly mirrors that of the subject in Salvador Dali’s “Leda Atomica,” which features the arch-surrealist’s wife as Leda. Despite the show’s title, however, Sandberg is only partially interested in the actual school of surrealism. In some respects, his painting is more interesting than Dali’s in the way that the DJ Girl Talk can sometimes mix the best parts of two songs together to illuminate both (Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” mixed with Radiohead’s “Creep,” for instance). Sandberg’s “Leda” brings together the ominousness of Hitchcock’s The Birds, the ornithological exactness of John James Audubon, and the gameliness of John Currin’s recent portraits of women to create an image of uncanny disquiet.
Curator Kristen Hileman sought to include younger figurative painters who present “deeply personal visions,” and in this regard, the show is wildly successful. That Sandberg is both the most realistic and the most surreal painter of the bunch is telling. Surrealism truly works only when the fantastical is grounded in utterly mundane detail—in literary terms, Kafka’s Metamorphosis would be trite if the apartment of newly insectified Gregor Samsa weren’t portrayed with such naturalism.
Sandberg’s other paintings in the show are equally powerful. Like “Receptivity,” “Swing” jumbles up numerous elements of art history to create something powerful and new. A naked man with a long beard and an axe kneels in front of a tree like the figure in William Blake’s “The Ancient of Days.” The tree is occupied by an odd array of Balthusian girls hanging dead birds from strings and a young man wearing a mask like a Hieronymus Bosch devil. The effect is astounding, unsettling, and beautiful. “Blinded,” a large, hyperreal painting of a naked old man holding a meat cleaver in one hand and his foot in the other, may be the most unsettling picture in the show—and there is nothing supernatural or unreal about it at all. It’s surreal menace comes entirely from a naturalistic situation we cannot understand.
Aya Uekawa’s works are neither as figurative nor as disturbing, coming as they do from a more decorative tradition. “Mimic Dream” is a detached, stylized head with Medusa-like, tentacled hair surrounded by decorative flowers on a backdrop of Japanese gold leaf. The exhibition materials cite the influence of “the mannered expressionism of Noh theater masks and the flat spatial organization of Japanese painting,” and it is in precisely these aspects that Uekawa’s paintings are most successful and startlingly gorgeous. The further she strays from this formula, however, the weaker her works become, as in “Muffled Desire,” which looks something like a Maurice Sendak illustration for Where the Wild Things Are.
Sascha Braunig’s numerous small portraits also suffer, in the context of this show, from a lack of naturalistic detail. These busts seem to take the Buddhist desire-killing advice to imagine an attractive woman as a series of entrails. It is an interesting concept, but the lack of painterly detail causes many of them to look more like cartoonish doodles than fully realized images. “Fister” is the most successful of the bunch because the meticulously painted fur coat and clenched fists stand out so strongly against the ultra-mannered squiggles that replace the head.
Hileman presents these three young artists (Sandberg, the oldest, was born in 1975) as a remarkable return to the figurative in an era of “virtual worlds and fantastical avatars,” on one hand, and an art world suffering under the “strong influence of minimalist abstraction and conceptual art.” Uekawa and Braunig seem to fall a bit short precisely because they don’t push the personal, the narrative, and the figurative elements of their paintings far enough. Nevertheless, all three come together to create a deliriously enjoyable and thought-provoking show.
Figurative painting is hard to fake—even when using projectors and the like, it requires a very specific skill. For younger artists looking for strong local examples of this tradition, it would be hard to do better than Tony Shore, whose exceptional Harry is on display at the Pinkard Gallery in the Bunting Center at MICA through March 17.
The show brings together dozens of portraits of Shore’s father (Harry), done over a period of decades, almost all on black velvet. When we think about velvet paintings, we immediately think “kitsch,” and Kerr Houston succumbs to this word in the show’s program, writing “kitschy, no doubt, they are also self-consciously kitschy: they abstract kitsch, even as they embrace it.”
Visually, however, there is nothing at all kitschy in these paintings. Instead, the velvet seems to provide Shore with the perfect vehicle to play with poorly lit bodies engulfed by overwhelming darkness. Harry stands with a friend between two cars—one with the hood up, the other’s headlamps providing illumination—as he lights a cigarette in “Alternator”; he hovers with a group out in a yard under a floodlight in “Booper’s Yard.”
The depth of darkness conveys something of the quality of Velazquez, El Greco, and Caravaggio (whom Houston also cites). There is also a depth of humanity that we see in these painters—the details of his father’s life become literally iconic when set against this darkness, showing us the infinite power, and strangeness, in the mundane.
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