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Contemporary Figurative Art
A New York Perspective

There is always a strong under current of contemporary Artists focusing on the figure as their primary subject vehicle of expression. Here in New York, where conceptual art is the order of the day, it is interesting to see how artists are giving their portrayal of the figure a post-modern twist and subverting technique to often ironic ends .

Cindy Sherman is notable in her art history references by blatantly imitating well-known paintings in her photographic self-portraits. The complexity of mirroring in her work takes the figure down some baffling rabbit holes of meaning. She orchestrates poses as a painter would and casts herself in those roles as model to complete the circle. More conventional, as easel painting, but no less disturbing, is the work of Lucien Freud. Lucien Freud has developed a way of painting the figure that embodies modern beauty in a particularly contemporary way. The surface detail and choice of models, poses and scale speaks to an audience that is familiar with the literary work of S. Beckett and the theater of cruelty. It is an audience that is willing to equate Hard Truth with Beauty. Leon Golub has used the figure to illustrate political realities that are discomforting to many Americans. His series detailing the horror of torture in the forgotten back rooms of cruel regimes are the first lasting images to rival Goya's in power and definition. Odd Nerdrum is another contemporary artist whose classicism is darkly twisted, melancholic and ominous . His figures are allegorical and literary and occupy a cold futuristic space. In a much lighter vein, John Currin is exhibiting paintings that walk a fine line between comedy and eroticism. He takes images of women and distorts them in ways that are influenced by the American sexual obsessions with female body parts. The work is at the point of burlesque but the technique is very classically flawless and academic.

Artists as far back as the earliest cave drawings and sculptural pieces in clay have conveyed their particular spirit by portraying the human form . Children with no formal training at various levels of aptitude will spontaneously and enthusiastically draw the human figure . There is no more immediate imagery available to an artist with wider potential for metaphorical meaning and expression than the human body . A drawing of the figure can say everything the artist needs to say . The urge to unlock the secrets of capturing the look of the body is endlessly renewable and tantalizing .

What is the Meaning of Figurative Art? It could be said that every drawing of the figure is a "self portrait". To a practiced eye much can be learned by studying figurative work about the mores and morals of the individuals producing it. Great figurative art invites the viewer to participate emotionally in the work . It communicates universally to all humanity . The portrayal of the body gives innumerable clues to how its creator thinks about scale , beauty , mortality and consciousness itself .

Figurative art is an open envelope that can contain works as disparate as Michelangelo's Pieta and Francis Bacon's Screaming Pope . When an artist chooses the figure as a subject it is a tacit decision to acknowledge the whole tradition and join and extend it . Where do Flemish still-life paintings and Giorgio Morandi Fit? Not at all. Figurative Art has as its' primary subject the portrayal of the human form and condition . The range of expression that the body affords the artist is key to its' allure . When the viewer sees a painting of bottles he knows the bottles are inanimate . When the viewer observes a portrayal of the figure it often seems to magically convey a sense of "life". The life that Dubuffet sees is different from the life that Boucher sees . Both were successful in using the figure to convey a world view that we can access easily through viewing their art.

Jake Bialos, September 15 2001

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