“Figuration Now” is a group exhibition of four notable contemporary figurative artists at the Karen Woodbury Gallery.
There seems to be some confusion in the title of this exhibition between the words ‘figuration’ and ‘figurative’. Figuration is the giving an allegorical form by representing it using human or animal forms. Figurative is the depiction of human or animal figures in art, with or without an allegoric or emblematic meaning. Figurative art is common now and this exhibition is able to presents a broad range of styles and techniques from traditional to idiosyncratic. However, to describe all of the work on exhibition as figuration is to erroneously conflate all figurative art with figuration.
Del Kathryn Barton, the winner of the 2008 Archibald Prize, is influenced by the elongated figures of Egon Schiele and the work of famous, American, outsider artist, Henry Darger. Although her multi-media paintings and drawings are figurative her one sculpture in the exhibition is clearly figuration. The tower of baby doll arms growing out of the pumpkin is a surreal allegory of fecundity.
McLean Edwards makes fun allusions to the history of European portraiture and in turn Australian painter, William Dobell’s controversial 1944 Archibald prize-winning portrait of Joshua Smith. The figures in Edwards’s paintings represent the idea of European portraits; the dark background giving form to his figure is an attribute of portraiture not just a ground for the figure. Edwards’s figures are dressed in what are clearly costumes and costumes are tools of figuration, a means of creating an allegorical or emblematic figure.
Nusra Latif Qureshi uses the Pakistani tradition of musaviri (miniature painting) to paint ideas about the post-colonial world. In this exhibition Nusra Latif Qureshi uses figures of iconic Australian beach culture as ironic symbols for boat people. Her delicate paintings of outlines are like diagrams that have become so full of lacunas that it is hard to see what they depict, a further allegory on the post-colonial world. Diagrams are another kind of figure, where ideas are represented. In her paintings the diagrams of dhows or the line of dashes to indicate distance travelled or borders crossed amplifies the figuration.
The paintings of Jonathan Nichols are clearly figurative. An argument that his paintings of women are emblematic of limited knowledge and therefore figuration could be made but it would be torturous.
“The fact is that it is in eroticism – and doubtless in eroticism alone – that the organic bond, increasingly lacking in art today, has to be established between showman and spectator by means of perturbation.” A. Breton, 1959
“Neuropsychosis’, an exhibition of oil paintings by artist and illustrator Karl Persson at 696, explores eroticism with dark visions of S&M, bondage and mutilation, along with a couple of truly surreal visions. In his ‘Shiny Chicken’ a raw chicken is morphed into a toothy grinning fleshy orifice is a surreal study of castration anxiety. Another of Persson’s erotic surreal images is that erect penis nipples enjoying sadistic polymorphic arousal.
The surreal eye of the Marquis de Sade shapes Persson’s goth imagination. It brooks no idealism; it is a materialistic world where happiness lies in the imagination.
Persson’s images are disturbing in that they are private, there is only one implied spectator viewing the subject, the other isolated body. The bound figures twist in the baroque empty darkness. These are alienated lonely isolated visions where all interactions are bound in an S&M relationship. Persson’s self portrait shows the artist struggling to remove the mask of his image from himself.
The many threads depicted in Persson’s paintings are a figurative painter’s bondage theme. The thread is tied tight to the victim just as the painter is tied to the lines being painted. Concentration focused on a single line that separates one area from another and bound to painting it over and over again until the fully realized image appears. For there is bondage and masochism in creating such beautiful, meticulous and technically excellent works in oils on canvas.
696 back gallery room has been transformed for this exhibition. A Turkish carpet lies on the floor. The paintings are hung in dark old rococo style frames on a grey band of paint on the gallery wall. The grey walls bring out the colors in the paintings and the usual sterile white gallery walls would be totally inappropriate for Persson’s style.
Terrie Fraser, Intimate Attachments, Upstairs Flinders
I found Terrie Fraser’s exhibition particularly interesting because of the extreme variety of my reaction to her 18 paintings. Some I loved, others I hated and others I was indifferent about. This is not because of the differing quality of painting because there are no drastic differences in technique and the quality remains consistent. Nor is it because of the different subject matter in the paintings because all of the 18 paintings depict cloth. I loved, hated and was indifferent to Fraser’s paintings because of the meaning of the paintings.
“An Unlikely Attachment” was one of the paintings that I loved. The power and formal austerity of this painting comes from the combination of illusionism and hard edge abstraction.
Other of Fraser’s paintings that I like included a series of small paintings copying tightly cropped details of fabric in paintings by Leonardo, Caravaggio, Fetti and Rembrandt (although the Rembrandt study did not seem to work, it was still worth attempting).
I hated 3 of the paintings where the Fraser had sculpted the folds of the white fabric to resemble figures. They had a twee sentimentality about them often found in the art of spiritually driven fantasy artists.
All of the paintings have a neo-baroque quality from the dramatic, quotation of fabric from old master paintings to the metamorphosis of the fabric. And they all had the power to generate a very definite emotional response from me.
Art about fabric is a minor genre of still life, but not uncommon; earlier this year I saw a group exhibition, Ephemeral Folds, at Pigment Gallery and I paint them myself (see My Art).
“If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think”
The leaves of the eucalyptus hang down presenting as little as possible of their waxy surface to direct sunlight in order to reduce evaporation. The sun is hot, burning and relentless in the Australian summer – it is not good. There is not a cloud in the sky and the ground is baked and dry like the skulls in Juan Ford’s paintings. Sunlight, after the Egyptians and Socrates, is a symbol of the truth and the good. In the antipodes, it is the opposite the sunlight is cruel and soul destroying.
Juan Ford has learnt one thing from Robert Mapplethorpe, portraits of people with their eyes shut are great. They don’t confront the viewer with a return gaze; the closed eyes are the best symbol for sight or insight. Or have they shut their eyes and turned their back on the horror?
It was not hot at the opening of Juan Ford’s new exhibition “Gravity” at Dianne Tanzer Gallery. The Melbourne sky was dark grey and the sun was nowhere to be seen.
As I quaffed red wine and chatted at the opening I kept on hearing the word ‘photorealism’. Even though Andrew Gaynor had written, in the exhibition notes, that: “Ford treads the tightrope between faithful reproduction and psychological tremor, referencing photography but moving beyond photo-realism”. I want to quash this misclassification. Juan Ford’s paintings have nothing to do with photorealism. Photorealism is a specific style of painting that is characterized by hyperrealism, photographic precision and a focus on banal everyday scenes. Hans Holbein or Jusepe de Ribera or many other painters create pictures with photographic precision without being called photorealist. To call Ford’s paintings photorealist, and not Holbein’s, is the fallacy of post hoc ergo hoc (after therefore caused by) simply because they are painted post 1970. Ford’s paintings have nothing to do with photorealism: they are not hyperrealist and there is nothing banal about the subjects.
The subjects of Ford’s paintings are far from banal; they are haunting, almost allegorical. Titles like “A Glitch in the System” or an “An Orbit’s Conclusion” are certainly not banal. Ford’s anamorphic image of a galaxy seen in the curved surface of a trophy is the opposite of banal.
The paintings on exhibition at the Dianne Tanzer Gallery are of similar subjects to those that Juan Ford exhibited in “Inverted World”, at Jan Manton Art in Brisbane in November 2007. At the time I published an interview with Juan Ford in my old blog.