After the dominance of Minimalism and Conceptual art in the 1970s, there was a sudden shift in the global art world and figurative painting was revived. Neo-Expressionism as a movement became saluted by the critics, adorned by the art market and adopted by the art institutions, marking the 1980s as a definite painting decade.
Although the trend didn’t last long and things changed in the following decade, with the Relation Aesthetics as the leading phenomenon, the 2000s brought a new generation of painters that embraced the legacy of Neo-Expressionism and the figuration in general.
At London's Whitechapel Gallery, the upcoming exhibition titled Radical Figures: Painting in the New Millennium will examine the dominating themes and approaches that characterize this particular production in the last two decades.
This survey will show ten painters (Tala Madani, Cecily Brown, Nicole Eisenman, Michael Armitage, Christina Quarles, Sanya Kantarovsky, Ryan Mosley, Daniel Richter, Dana Schutz, and Tschabalala Self) that explore the representation of corporeality through painting.
The renewed interest in figuration is merged with an array of social issues reading politics, sexuality, race, etc. By dismantling the inherited patterns, these artists are delivering a different take on storytelling through imagery that is often hybrid - fluid and non-gendered; represented by animals drawn from news feeds.
To critically tackle the legacy of figuration produced by male painters, the works to be represented on this exhibition will reference the practices of 19th and 20th-century painters Victor Eugene Delacroix (1798–1863), Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), Willem de Kooning (1904–1997) and Maria Lassnig (1919–2014).
With his vibrant canvases, Daniel Richter comments on the migrant crisis or Taliban mythology, and Michael Armitage does a similar thing by exploring the politics and systemized violence in East Africa, while both artists are referring to Gauguin. On the other hand, Cecily Brown’s semi-abstract canvases evoke both pornographic and art history layers, before dissolving into the paint. Nicole Eisenman depicts studio scenes and her daily life, while the paintings by Dana Schutz feature sci-fi dystopian images inhabited by outwardly creatures.
Tala Madani’s paintings are absurd and slightly surreal compositions saturated with humor, and the works by Sanya Kantarovsky and Ryan Mosely operate similarly since they are based on literature and children’s stories. Christina Quarles’s artworks show sexually charged scenes of polymorphous nudes engaged in intercourse, while the collages of Tschabalala Self reflect the exploration of the visibility of black bodies through history.
It seems clear that the upcoming exhibition will offer an array of sensibilities that deal with the notion of identity and body image in the digital era. The gallery Chief Curator, Lydia Yee emphasized the intention:
By charting the return of an expressive mode of figuration, this exhibition asks broader questions about art and society today. These artists expand and destabilize fixed notions of identity through their depiction of indeterminate figures and partial bodies. By employing digital methods to create compositions; drawing subjects from online sources; or employing a flattened perspective reminiscent of a screen, they reflect new possibilities for the figure in an age when technology is transforming bodies and relationships. The narratives they explore encourage us to consider how painting can reflect personal anxieties and wider social concerns. Moreover, these artists are challenging and expanding the canonical Western painting tradition.
Radical Figures: Painting in the New Millennium will be on display at the Whitechapel Gallery in London from 6 February until 30 August 2020.
Featured image: Christina Quarles - Casually Cruel, 2018. Acrylic on canvas, 196 x 244.3 cm. Tate: Presented by Peter Dubens 2019. Courtesy of the artist, Pilar Corrias, London and Regen Projects, Los Angeles / Photo: Damian Griffiths. All images courtesy Whitechapel Gallery.