Introduction to “RE-figuration”


IN his article “What’s happened to figurative art?,” written for The Guardian in 2009, Jonathan Jones could declare that, “when it comes to modern art, craft is dead.” More than ten years later, it seems that his postmortem was premature. After a century dominated by the concept and lost in abstraction, much of today’s increasingly politicized art is dominated by a strangely regressive impulse: the will to direct representation of the world.

What’s that all about?

Appearing as they do at times of disruption and uncertainty, do our most radical visions of the future conceal a nostalgia for some old, uncomplicated order—the way those Soviet-era social realist tractors got to have it both ways, standing in for both wholesome, agrarian past and glorious, collectivist future, all without straying anywhere near good taste? Or is there something new under the sun?

In our opening essay, Diane Thodos rages against the death of life drawing. Repulsed by conceptualism and postmodernism, she argues for the liberating potential of close attention to the human figure, concluding that life drawing “has the regenerative power to help us rediscover the reality of the self that lies within.” Michel Ségard considers recent trends in portraiture, identifying a tendency toward honest, psychologically sophisticated representation. He places African-American, Latinx, and LGBTQ artists at the vanguard of this particular revolution. Rounding out our thematic essays, K.A. Letts profiles four African-American artists from Detroit who are taking figurative art in exciting new directions. On her account, they are “employing the visual vocabulary of establishment portraiture to subvert the genre for their own purposes.”

Figuration is a prominent theme in many of our reviews. Examining a show at Chicago’s One After 909 gallery, Evan Carter is moved by a collection of figurative works that are, in his words, “distinctly different and distinctly Chicago.” Emelia Lehmann whisks us away to Palette & Chisel, a bastion of traditional fine arts housed in an 1870s mansion on Chicago’s Near North Side. As rendered in her lucid prose, Palette & Chisel feels at once atavistic and strikingly contemporary. Nathan Worcester visits “Outsider Art: The Collection of Victor F. Keen” at Intuit. He considers the widely disparate figurative strategies on display, relating them to our cultural model of the artist-as-individual-genius. Ann Sinfield exposes us to figurative and non-figurative works at “Stolen Sisters,” an exhibition highlighting the violence experienced by indigenous women and girls.

Other reviews are less concerned with figuration, though no less fascinating as a result. Kristina Olson tours “Andrea Zittel: An Institute of Investigative Living.” She draws out similarities and differences between Zittel and the Bauhaus movement; while Walter Gropius saw the task of art as “giv[ing] form to space,” Olson sees Zittel’s practice as one of “defining space.” Madison Moore is both delighted and disoriented by Silke Otto-Knapp’s “In the waiting room” at the Renaissance Society: “It’s a stand-offish arrangement,” she explains. Finally, Ben Nicholson introduces us to the Museum of Jurassic Technology, a SoCal oddity out of the fever dreams of Dr. Caligari, or possibly Crispin Glover.

Read on and join us as we explore how figuration is being reimagined.


The Editors





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