Robert Berry Gallery – a virtual exhibition
April 2 through May 9, 2021
Curated by Robert Curcio
By SIBA KUMAR DAS, April 2021
Back in 1969, when the celebrated Henry Geldzahler curated the epic Metropolitan show “New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970,” he failed to include any woman artist apart from Helen Frankenthaler. Nor did he include a single Black artist. In keeping with the time’s conventional wisdom, he also assumed (wrongly) that abstract painting would remain the prevalent painting mode far into the future. Though Alice Neel, the great twentieth-century figurative painter, had painted Geldzahler’s portrait, and she requested him to include her in the show, he declined.
It’s enormously satisfying that the Met is right now celebrating Neel through a grand retrospective that Roberta Smith says confirms her as “destined for icon status” in which she will join such artists as Vincent van Gogh and David Hockney. Smith also says we are living at a time when “figurative painting is ascendant.”
“Tales of Adjusted Desire” validates anew this ascendancy. But we also see that a binary distinction between figuration and abstraction cannot sustainably be applied to art making. The show brings together four artists—David Carbone, Bobbie Moline-Kramer, Kaoruko, and Terry Rodgers--whose works cross many boundaries, mingling historical context with social media aesthetics as well as abstraction with representation.
Even as they pursue their separate and individual agendas, the four artists are in effect pushing the envelope of figuration, building on a foundation laid in the twentieth century. For, even as abstraction and formalism dominated that time, multiple artists, including artists in non-Western countries, kept figuration alive through innovation, reinvention, and the probing of edges. With the art world becoming profoundly interconnected on a global scale during the past two decades, the further evolution of figuration has gathered momentum in our time. A new figuration continues to unfold, as “Tales of Adjusted Desire” tells us.
David Carbone, whose imagination is stirred by ancient epics and legends, presents in Orphic-Agon a kaleidoscopic montage that seems to bear out the reality of his belief that “any image of Eros portrays the tragedy of our separateness.” But the painting says even more. The view of the Twin Towers you see through the studio window close to the top right-hand corner makes you think of a great Matisse painting---his View of Notre Dame (1914). The Twin Towers were destroyed even as Carbone’s painting sat on his easel, layering the meaning of the figure falling from the sky in the top-left corner. Seeing the painting now, you sense its resonating intertextuality with Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.
With American Shunga, Zen Sensual, Bobbie Moline-Kramer creates a subtle cross-cultural intertextuality with a Japanese art form which flourished during the Edo era and which celebrated sexual love in explicit ways. In doing so, she takes an allusive, poetic approach. By departing from the tendency towards fantasy and exaggeration in Shunga woodblock prints, she permeates her scene of two lovers with a lyrical feeling akin to the wistful sense of union with the things of the world that you apprehend when you read a great haiku.
Japanese-born Kaoroku was a teen pop star in Japan before becoming a New York-based visual artist. Drawing upon myriad influences from traditional Japanese art and contemporary Japanese pop culture, she creates images of young women that call for a slow, prolonged look. In Teddy Bear, is the title a reference to the toy bear lying next to the woman who is the picture’s subject? Or is it referencing the woman herself? Think also of the butterfly hovering near the woman. Is it connoting the metamorphosis the insect often symbolized in Japanese art? In similar vein, are the golden clouds a reference to their ancestors in traditional Japanese gilded screen-paintings? The woman’s stiletto heels are so long they extend beyond the painting’s boundaries--an absurdity. Do not all the things in the picture tell you in coalescence that the net product is just too unnatural and bizarre?
Terry Rodgers takes magazine images of attractive women and utilizes them to start artworks of his own. Deploying gestural brushstrokes, he paints over each image a spontaneously-conceived stick-like female figure that is akin to figures painted by Frank Auerbach, a figurative British painter who is sometimes seen as an expressionist. You see this effect vividly in Rodgers’ Untitled (2018), where the painted dancer reminds you of the figures in Auerbach’s luminously beautiful Bacchus and Ariadne (1971), in which he reinvented Titian’s painting of the Ovidian scene where Bacchus rescues Ariadne at the moment when she is beset by loss and desertion. In Rodgers’ art, Eros is a snare.
Loneliness, separation, despair---states of feeling exacerbated by the contemporary ubiquity of social media and mediated imagery---are things not readily captured by abstraction. The new figuration that the twenty-first century inherited from the twentieth---a figuration that takes into account abstraction’s great achievements---is surely a better vehicle. Consider Alice Neel again. Though, as Roberta Smith suggests, Neel took painterly ideas from abstract expressionism, her radicalism and feminism propelled her towards a human-centered artistic vision that cried out for a figurative aesthetic. Think also of the renewed attention that Francis Bacon is currently receiving, thanks to a new biography (Revelations by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan). If any modern artist trapped existential anguish on canvas with the greatest immediacy, it was Bacon. He employed paint inventively, producing a transcendent beauty that intensified the dramatic impact of his images.
Closer to our time, contemporary Black figurative artists like Lynette Yiadom-Boakye in the U.K. and Noah Davis in the United States (he died in 2015) continued pushing the envelope in terms of both human-centered subject matter and painterly method, with innovation on one side reinforcing innovation in the other. It is this stream of evolution that “Tales of Adjusted Desire” has joined. WM
Siba Kumar Das is a former United Nations official who writes about art. He served the U.N. Development Program in New York and several developing countries. He now lives in the U.S., splitting his time between New York City and upstate New York. He has published articles on artists living in the Upper Delaware Valley, and is presently focusing on art more globally. Recent articles have appeared in dArt International, Arte Fuse, and Artdaily.com.view all articles from this author