Three Figurative Painters

By DANIEL MAIDMAN, September 2019

I haven’t had a chance to write about art in a while. I hope you’ll forgive me if I’m a little rusty. I have three shows to talk about, all up in New York right now. 


Michelle Doll: As Above, So Below 

until September 28

Lyons Wier Gallery, 542 W. 24th St., New York, NY

Doll paints intimacy. Since she became a mature artist, her primary subject has been couples in physical contact. Though her canvases are often large, the spaces they depict are minuscule, zones that end where the bodies of the couple end. She presents intimate acts in intimate worlds.  

The psychology of her scenes is uncomplicated by ambivalence, mistrust, or recoil. The unromantic realism of her depiction of flesh indicates that her vision embraces the possibility of such sentiments. She simply doesn’t happen to paint them. In Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, his couple travels a bitter journey of mutual abuse and recrimination. Near the end, they slip, as if effortlessly, into a passage of simple harmonious companionship and desire and affection. That passage is Doll’s native habitat. She is unrivaled in her ability to observe and transmit the physicality and emotions of this blessed zone. 

Michelle Doll, Couple (GZ2_Macro), 2018, oil on canvas, 60 x 60 in

In her newest body of work, she extends her depiction from the fundamentally romantic couple, to the more complex web of relations of the nuclear family. Though the perspective remains the same – people in bed, seen from above – now her close scenes are populated by combinations of parents and their children.

I was once in a zoo with my wife, looking at some obscure breed of mouse. There was a litter of baby mice all heaped up, and I considered particularly the baby mouse in the middle of the heap. The middle mouse is warm on all sides, touched on all sides, surrounded by mouse smells; the middle mouse is surely the happiest of mice. The concept of the middle mouse has stuck with me a long time. 

Doll’s depictions of families evoke that warm heap of mice, that mammal impulse to lie together in physical contact. In her depictions, the youngest child always gets to be the middle mouse. 

Michelle Doll, Family (CF2_Micro), 2019, oil on panel, 10 x 13.25 in

This is a painting you sink into. The more you look, the more there is to see. As Doll’s cast expands from two to four, so too there is an inevitable diminution of unity and harmony. The fundamental union is between mother and infant, with the father external to the core bond, and the infant, as they do, heedlessly pushing against whatever lies in range, in this case an older sibling who is shoved half out of frame. Notice too the mother’s right arm, extended to that sibling to assure him he remains inside the circle of her love. Likewise the father’s right arm, pressed against the mother’s neck, reassuring her that he’s present and alright, and simultaneously uncomfortably pushing her head forward. The mechanics of togetherness have become complex and dynamic, but Doll rises to meet them, advancing her unchanged premise of a universe defined and bounded by love.


Aleah Chapin: What Happens at the Edge

until November 2

Flowers Gallery, 529 West 20th St., New York, NY  

Like Doll, Chapin paints nudes of people she is close to in real life, mainly the women of her childhood community on Whidbey Island. Her work is also in a process of expansion, its center of gravity rolling from the individual figure to the group and society at large. Two pieces in particular in her current show demonstrate this shift. 

Aleah Chapin, We Held the Mountains on Our Shoulders, 2017, oil on canvas, 72 x 72 in

I can’t locate the text now, but somewhere, Andrei Tarkovsky has an unforgettable commentary on icon-painter Andrei Rublev’s 1425 masterpiece, The Trinity. Tarkovsky movingly describes the communion of the three figures (angels, standing in for the Trinity) – how they have transcended separateness and conflict, how they embody mutual love, and especially, how every single element of the painting supports this core vision. Or, in other words, how Rublev just nailed it. This happens sometimes when you work hard and paint a lot – you get to some particular piece, and you just nail it. 

Chapin has done that here. After much practice and rehearsal in earlier work, she has reached a configuration of people, of limbs, of gestures and expressions and light, that, though very complex, feels simple and unified, that falls into place as if it were meant to be. In this, she presents her own vision of a tripartite communion, of a bond which transcends all separation. She reaches a synthesis of everything she has been trying to say about the friendships between the remarkable women of her community. 

In the same show, she begins to reckon with the interface between that community, taken as an entirety, and the world itself.

Aleah Chapin, Our Voices are Still Singing on the Margins, 2019, oil on canvas, 80 x 100 in

There is a comedic spookiness to this painting at the scale of a computer screen: it looks exactly like what you expect of a witch’s coven. This effect does not go away in person, but it shrinks to irrelevance at the foot of the gigantic scale of the thing. This is a very big painting, with a very large sky. The blue darkness of the clouds, and the pale yellow of the horizon, blasts a cold gust across the scene. It slaps the viewer, sobering him up, and he sees what the painting really shows: a group of human beings, so intensely at home with themselves and each other, that the separation has begun to slip between them and the elements. Their undulation makes demands on land and sky, and the tremendous forces which animate land and sky express themselves in the undulations of the figures.

Chapin and Doll have not changed what they paint, but their exploration of their subjects has become broader, more ambitious, and more profound. 


Fedele Spadafora: Stars & Stripes

until October 27

Figureworks Gallery, 168 North 6th St., Brooklyn, NY

Apart from its figurative idiom and some of the paint handling, Spadafora’s work has almost nothing to do with Doll’s or Chapin’s. Spadafora’s life has amounted to the most improbable series of dislocations: his family immigrated without detaching spiritually from their ancestral home – when he grew up, he wandered Europe, the Levant, and North Africa, stumbling into one revolution after another – and, when he finally settled down, then he was wracked by near-fatal illness. What persists in a man who has lost the past and ultimately the present and the future? Memory.

In Spadafora’s art, he quietly navigates the branching rivers of memory, holding up a lantern to what was, and is no longer. He has depicted the mechanisms of memory: the effacement of forgetting and the selective and uncontrollable light of recollection. He has also invoked the emotions of memory: regret, humor, affection, grief.

In this intimate show, he collects images of a specific kind of memory – the recalled television of one’s childhood.

Fedele Spadafora, Anthem, 2019, oil on canvas, 12 x 16 in

We see here a tight shot, but the cropped scene can be reconstructed. A little girl stands in a gaudily dressed television studio, singing the anthem into a microphone. So this is probably a variety show, and she has been brought on to demonstrate her singing talent. The styles of hair and microphone and decoration are obsolete; even the type of show, and singing the anthem on it, have passed away. The scene is suffused with a green-blue cathode ray glow. No television ever played those colors. Rather, Spadafora paints the way we remember the glow of televisions. His brushwork replicates missing detail: of the televised images themselves, and of our memories of them. 

Fedele Spadafora, Sophia, 2017, oil on canvas, 12 x 16 in

This is, of course, Sophia Lauren. But it is not Sophia as she was. Her eyes have gone missing, the complexity of her nose has been reduced, her cheeks and lips have a mask-like flatness. It is unmistakably her, but her distorted form and television red-green-blue portray a second character as well: the little boy who watched her on the glass screen, who saw in her a divine icon of adult femininity, who will, for life, respond to those shapes of glasses frames and bonnet, of lips and jaw, as to the universe’s own fundamental elements of design, with an instant and instinctive understanding, This is Woman. This is Beauty. Spadafora participates in this memory, while dissecting and even gently chiding it. This is the melancholy quality of living up to the delphic command, “Know thyself.”


Three shows, all up in New York right now, all figurative: Michelle Doll, Aleah Chapin, and Fedele Spadafora. And not just this: I have followed each of these painters for at least a decade by now. I have written about them and included their work in projects I’ve curated. I expect I’ll be thinking about them as long as we are all living and working. Your life as an artist and a critic is bounded, in some ways, by your contemporaries. In looking at them, you learn to see yourself. Time and geography have thrown me together with Doll and Chapin and Spadafora. I will surely write about each of them again, because as their story unfolds, so mine unfolds. As it happens, I am lucky – I am grateful for the companions fate has chosen for me. WM


Daniel Maidman

Daniel Maidman is best known for his vivid depiction of the figure. Maidman’s drawings and paintings are included in the permanent collections of the Library of Congress, the New Britain Museum of American Art, the Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art, the Long Beach Museum of Art, the Bozeman Art Museum, and the Marietta Cobb Museum of Art. His work is included in numerous private collections, including those of Brooke Shields, China Miéville, and Jerry Saltz. His art and writing on art have been featured in The Huffington Post, Poets/Artists, ARTnewsForbesW, and many others. He has been shown in solo shows in New York City and in group shows across the United States and Europe. In 2021 it will be included in the first digital archive of art stored on the surface of the Moon. His books, Daniel Maidman: Nudes and Theseus: Vincent Desiderio on Art, are available from Griffith Moon Publishing. He works in Brooklyn, New York. 

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