A Figural Presence

Martha Mayer Erlebacher, Cycle Of Life, Air, Childhood, 2004 Courtesy The Alva deMars Megan Chapel Art Center, Saint Anselm College Manchester, New Hampshire  An exhibition entitled “A Figural Presence” was the centerpiece of an interdisciplinary examination of the human form on view this fall at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. Guest curator John O’Hern and Iain MacLellan, Director of Saint Anselm’s Chapel Art Center, put together a firstrate selection of work by contemporary realists, who have built up a significant body of work over the last quarter century. Panel discussions offered opportunities to explore the wider implications of the new focus on the figure, in the ongoing effort to develop an epistemology adequate to what has become a thriving practice.

There is considerable stylistic diversity among contemporary figurative artists. Veteran painter Philip Pearlstein kept his focus on the body when others in his generation were committing themselves to abstraction. His Model with Swan Decoy on Ladder (2002) is a tough, modernist play on the Leda theme. Daringly cropped, it would not look out of place in a Pop Art show. Most of the artists in this exhibition, however, consciously refer to a past before the cataclysm of the early modernist avant-garde. Martha Mayer Erlebacher’s Cycle of Life, Air, Childhood (2004) continues the tradition of nineteenth-century allegory, compatible with architectural decoration. The frieze of young girls and doves against a flat, coral-pink backdrop is gracefully painted. A number of works have that late-nineteenth-century look. In Paul Rahilly’s Sentinels (1999), with naked and clothed women in an Alpine meadow, accompanied by a formidable reclining bull, the artist hints at symbolism he can’t quite pull off. Graydon Parrish’s Allegorical Figure in Cool Hues(2003–08) is less ambitious, but technically accomplished; the flowering branch in the model’s hand and the violet ribbons in her hair are lovely.

Steven Assael’s accomplished graphite-and-black-crayon drawing Julie with Stockings (n.d.), on the other hand, displays an understanding of the academic figure tradition but updates it by using an edgy model with contemporary swagger. Michael Bergt, an egg tempera master who demonstrated his craft as a visiting artist for this event, puts twenty-first-century nudes in unexpected settings. The muscular half-figure man in Unorthodox (2008) is presented on a medieval-style, gold-ground arched panel. Many contemporary artists are working in traditional idioms, but the past they draw on is multifarious. Jacob Collins combines a confident grasp of classical anatomy with a luxurious, almost Baroque feeling for chiaroscuro. Anna (2004) is one of his knockout nudes, languidly stretched out across rumpled white sheets. The artificial studio light, à la Caravaggio, outlines the structured curves of her hip and shoulder and the draped folds of the sheet, but her face remains in shadow, private and mysterious. Curator MacLellan suggests these artists are cultivating “poetic regard…a heightened awareness of the quality of looking.” That seems a good description of Collins’s approach to the nude.

The arrangement of groups of figures introduces a different dynamic. Eve Mansdorf ’s Stairwell (2000) is all about the jutting diagonals of the multi-story space, warm colors, brushy paint and disorienting lights and shadows. The woman glimpsed on the landing is there to dress the set. Katherine Doyle’s Three Women on a Yellow Blanket (2007–08) is a tilted-up primary color wheel, rejoicing in modernist flatness. Alan Feltus, enamored of the early Renaissance, poses his impassively melancholy figures in geometric spaces that recall Piero della Francesco. The two young women in Feltus’s Gallery Tea (1991) are joined by the armless, headless classical statue of a goddess. The painting is both a tribute to the great tradition and a comment on the discontents of working in its shadow. Raymond Han’s Frieze (2001) also explicitly evokes classicism, with its quartet of dark-haired graces in a simplified modern interior. Doyle, Feltus and Han are all staging stylized figures in conceptual, idealized spaces. Richard Maury’s Three Way Conversation (2003) seems more naturalistic: a room with a tiled floor leading, through an open French door, to a little balcony with flowerpots. The natural light is convincing, as is the complex flow from the interior, with a foreground table reinforcing perspective, to the exterior, where shutters suggest the angles of the building. But the drama comes from the way he integrates the figures: on the far side of the table, a young woman with curly hair and beyond her a young man with a beard—they both look like artists—seem to be looking out at the viewer. But they are actually speaking to a third person, a ghostly woman seen only as a reflection in the glass door. Every texture—the frizzy mass of hair, the crisp pages of a newspaper, the warm, worn wood of the table, the sheen of glass—adds to the almost novelistic sense of reality. You feel you could walk into the room and join the conversation. Maury’s composition is carefully managed, anything but haphazard, but the illusion of everyday experience is seductively maintained. The dialogue between realism and idealism remains one of the most intriguing aspects of the contemporary figurative revival.

Painting dominates, but a few sculptors are included. David Simon’s The Watchman (1998) stays within the parameters of the heroic nude, while Diana Moore’s Figure with Cap (2004) announces its contemporary relevance with slouchy clothes and sullen impassivity. The best piece is Daniel Ludwig’s undated bronze Woman with Hands on Face, a three-quarter nude with a dark patina that expresses sorrow with restrained eloquence, reminiscent of the Symbolist sculptor Georges Minne. Ludwig can draw, too. His charcoal Mother and Child (n.d.) has a lot of encompassing detail but holds its focus on the hands and face of the woman and her daughter. Many of the artists in the exhibition will already be familiar to readers of American Arts Quarterly, but it is good to see them in the context of a serious inquiry into where the figurative revival is headed. “A Figural Presence” was on view from September 25 to November 25, 2009, at the Alva deMars Megan Chapel Art Center, Saint Anselm College, 100 Saint Anselm Drive, Manchester, New Hampshire 03102. On the web at www.anselm.edu/chapelart

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2010, Volume 27, Number 1