Harry Holland, Stuart Luke Gatherer, Iain Faulkner, Ian Cumberland

Stuart Luke Gatherer, The Book, 2010-11, Courtesy Eleanor Ettinger Gallery, New York City

This summer, Eleanor Ettinger Gallery in New York City showcased the work of a half dozen British figurative painters, demonstrating once again that the contemporary realism revival is an international phenomenon. The Russian painters Olga Antonova and Ilya Zomb, Italian photorealists such as Roberto Bernardi and the Chileans Guillermo Muñoz Vera and Claudio Bravo (a master painter who died in June at the age of 74) all have a significant presence in the United States and have been covered in the pages of American Arts Quarterly. British painters, with the exception of Lucien Freud, are less widely known, so the Ettinger exhibition provided a welcome sampling.

The six painters on view were very different from Freud, a superb draftsman whose painthandling is as raw as his unflinching view of the human body. (Unless otherwise noted, works in this review are dated 2010–2011). The Scottish artist Harry Holland (b. 1941) could be fairly described as an academic classicist; his smoothly painted nudes have a fleshy luminosity reminiscent of Bouguereau. Holland’s female figure groups occupy shadowy neutral spaces that give them an atemporal context. Faces are turned away from the viewer or obscured by shadow in Leap and Dance, reinforcing the anonymity of academic figure painting. Holland seems to be challenging the hegemony of modernism in Dance, which not only borrows the title of one of Matisse’s most celebrated works but also poses the models in a similar configuration. DespiteHolland’s mastery of the figure, the negative space in his pictures lack the energy of Matisse or of the arch-classicist Ingres.

The other painters in the exhibition had a more contemporary look, and most displayed an interest in the narrative potential of representational painting. Another Scottish artist, Iain Faulkner (b. 1972), brings a film noir sensibility to his cinematic paintings. Faulkner and his wife appear as melancholy protagonists in Preparing for the Race and Ski Trip. Both paintings are square, and Faulkner’s compositional savvy makes them formally exciting as well as emotionally fraught. The rooms his characters inhabit are nearly black, with white-matted photographs of auto racing or skiing on the wall that create strong geometric shapes. The graphic energy carries over into the man’s white shirt—with crisp red suspenders—and the woman’s dark dress. In Ski Trip, a glass table offers an arrestingly cropped mirror image of the man and of a suitcase plastered with travel stickers. Faulkner balances convincing illusion with a keen awareness of the painting as a flat surface covered in shapes.

Stuart Luke Gatherer (b. 1971), another Scotsman, also favors interiors with figures, but his brushwork is looser. An admirer of Vermeer and John Singer Sargent, he builds his scenes around a light source within the composition. In The Book, two attractive contemporary women flank a table lamp: one looks up, rather defiantly, at the man who has just entered the room; the other ignores him, still engrossed in her reading. In Halo, a lone woman confronts the viewer. She holds in one clenched hand a flower-like lamp, which illuminates her face and the three clocks on the wall, each showing a different time. The influence of Sargent, with his bravura handling of light and shadow, is obvious. Still, while social dynamics may have engaged Sargent’s attention, he ignored narrative. For both Faulkner and Gatherer, some enigmatic story seems to be lurking just out of reach. This gives their work an illustrative quality.

The British have a tradition of visual storytelling, often leavened—as in Hogarth’s moral parables—with satire and humor. Ian Cumberland (born in Irelandin 1983) is a pictorial comedian, staging absurd tableaux with none-too-bright protagonists. In Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right (2009), one bloke supports another as they try to change a light bulb. In I Stand Corrected (2009), a young woman threatens to take a hammer to her companion, a bearded fellow clutching an old-fashioned unwieldy tape machine. The exaggerated gestures suggest a slapstick situation comedy, but Cumberland’s silky paint surfaces are appealing, and isolating the figures in a nowhere space of shadow-inflected greyness gives the figures a bit of existential heft.

The remaining artists incorporate modernist ideas, integrating the figure into the composition in ways that emphasize the human body as a formal element, rather than a personality or narrative subject. Christopher Thompson, who trained at the Norwich School of Art and the Royal Academy, tends to silhouette the figure against areas of almost abstract painterly color. Despite its potentially risqué subject—a neon sign reads “Sex Shop Downstairs”—Soho Bookshop is primarily an exercise in color and shape, not a social commentary. The central panel of red, taupe and orange suggests Rothko, although Thompson strictly contains this passage by flanking it with black stripes and crossing it with a black railing that supports the shadowy protagonist. In Green Park, a half-figure of a young woman stands against a formless landscape in soft tones, and her figure is broken up by a foreground scrim of bare branches. Maxwell Doig (b. 1966), who studied at Manchester and the Slade School of Art in London, approaches the figure from oblique angles. The disorienting effect contributes to the first impression of his pictures as arrangements of shapes. The overhead view in Figure with Plaited Hair on White Sheet is particularly striking. The model’s gleaming hair and strong back are beautifully painted. At the same time, the shadow forms created by her legs and torso are intriguingly amorphous. Placing the white sheet at an angle to the frame of the painting adds to the visual interest. Another overhead view, Figure in Moorland Water V, has a phantasmagorical dimension. The head, hands and shoulders—all out of the water and juxtaposed with grainy rock surfaces—below to one reality. The lower body and legs seem to dissolve, like an ectoplasmic emanation at a séance, in the inky water. Positioning the body upside down and viewing it from above adds to the surrealism. This group of artists have much in common with their American counterparts, but they are also exploring some unfamiliar territory. “British Figurative Art” was on view June 9–July 9, 2011, at Eleanor Ettinger Gallery, 29 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019. Telephone (212) 925-7474. On the web at www.eegallery.com

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2011, Volume 28, Number 3