Sam Wisneki, Jacob Collins, Carl Dobsky, Edward Minoff

Carl Dobsky, The Lotus Eater, 2009 Courtesy John Pence Gallery, San Fransisco, California“The Human Figure,” an invitational group show at John Pence Gallery in San Francisco, builds on the solid foundation of the now well-established contemporary realism revival. The majority of the thirty-five artists represented are working, with varying degrees of rigor, in the tradition that flourished through the hegemony of the nineteenth-century Academy. The ateliers that have sprung up across the United States have launched a generation of artists with some formidable technical skills. Viewers have learned to appreciate the aesthetic appeal, as well as the educational value, of the studio exercise. Drawings and oil sketches—problem-solving, thinking through line and shade—are the bedrock of this pedagogical method. Robert Liberace’s oil sketch Reaching Figure (2009) has the wiry energy of a Mannerist nude. With his head thrown back, his legs beginning to buckle and the multiple iterations of grasping hands, the figure could be a study for a miracle scene from an altarpiece. Sam Wisneki’s Male Nude (2007) has the virtues of a well-executed oil sketch from the Beaux-Arts era. Jacob Collins’s David (2006–09) takes the genre a step further, paying close attention not only to the muscular torso but also to the introspective face, mostly in shadow, of his subject. Baroque paint-handling gives a simple figure-against-wall composition considerable stylistic heft. Character trumps anatomy.

For many of these artists, the nineteenth-century Academy is the obvious reference point, as the last viable regime of a centuries-old tradition before the upheaval of modernism. Nicholas Hiltner’s Egyptian Bather (2008) is an elegant nude in the style of Chassériau, like Ingres, a sensuous classicist. While Ingres’s odalisques have a chilly voluptuousness and exaggerated suppleness, Chassériau’s nudes have a softer, more introspective look. Hiltner’s Bather has something of that quality, in the self-protective hunch of the figure’s shoulders and tilt of the head. The artist uses shadow effectively to caress and outline the curves of the body. There are good examples, too, of the reclining figure in the exhibition. Kate Lehman uses a spaghetti-box format for In Repose (2005), playing long curves against the sharper angles—elbow, shoulder, wrist—of a woman lying on her side. Loose paint-handling gives the picture a touch of the contemporary. Carl Dobsky’s The Lotus Eater (2009) is more daring. The title refers to an incident in Homer’s Odyssey, when Odysseus’ men succumb to the enervating beauty of the lotus-eaters’ island. The best-known literary recension is Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Lotos-Eaters” (1832), with its haunting last lines in praise of simply giving up: “Surely, surely, slumber is more sweet than toil, the shore / Than labour in the deep mid-ocean, wind and wave and oar; / Oh, rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more.” At first glance, Dobsky’s painting could be an illustration for Tennyson, a bare-chested, barefoot man, stretched out asleep, posed almost gracefully on his back on a stone sill covered with a white drape. The details, however, come from contemporary misery: a liquor bottle, battered shoes, a couple of plastic bags of personal belongings. Putting a homeless man in this context makes the viewer poignantly aware of his humanity and makes good use of the great tradition.

The show includes perhaps a few too many competently executed portraits that fail to stir the imagination. In The Blue Scarf (2009), however, Edward Minoff hints at a Virgin Annunciate of the Antonello da Messina type. The vibrant azure scarf—Mary’s signature color—upstages the simple, dark, contemporary coat, and the young model’s gaze has a quiet fervor. There is more to the figure in art, of course, than portraits and the more-or-less nude form. Richard Maury places his figures in carefully calibrated interior spaces, tidy and spare in a way that is both formally elegant and slightly melancholy. The woman in Another Room (1994) doesn’t occupy much space and turns away from the viewer, but Maury lets us speculate on the narrative possibilities. While most of the artists on display, having embraced the traditional representational painting mission with zeal, tend to be sober about their work, it’s good to see some playfulness. Michael Bergt likes to mix contemporary portraits and medieval or Renaissance settings and situations, often using gold ground and egg tempera, a medium he has thoroughly mastered. In Mocked (2009), he employs gouache and colored pencil just as effectively for a take-off on the famous Bosch painting of Christ surrounded by grotesque tormenters. Will Wilson is a dazzling painter with a witty sense of humor. His image of a comely nude with elaboratedly rigged artificial butterfly wings is titled String Theory (2006), a clever play on the idea of a butterfly’s flapping causing a chain reaction of momentous events. With her billowing curls, she hovers above the miniaturized landscape like Fortuna in a medieval allegory. It’s a gorgeous picture, bristling with ideas, but not necessarily burdened by what Matthew Arnold called “high seriousness.” “The Human Figure” was on view February 26–April 10, 2010. More of Carl Dobsky’s paintings were featured in an April 16–May 22 show. John Pence Gallery, 750 Post Street, San Francisco, California 94109. Telephone (415) 441-1138. On the web at www.johnpence.com

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2010, Volume 27, Number 2