Borremans, Close, Saville: Selections From
"Painting People – Figure Painting Today" by Charlotte Mullins
The strange cycle of painting in modern history – its rise to intellectual prominence, its self-reflective deconstruction, its disappearance, and its subtle return to the discourse – can be tracked most effectively through the subject of the human figure. From Picasso's cubistic treatment of the female form in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon to Barnett Newman's “zips” as minimalist signifiers for the figure in works like Vir Heroicus Sublimis (Man Heroic and Sublime), the painted representation of people has cycled through innumerable permutations for the sake of advancing the meta-narratives of artistic progress.
The very existence of this book and other contemporary tomes (e.g. Vitamin P and Painting Today) demonstrates a new vitality in painting. The circular argument of painting's demise has become a closed circuit, obscure, and relegated to the past. Now is the time in which the familiar and resonant subject of the figure can be re-investigated using a familiar medium. Just like people, painting has survived despite the vagaries of time and the meandering nature of theoretical crises.
Painting People features nearly seventy artists whose representational painting styles range from classical realism (John Currin), to graphically flattened forms (Laylah Ali), to the boldly expressionistic (Cecily Brown). I will be narrowing this rich field down to a selection of three, the choices reflecting (to a degree) a formal resemblance to my own painting sensibilities. But even within this tighter parameter, the range is diverse.
Jenny Saville (b. 1970) uses oil paint as her primary medium, but it could be argued that it is flesh itself that forms the scope of her work. The paintings featured in Painting People are Reflective Flesh (2002-03), Entry (2004-05) and Stare (2004-05). Ranging from 7 to 10 feet in height, the sheer scale of these works clogs the viewer's vision with impasted, energetic marks of fleshy tints. The array of skin tones moves jarringly from subtle grays to blood reds to shocking blues across the surface of her canvases. Saville's mark-making is strong and highly directional, building form in broad passages using large brushes. But a great variety and vitality is maintained as she often changes the viscosity of her paint mid-form, adding oil as if it were sebum leaking from overactive pores. Abutting the harder marks, she may slide tone into tone in a slippery passage using a dripping mixture. The resulting effect manifests a tension akin to that of living tissue.
The earliest of these works, Reflective Flesh, depicts the artist herself, nude and barely contained by the framework of the canvas. Her figure is surrounded by mirrored surfaces, so we see multiple views of the figure with cubistically repeating body parts filling the entire canvas with flesh. This “de-centralizing” of the body destabilizes what is compositionally central in the painting, and that is the openly displayed female genitalia. But even this is destabilized with a kind of sensorial overload, as the mirrored surface upon which the artist squats doubles the view of her vagina. This control Saville exerts over our gaze is underscored not only by her deft, directional mark-making, but also by the gaze of the artist-as-subject, as her eyes confront the viewer directly. The phallo-centric notions of a woman on display, engendered in painting history by such works as Courbet's Origin of the World, are fully subverted in this bravura piece by successfully re-appropriating the controlling gaze of the painting patriarchy. This period of work served as an establishing point for Saville, as she understood the historical baggage that came with being a woman who paints. Taking control of her own work through re-engineering painting's male-oriented traditions allowed her to find freedom within her chosen medium. “The ideas, for me, wouldn't be as strong without using the traditions of painting as an institution” (Saville 7:10).
Working at a similar scale to Saville, but with a nearly opposite formal and conceptual quality is the painter Chuck Close (b. 1940). Close works exclusively with the portrait as his subject matter, the head generally cropped at the shoulders. Along with self-portraiture, his sitters mainly consist of family members, fellow artists and curators – people with whom he has had personal and/or professional relationships. Painting People features two oil paintings from 2004-2005 – Self Portrait, and Andres II, the latter bearing the visage of the artist Andres Serrano. The photorealistic style of Close's work is consistently represented through three-plus decades, but the formal tactics that he brings to the canvas are ever-changing. Over the years, Close has moved from tri-toned acrylic paint and airbrush to paper collage, to ink thumbprints, to oils – and is currently working with daguerrotypes and tapestries. Relying solely on photo-reference, he uses varying forms of grid systems, reiterating the mechanical accuracy of the photo in paint. This imitation of the photo is not intended to copy, but to recontextualize the flattened reproduction into an object of illusion. Close professes his affection for this particular charm of paint media in an interview with Charlie Rose: “[Painting] transcends physical reality... it's a magical window built out of colored dirt” (10:00-10:45).
In Self Portrait, and Andres II, we see Close's grid-work very distinctly, the difference being that the painting of Serrano shows the grid tilted at a forty-five degree angle. The large scale of these works, at close range, reveals a highly controlled handling of paint. Kaleidoscopic marks of muted (for Serrano) or complementary (for the self-portrait) color render self-contained mini-abstracts within their grid-form confinements. Facial recognition at this level of study is impossible. But, as Lisa Yuskavage notes, “...your work, like most good work, is full of contradictions. It implies intimacy, yet, in order to look at each painting, you are forced to step way back” (33). It is only at a distance that a likeness can be seen and, in fact, an extraordinary level of facial detail is made manifest. In this way, Close is controlling the experience of the viewer, putting them in an odd position to confront the subjects on a proximal level of privacy with which only the artist is familiar. His didactic, formal tendencies seem perhaps counterintuitive as tools to create such compelling personas on the canvas. Yet, instead, those constructive elements foster the illusion, turning the physicality of the optical around on us.
The figural works of Michaël Borremans (b. 1963) feature an austere palette and spartan compositions. People depicted in his paintings seem very non-contemporary and their attire suggests they may be transplanted denizens from the 1930s and '40s. The artist also employs the use of stock and/or found photography for his figures, and plays this up with washed-out skin tones and soft-edged brushwork. With this general schema, Borremans removes the figure not only from contemporary associations, but also disallows the viewer from imposing any individuality upon them. They have become almost purely symbolic – mere signifiers for “a figure.” Fully cognizant of painting's historical connotations – that it is not only a medium, but a channel of discourse between a painter and the history of painting – Borremans uses the symbolic quality of subject and paint to foster the idea that paintings are indeed objects. But for all these formalities, the strange displacement of spaces, subjects and atmospherics moves the work out of its seeming stillness, suggesting a kind of tableau vivant. So then, a dichotomy arises through the embedded atemporality: despite their object-ness, they can theoretically move in real-time. Borremans states that “[paintings] are mental things, they’re not objects. They have this mental vibration, and they are here now. A painting is always now” (Ribas 2).
The selections One and Four Fairies shows female figures in contemplative poses, enveloped by their dun-colored environments. One depicts a lone woman in a half-length profile, her head and hands evoking the only substantiality in the painting. Her white blouse is diaphanous, transparent through to the briskly painted ground – a brown and gray reminiscent of a late Mark Rothko. She is still: her head bent with eyes downcast, luminous in a light gray expanse, while her clenched hands at rest in the umber lower third of the canvas. Four Fairies has a very similar feel, but the canvas as well as their upper torsos are divided by an inky block of paint. The four women also look to their hands, their gestures suggesting a half-engagement in some menial, factory-like task. Yet there is a sense that they are also contemplating this dark, horizontal obelisk into which they are thrust. Its surface is minimally reflective, however, its solidity is called into question. Runnels of paint cascade downward from the dark form, dripping onto the nearly raw canvas directly below. The environments in both these works are more paint than defined space. Is it all fictive? “Fairies” are out of folklore – so is Borremans couching his work in the realm of the unreal? “Borremans draws an intellectual line between art and reality, but then he takes a truth about painting and treats it as a truth about life. A painted figure will only ever be paint, it will never capture the individual essence of some person, place, thing or time” (Ribas 2). His human figures contemplate their meaninglessness in a seemingly meaningless world in an effort to find resolution. Can this desire be realized? Ambiguity implies a directive: the viewer is held responsible to answer this question.
List of Works Cited:
Close, Chuck. Interview by Charlie Rose. PBS. WNET, New York, March 13, 2007. Televison.
Glueck, Grace. “Of A Woman's Body Both Subject and Object” New York Times December 6, 1996. p. C29. Print
Prater, Elizabeth “Michaël Borremans – A Victim of His Situation.” The Ember January 7, 2010: n.pag. Web. Nov. 2010.
Ribas, João. “Michaël Borremans – the AI Interview.” Art Info March 14, 2006: 1-3. Web. Nov. 2010.
Saville, Jenny. Interview by Elaine C. Smith. “Smith and Saville” Arts and Parts S01 E01. STV. Pacific Quay, Scotland, October 20, 1996. Television.
Yuskavage, Lisa. “Chuck Close.” BOMB 52 (Summer 1995): 30-35. Print.