At Whitechapel Gallery, Radical Figures headlines five new exhibitions
By James Brewer
Contemporary artists are elated that painting is back in style. Yes, full-blown painting!
To the dismay of some in artistic circles, the application of paint to canvas was “pronounced dead” in the 1980s, experimentation in other sometimes wild perceptions having taken hold in colleges and institutions in the previous decade.
Now London’s Whitechapel Gallery, itself a crucible of unconventionality and reflector of trends and avant-garde extremes, is revelling in the revival of figurative work, evidenced by its current headline exhibition, Radical Figures: Painting in the new Millennium.
While the exhibitors are far from plunging back into classical ways of illustrating the world, they use imposing painted canvases to render their subject matter, of social disquiet and often of that perennial inspiration, the sea and water. This is a new generation eager to tell their stories with tools other than the conceptual, multimedia, and virtual reality.
Entering the gallery, one comes immediately face-to-face with the bold brushstrokes of the 21st century practitioners.
Typical of the turbulent style of Cecily Brown, who paints in vivid colours in oil on linen, is The Last Shipwreck which she completed in 2018. Many of her recent paintings take the sea as a point of departure to reinterpret art history. She is an abstract expressionist who addresses the question of the sea and the shoreline “as highly contested sites where issues of national identity, ethnicity, gender and religious beliefs intersect.”
She is fascinated by painters of 19th century maritime disasters, such as the French Romantics Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) and Théodore Géricault (1791-1824), the latter noted for The Raft of the Medusa, a more-than-life size painting of the wreck of the French naval frigate Méduse, which in 1816 ran aground off the coast of what is now Mauritania.
In an interview in 2019 Cecily said that she “stumbled on a reproduction of a Eugène Delacroix shipwreck [painting] that caught my imagination and I ended up making dozens of copies.”
Shipwreck was a subject that was “moving, emotional, terrifying, dramatic, timeless, and the idea of the stormy sea and stormy sky, the straight lines of the crisscrossing sails and mast, the torment, and the obvious metaphor for the human race now or at any time… I keep thinking no more shipwrecks, but I can’t quite let it go or get away from them,” she told the journalist Alain Elkann.
British-born Cecily lives and works in New York and is inspired by such phenomena as the Northern Lights seen off the coast of Denmark. Her recent solo exhibitions have been at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark (2018) and Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester (2017).
Cecily’s other work now at the Whitechapel includes Lucky Beach from 2017 and Oinops (2016-2017) a reference to Homer’s wine-dark sea (oinops pontos).
Perhaps the most outstanding work on show from Daniel Richter is his huge oil painting entitled Tarifa on a canvas 3.5 m by 2.7 m. A small raft is crammed with people starkly spotlighted in glowing patches of colour on a black ocean. The seven figures are making for the southernmost part of Spain. The artist based the scene on a news image at a time when infrared photography and night vision equipment was being increasingly used by the police and the military.
This neo-expressionist composition is from 2001, before the Mediterranean refugee crisis reached its recent peaks. Demonstrating the lack of awareness of the problem in the early 2000s, some people at first interpreted the flat orange form on which the figures are sitting as a flying carpet.
Daniel Richter, born in Germany, lives and works between Berlin and Hamburg. He has since the early 2000s produced large-scale paintings that bring together contemporary mass-media images with closely observed figurative scenes. He often creates work “in dialogue” with 19th and 20th century painters like James Ensor and Edvard Munch. His solo exhibitions have included Camden Arts Centre, London (2017) and Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt (2014–15).
Narratives of politics and violence in East Africa are the forte of Kenyan-born Michael Armitage, conveyed somewhat in the style of Gauguin. Michael, who lives and works in London, takes his subjects from Kenyan and East African folklore, popular culture, online news and his recollections. He paints in oil on a traditional Ugandan bark cloth called lubugo, a culturally significant material of the Buganda people. The course texture shows through the paint, which is meticulously layered.
Accompanying the choice of Michael’s paintings at the Whitechapel is a video explaining the process dating back several hundred years of outer bark being carefully stripped from its tree, after which the trunk is wrapped in banana leaves to protect the inner layer. The resulting product is burnt and beaten to produce a distinctive texture on which to paint.
One of Michael’s oil paintings on this special cloth is Kampala Suburb, an explicit depiction of two men kissing, which is lent from a private collection in London. Recent solo exhibitions by Michael have been at the newly re-opened Museum of Modern Art, New York (2019) and South London Gallery (2018).
Nicole Eisenman in a mural-like diptych called Progress Real and Imagined presents an indulgent narrative packed with incident in a way reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch. It is based on a self-portrait in a studio on a ship in the open sea, in an Arctic landscape. Her 2006 work could be a creation story – or an apocalypse.
French-born Nicole’s protagonists occupy a sharply lit universe that is both dream and nightmare, in which she uses allegory and satire to engage with contemporary social subjects, from gender and sexuality to wealth and power and Western figurative painting traditions.
She is described as “an inveterate borrower from art history” who “melds Expressionism, Surrealism, pop culture and feminism to consider the hypocritical dream state of contemporary American life, depicting it as a grotesque comedy of errors.”
Nicole’s work in both painting and sculpture featured in the 2019 Venice Biennale and the 2019 Whitney Biennale in New York.
New York-based Dana Schutz devises unlikely scenarios involving humanoid figures, as in Imagine You and Me painted in oil on canvas in 2018 which shows a couple adrift at sea with only birds, plants and fish for company. Her paintings regularly feature grotesque single or grouped figures engaged in absurd, humorous and sometimes abject activities. Often working with thick impasto, Schutz describes her interest in painting as a medium in which “the hierarchies of the world can be rearranged.”
Formally launching the total of five new shows, gallery director Iwona Blazwick said that it was a wonderful array united by an expressive and experimental approach to painting. It was a chance for people to divert from the dominance of the smartphone, from their inner world.
She said that as part of the celebration of this renewed vision, the gallery was referencing a major exhibition at the Royal Academy in London in 1981 which had the title A New Spirit in Painting and was “a trailblazer (despite featuring all-male artists).” That event of 39 years ago refocused attention on the relevance of figurative painting, which had been put in question.
The spirit of exhibition-making is a very important part of art in the UK, she insisted, especially for the gallery as a leading force today in Britain in new art.
Chief curator Lydia Yee recalled that when she was a graduate student in the 1990s, the emphasis was on photographers, installations, performance art, “anything but painting.” Visual artists were written off as conservative, conventional, commercial, against the dominance of abstraction. The question arose today: “how do you represent a figure, after the dominance of photography?” when on social media were billions of photos, most of them of people.
Many of us were getting tired of looking at electronic screens. It should be recognised that many visual artists take months and months to finish a work. We need to slow down and look at these images and unpick them, urged the curator.
She said: “By charting the return of an expressive mode of figuration, this exhibition asks broader questions about art and society today. These artists expand and destabilise fixed notions of identity through their depiction of indeterminate figures and partial bodies.
“By employing digital methods to create compositions; drawing subjects from online sources; or employing a flattened perspective reminiscent of a screen, they reflect new possibilities for the figure in an age when technology is transforming bodies and relationships. The narratives they explore encourage us to consider how painting can reflect personal anxieties and wider social concerns.”
Radical Figures: Painting in the New Millennium brings together 40 canvases from 10 painters who have come to prominence in the last two decades. In alphabetical order, they are Michael Armitage, Cecily Brown, Nicole Eisenman, Sanya Kantarovsky, Tala Madani, Ryan Mosley, Christina Quarles, Daniel Richter, Dana Schutz and Tschabalala Self. Lydia Yee, who was supported in her work by assistant curators Cameron Foote and Candy Stobbs, said that around a quarter of the works feature the sea or water in one way or another.
The exhibition is supported by art business Christie’s and by Bistrotheque, a bistro “housed in an unmarked warehouse somewhere between Bethnal Green and Hackney.”
A smaller exhibition, Return of the Spirit in Painting, recounts that after a decade of conceptual and minimal experience, the 1981 exhibition A New Spirit in Painting took the art world by storm. Lavishly painted, epically scaled neo-expressionist canvases reasserted the centrality of painting – and the hand of the artist. The 38 exhibitors, showing a total of 150 works, had hailed from Europe and America.
That 1981 show was curated by RA exhibitions secretary (now Sir) Norman Rosenthal; Nicholas Serota, then director of the Whitechapel Gallery; and independent curator Christos M Joachimides. Christos Joachimides was born in Athens in 1932 and died there in December 2017. He was described by Sir Norman as a decisive figure for the art worlds of Greece, Germany and the UK.
Joachimides studied in Stuttgart and Heidelberg in 1953 before settling in Berlin from 1958. For the Athens Olympic Games in 2004 he staged a large exhibition of contemporary art called Outlook.
A New Spirit in Painting was so controversial that a night before the opening the show was threatened by some Royal Academicians with closure. It brought to notice the work of painters including Georg Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer and set the agenda for a “return to painting” in the early 1980s.
The Return of the Spirit in Painting presents works by artists in the original show, including Baselitz, Bruce McLean and Julian Schnabel, and archive material from the Whitechapel Gallery and the Royal Academy. From 1984 is Bruce McLean’s Going for Gucci, brightly painted in acrylic and emulsion on canvas, in which he satirises the obsession of the time with expensive accessories. A ladder on the left of the painting hints at the social ladder which some people were keen to climb.
In the exhibition Something Necessary and Useful Portugal’s Carlos Bunga has been commissioned to create a site-specific artwork, and there will be occasional performances by guest contemporary dancers. Using cardboard, tape and paint, Bunga – whose family escaped the violence of the Angolan War of Independence in the 1970s only to experience the difficulties of life in Portuguese society – creates towering structures and imaginary buildings to explore the nature of architecture.
Gallery director Iwona Blazwick described Carlos Bunga as “a leading figure in a generation of artists who brilliantly combine sculpture, action, film and painting.”
In the Eye of Bambi is a selection from ”la Caixa” Collection of Contemporary Art in Spain. The artist and writer Verónica Gerber Bicecci selects works to explore the effects of human and environmental catastrophe on landscape and language.
She envisages a science fiction scenario based on the aftermath of a catastrophic event as in the 2014 animated film Useless Wonder by Carlos Amorales. The exhibition title comes from an enlarged eye peering out of a canvas by Victoria Civera. The gaze is that of Disney’s fawn orphaned by the destructive actions of humans in one of the earliest environmental novels, Bambi, A Life in the Woods (1923) by Felix Salten.
Accompanying her selection is an original tale of the destruction of the natural world by humans, including the words of environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg, scientist and feminist Donna Haraway and poet WB Yeats.
Zimbabwe-born artist Rachel Pimm’s display Plates refers to the effects of a shifting landscape of tectonic plates, based on her geological field work and a soundtrack by Lori E Allen. Rumblings of minerals, salts and lava come from volcanic landscapes such as the Giant’s Causeway of Northern Ireland and the geological depression the Afar Triangle in Ethiopia.
Captions in detail:
The Last Shipwreck. 2018. Oil on linen. By Cecily Brown.
Lucky Beach. Oil on linen. 2017. By Cecily Brown. Laura and Barry Townsley, London.
Tarifa. Oil on canvas. 2001. By Daniel Richter.
Kampala Suburb. Oil on lubugo bark cloth. By Michael Armitage. Private Collection, London.
Dana Schutz Imagine You and Me. 2018 Oil on canvas © Dana Schutz. Courtesy the artist, Petzel Gallery, New York, and Thomas Dane Gallery.
Iwona Blazwick, director, Whitechapel Gallery.
Lydia Yee, chief curator, Whitechapel Gallery.
Progress Real and Imagined (detail). Diptych. 2006. By Nicole Eisenman.
Going for Gucci(detail). 1984. Acrylic and emulsion on canvas. By Bruce McLean. Photo courtesy of the artist and Bernard Jacobson Gallery.
Radical Figures is at Whitechapel Gallery until May 10 2020; The Return of the Spirit in Painting until August 23 2020; Something Necessary and Useful by Carlos Bunga until September 6 2020; In the Eye of Bambi, works from the ”la Caixa” Collection of Contemporary Art until April 19, 2020; and Rachel Pimm: Plates until April 19 2020.