Monday, July 4, 2011

Go Figure - at the Smart Museum

Go Figure - through September 4, 2011
Smart Museum, University of Chicago

Representational art may have lost status in the postwar artworld, but it never disappeared, and now Smart Museum curator Jessica Moss has selected nine artists “to illustrate pivotal moments in figurative art of the last 60 years”.

Confining herself to pieces from the Smart and other Chicago collections, chronologically her story begins with Leon Golub (1922 – 2004) .

His “Colossal Heads” from 1958 look more like the rough, corrupted surfaces of two colossal Shigaraki clay pots, but there’s just enough facial detail to identify them as ugly monsters and thus express the moral despair of the ‘monster roster’ Chicago painters of the 1950’s.

A decade later, both the morality and the despair is gone, and we have the personalized , defiant fetishism of the Chicago Imagists, represented here by a dozen pieces by Christina Ramberg (1946-1995).

In New York, the figure re-emerged in Pop-Art, but recognizing that the artworld has become more global than ever, Ms. Moss brought in a giant folk-pop head by Ravinder Reddy (b. 1956) who is represented by Walsh Gallery here in Chicago, but works at Andhra University, Visakhapatnam. Though reflecting a tradition that is measured in centuries rather than decades, he still manages to convey the vapid banality of Jeff Koons.

Another world-wide phenomenon, especially important in the Midwest, has been the celebration of art brut. The outsider artist shown in this show is Martín Ramírez (1895–1963), whose obsessive drawings were first collected by doctors at the California mental facility where he was confined and posthumously validated and collected by Chicago artists, Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson.

For the figure in conceptual art, a wall-sized installation by S.A.I.C. M.F.A. Clare Rojas (b. 1976) was commissioned. To get the full effect, it needs to be accompanied by her performance as alter-ego “Peggy Honeywell” the folk singer. But even on its own, it would still make for a sharp, decorative mural in a corporate cafeteria.

The five above genres are rather obvious choices for a Chicago based exhibit of figurative art in the contemporary artworld. It’s the other four that are more remarkable, beginning with a few sound suits by S.A.I.C. professor, Nick Cave (b. 1959), who has created a genre all his own. The accompanying theory of concealing racial identity is a bit depressing, but the beautiful costumes are as wild and wacky as anything worn by the Sun Ra Arkestra.

Another local artist whose work echoes African American music is James Kerry Marshall (b.1955) whose narratives of ghetto life are as poignant, topical, structured, and rhythmic as a song by Muddy Waters. American scene painting was banished from high-art by 1950, but, happily, the Chicago artworld encourages it as long as that scene is African American. (another distinguished local practitioner is the sculptor, Preston Jackson)

Neither of the other two artists are from Chicago, but they do represent two of the greatest figurative traditions in the world, a world that now includes its largest civilization, China.

Most artists from the Middle Kingdom gain attention in the West by entering the discourses of contemporary art theory, which makes this show’s selection of a traditional brush painter like Yun-Fei Ji (b. 1963) so remarkable.

Yun-Fei made his Chicago debut at the Smart Museum’s 2008 exhibition of Chinese artists responding to the displacement caused by the Three Gorges Dam. His current scroll continues to work that theme, though he has added two of the most powerful members of every Chinese community, the uniformed officials and the ghosts.

More topical than classic, Yun-Fei may lack the gorgeous power of the great masters, but the gentle humor of his work is as timely as an editorial cartoon.

The other great figurative tradition is post-Renaissance European - in this case, that variety of post-Impressionism that keeps attention on observed detail, but abandons that careful sense of volume that was cultivated from Giotto to Picasso. In middle-brow art, this is the world of art fair photo-realism, in high-brow art it’s Lucien Freud or David Hockney, and it’s fellow Brit, Sylvia Sleigh (1926-2010) who was chosen for this exhibit.

Sleigh was a brave choice because there’s not an ounce of irony, angst, or social criticism in her work. Her “Turkish Bath” gets points for political correctness by replacing appetizing young babes with handsome young dudes. (I think the old dude in front is her husband). But no major museum has collected her painting, and her primary credential for the world of high-art remains her huband, the critic and Guggenheim curator, Lawrence Alloway. Also, her large paintings look quite amateurish as 10 inch reproductions. She has no sense of volume, and since she clearly is trying to make people look sweet, real, and beautiful instead of depressing, sick, or ugly, she appears to be a failure.

But in person, her life size paintings are delicious and far, far removed from amateur naivete. Most remarkable of all is her portrait of Leon Golub, his wife Nancy Spero, and their three sons, with paintings by Mom and Dad on the wall behind them. (including, happily enough, Golub’s “Colossal Heads” which is also in this exhibit) This is the depiction of a happy, healthy, successful middle-class family, so different from the world of monsters that haunt the parents’ imaginations.

Despite 60 years of disparagement, there’s still an enormous artworld out there that is devoted to depicting a happy, healthy life within a beautiful world. Even if some of it’s most prominent practitioners are notorious kitch-meisters, many of them are good artists, and it’s about time that major art institutions, like the Smart Museum, has taken notice of them.

What's still missing are examples of non-cartoonish figure sculpture and volume sensitive painting in the Baroque or Impressionist traditions.

And wouldn't it be shocking if the museum did a show called something like "Go Landscape", with the best contemporary landscapes from Chicago and elsewhere?


This turns out to have been one of the most reviewed exhibits of the year:

*Lori Waxman at Chicago Tribune

*Jason Foumberg at New City

*Paul Klein in his Art Letter