The Walter Darby Bannard Archive

Faces and Figures at FIU: A Hard Look (2003)

Miami Art Exchange.

Whatever we think of the exhibits themselves or the art in them we must be grateful for institutions which conceive, curate and mount full-scale shows on a theme or of an artist. In a city the size of Miami, dependent on tourism as we are, we should not have to wait so long for such things to come about, but that's the way it is, unfortunately. The startling success of Art Basel should not only serve to enhance the funding of our several visual arts institutions but tell them to get on the ball to deserve it.

We have two at the moment: "Faces and Figures," the latest in the "American Art Today" series at the Art Museum at Florida International University, and "Helen Frankenthaler, Works on Paper (1949-2003)" at the Museum of Contemporary Art. These each have been put on by a director ambitious and energetic enough to do what she can to relieve our art dearth. The exhibits are of very different character and esthetic interest but both are worth seeing.

Because I am no expert on the world of contemporary figure painting I cannot say whether better art could have been found for "Faces and Figures." A number of the artists have international reputations; Chuck Close, Louise Bourgeois, Alice Neel, Alex Katz and Philip Pearlstein have been around forever, Kenny Scharf was hot in the '80s and Kiki Smith in the '90s and several others are currently on the scene. Some trendy younger figure painters, like John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage, are not in the show, but they would have fit right in.

Including Miami artists was an excellent decision; it not only gives a nice boost to our local practitioners, several of whom, I am pleased to point out, are graduates of our MFA program at UM, but it also puts them up against New York. And although any favorable comparison is somewhat compromised by the mediocrity of so many of the celebrated out-of-towners, our artists certainly do more than hold their own.

Mediocrity in art comes from lack of talent and esthetic judgement, of course, but I think a lot of the problem here is that so many of these artists are up to a lot "more" than just painting the figure. The catalog essay by Roni Feinstein, who co-curated the exhibit, is admirably clear and inclusive, and she makes a real effort - to the extent of actually categorizing - to describe and explain the particular character of each artist's work. By doing so she involuntarily corroborates what is apparent when one looks at the show itself: that the figure, as often as not, is, in fact, merely a vehicle for varieties of latter-day surrealism, comic-strip story-telling, retro affectation, coy childhood allusion, "dumb" cuteness, political commentary, mischievous absurdity, sophisticated primitivism and all the arch devices of the great postmodernist morass art is slogging through right now. All this fanciful posturing and facade-building doesn't help the art much. But my guess is that it probably mirrors what is going on fairly well, and this is a service in itself.

There is painfully inept painting here (some by the "old masters") but there is also some that is pretty sharp: a flash of fine technique in an Elizabeth Peyton picture (and some abject crudeness in an adjoining passage), the tight realism of Torok and Wes Charles (though I wish Charles would work on the nasty video/installation ideas he had some years ago instead of getting precious), Remfry's watery surfaces, Alice Neel's pungent figure, and, in what I think is the best painting in the show, the muscular brushwork of Carroll Dunham's oversize black & white cartoon figure in a landscape. Although I have written some mild criticism of Franklin Einspruch's painting in the past, coming acoss his slathered surfaces after looking at a dozen or so tepid insipidities was a refreshing surprise, and I saw that he was one of the few more into making a painting than conjuring mannerism.

On the other hand, some work was lamentable: Louise Bourgeois's shocking-pink furball head enthroned in a large vitrine, the hopelessly pretentious supplicating figure by Kiki Smith, Maria Brito's silly "haircut" wall piece, the crudely painted early cut-out figure by Alex Katz, Viola Frey's clunky high-school ceramic-project monster, Barry X. Ball's glitzed-up kitch head. There were any number of painters whose painting skills were not up to par. If you are a Jackson Pollock this kind of deficiency can be swept away by the charge of genius, but there are no Pollocks here.

We also see, in this time when nothing really new and exciting is happening, how we lionize artists who persist in dull but technically adept work for years with little change - Pearlstein and Katz, for example, and Chuck Close, whose trademark gimmick seems to have put over his plodding, inert art to the point where he has become a revered master. (The counterpart in abstract painting could be Ellsworth Kelly.)

Bryan Cooper's "pilgrim" video was fun, I thought. So was Torok's "Life of the Artist" cartoon. And the small glass figure by Nicolas Africano was nicely crafted and had an odd frozen sensuousness, like the rock candy in the old-fashion Easter egg dioramas I had when I was a kid. When the art isn't good enough to grab you these secondary tastes can move in unhindered so you can enjoy what little there is.

As I said, my guess is that "Faces and Figures" is a pretty fair cross-section of recent figure painting, so my negative take on it is less a critcism of the organizers than evidence for the observation that, even when it comes to realism, which has a long tradition and a built-in head start on the other forms, art-making these days is in a shambles. We have misapplied the admirable concept of artistic freedom, using it to attack, disable and throw into disrepute received as well as innovative methods and attitudes which have given us centuries of vigorous art, only to wrap ourselves in vacuous, prophylactic layers of academic mannerism. Not with a bang, but a whimper, as Eliot wrote.

I look forward to seeing and reviewing the Frankenthaler show at MoCA very soon. I haven't been crazy about all of the work on paper she has done recently - what I've seen, anyway, which has to be a tiny part of her huge output - but she's the real thing and it is a very large show. My guess is there will be a lot that stands up to the "hard look." I certainly hope so.