Now Figuration @ Portrait Society
Skully Gustafson. Madam Zola & Stan. 2017. Acrylic on canvas.
Recalling the Milwaukee Art Museum’s New Figuration in America (1983), Now Figuration explores the figure within the context of today’s contemporary art landscape. The painting heavy show also includes echoes of MoMA’s The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World. Now Figuration also presents many mirrors that might reflect the viewer’s many selves.
Skully Gustafson’s Madame Zola & Stan blends abstraction and figuration, engaging in semiotic and formal play. Madame Zola & Stan welcomes viewers to the gallery and immediately confronts them with difficulties (and pleasures) of reading images in contemporary figuration. Just when viewers think they’ve figured it out, the painting breaks down and reinvents itself. Gustafson arrives at this sort of fluidity through the materiality of the paint and through his application: allowing smears, drips, and broken outlines. The composition of the piece is straightforward, allowing Gustafson to access a full range of colors and marks without losing intelligibility. In the end, Gustafson disassembles viewers expectations, making the placement of this piece on the wall outside the gallery significant and smart.
In Herman Aguirre’s lush and chunky portraits, colors, textures, and smells lure and hold viewers gazes as inspection and introspection collide in an art experience. These portraits are profoundly beautiful yet evoke pulverized meat, scraped skin, and the scabs that form as the body heals. This sort of rawness, damage, and revitalization gives Aguirre’s work implications beyond sensuous experience and encourages viewers to return to themselves changed.
Rafael Salas’s mixed media collage-paintings appear as relics of a bygone era placed in shadow boxes for preservation. Yet, digital glitches appear, holes are cut in canvases, and figures are collaged into sparse landscapes utilizing the language of contemporary abstraction. Stretching the limits of memory, Salas’s Prairie Musicians conjure passing shadows of what is being lost and move into the future as collective memories.
Now Figuration works despite its diversity. A level of abstraction stitches the work together and allows for an odd (but successful) combination of salon and traditional gallery installation. The resulting juxtapositions create conversations between individual artworks. The installation Silhouettes by J. Shimon is the only hiccup in the show. It feels crowded into the space and this viewer would like to experience it with more room to breathe.
Now, figuration is anchored in postmodernity along with the rest of contemporary art. Anything goes, and the particular mashup presented in Now Figuration informs how viewers see not only the world, but themselves, and what might be.
David Najib Kasir. Multiply Bombings / Add Losses. 2016. Encaustic and mixed media on panel. 7 x 11 inches.
My first experience of Fragmented Home & Place, an exhibition of recent work by David Najib Kasir and Fahimeh Vahdant, was a visceral sort of punch to the gut. Donald Trump should see this show, I thought, because, in the words of Vahdat, “Art is a catalyst for change.”
A grouping of mostly small scale works, each made with tenderness, care, and sadness, this powerful exhibition asks the viewer to contemplate war and humanitarian crises. The work fits together like tiles of an ancient mosaic (some missing or crumbling, some still tight and bright). The placement of the work is natural and enhances their visual and contextual impact.
Using imagery of Arab men, women, and children, Kasir successfully fragments the narrative viewers seek as they move from panel to panel, artwork to artwork; mimicking the destruction war wreaks on civilian populations. The viewer must negotiate this fragmentation despite the soft colors, exquisite lines, and beautiful mosaics. The flesh tones and textures of the encaustic equally repulse and connect viewers to each moment. Neither the labor or the pain are immediately evident in the work, but the Kasir acknowledges the the physical and emotional demands of the making. Perhaps, pain and labor contribute quietly to the effectiveness of the work.
Vahdat’s work lives even as it contemplates questions of violence, abuse, and death. Monotypes flash color and images, installations invade space and insist on being present (stand-ins for those who can’t speak for themselves?), and fabric dances over prints of text and female bodies. Indeed, as Vahdat notes, “In my work I seek to create a more fluid boundary between art and life to perhaps influence cultural and personal transformation.” Viewers interact with Vahdat’s art, building a relationships with it, learning and growing from it.
After recent news, I wonder if President Trump or the majority of Americans have the capacity for either empathy or change. As Stokely Carmichael notes in Black Power Mixtape, nonviolent resistance (art) assumes your oppressor has a conscience. But this exhibition affirms that art can change the world. Vahdat says, “I insist at all times on hopeful outcomes and the buoyancy of the human spirit under even the worst conditions.”
Kate E. Schaffer: artist, writer, weirdo.