Back to the Figure

Recognizable forms are showing up in the works of a new wave of contemporary painters

(Cheryl Carlin)
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He points to a 9-by-12-foot canvas of a sketchy figure climbing a palm tree, hugging the trunk and peering out from an abstract void of brushstrokes, drips and cracks. "Those drips and cracks are the kinds of beautiful things in painting that are unique," he says. "You take chances and they're given to you, but I'd hate them to become a mannerism or gimmick." It was the figure, however, that most struck SITE Santa Fe director Laura Heon when the painting was shown at the museum's 2006 Biennial. "In a sense, it's a return to humanism," she says. "There's something very generous about making a picture of a human being."

A major retrospective of Doig's work will open at the Tate Modern in London in February.

Dana Schutz

In Dana Schutz's paintings, the fake and the real are hard to tell apart. "I know my images are constructed, but I believe in them when I'm painting," she says in her studio in an old industrial building turned artists' co-op in Brooklyn. Schutz, 30, likes to create figures and put them into different scenarios in a series of paintings, where they seem to take on a life of their own. One such series is of figures she calls "self-eaters"—a stripped-down form of people who survive by feeding on parts of their own bodies and then reconstructing themselves. The paintings, with their fantastic imagery and what she calls her "extroverted colors"—hot pinks and reds, electric purples and jungle greens—have been praised as a new Expressionism, and it is easy to interpret them in terms of social ills—from anorexic models to ravenous consumerism—or even as glimpses into the artist's psyche. But Schutz disagrees.

"I'm not an Expressionist," she protests. "These paintings are not about me expressing how I feel at all." The self-eaters, she says, "are a pictorial solution; you can take them apart and put them together again. It's like they just became material."

But Schutz does say that her paintings are sometimes inspired by what she sees on the Internet or is thinking about at the time. "I want these paintings to start somewhere in the public imagination, where people feel like they could know that story, like plastic surgery or production-consumption, or the ways we make alternative histories for ourselves," she says. "More and more I feel like the most radical thing art can do is give someone an experience they feel is unfamiliar in some way."

For Schutz, there's no hard line between abstract and figurative painting. "I don't think of them as being something separate." In one new painting of a man and woman driving, the figures in the car seem almost plastic, as if they're melting in a hot Hawaiian landscape. "The way I'm thinking about them," she says, "is that in the future, if you were looking back at us, what features would remain, in a slightly distorted or generalized way?

"Maybe we're refiguring the figure," she continues. "Making paintings about painting just sounds crazy. All that talk about the paint. I think artists now want to be making meaning and having an effect. It's very different from the 20th century."

An exhibition of Schutz's work opens in November at the Contemporary Fine Arts Gallery in Berlin, Germany.

Neo Rauch


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