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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In an old army barracks made into artists' studios at the College of Santa Fe, Katherine Lee, 22, wonders how her wired generation will look at art. "We read so many instant visual messages these days," she says, "like commercials—read it and get it—and I want a painting to be interesting longer than a commercial break. I think there is a fear of narrative, and it comes from the idea of ‘getting it.' People are so used to advertising that they want what they see in a painting to be pre-thought by someone else. But advertising does such a good job that maybe you have to find a new strategy."

A mysterious, almost black landscape with a patch of distant light is pinned to Lee's studio wall. It has the moody atmosphere and depth of a 19th-century landscape, but Lee painted it from several photographs using a mixture of graphite, oils and cans of spray paint. The dark foliage suggests a jungle or forest, and there's something that looks like a red umbrella in the midst of it all. But there are no people. It's hard to know anything about the scene, which is just what she wants. "That umbrella in the forest suggests something is going on," she says. "I like the idea that everything acts as potential content. I really don't think about what it means when I'm making it, because I know it's going to make its own meaning."

When she does paint human figures, as in an oil and graphite image of a romantic couple she calls Untitled Love, Lee wants the paint to interest a viewer as much as the image. "It's not exactly figurative painting," she says, "because it's not really about these people. When I started the painting, it really was just about the figure, but pretty soon that seemed too flat. I got really frustrated and sort of destroyed most of the painting, and then it was a lot better. I took a brush and just violently blurred everything. By abstracting everything to such an extent, the painting becomes open, it gains a lot of potential content as opposed to explicitly explaining itself."

Katherine Lee's paintings will be on view in a thesis show at the Fine Arts Gallery of the College of Santa Fe in May.

Elizabeth Neel

Elizabeth Neel, 32, a recent graduate of Columbia University's School of the Arts, is a painter whose work is adding to the new excitement about contemporary painting that blends abstraction and representation. In her Brooklyn studio, canvases are covered with large abstract brushstrokes reminiscent of de Kooning, yet they incorporate the kind of figures a painter such as Matisse might have imagined. Neel says her own sensibility is shaped by the flood of images around her, from advertising and television to films, videos and the Internet. "We are consumers of images almost from the day we're born," she says, and she thinks art now has to deal with that environment.

Granddaughter of 20th-century figurative painter Alice Neel, Elizabeth often surfs the Internet for images before starting a painting. She does not project photographs onto a canvas, but makes sketches of the images she wants to use. Sometimes, she says, the purely formal aspects of making a painting—the scale of her brushstrokes, for example—may change her interest in the picture and send her back to the Internet for new images and ideas. "I think painting can have a wonderful duality; it can be about itself and it can be about the world," she says, "and it's a good passage in a painting when that happens."

The British collector Charles Saatchi has purchased several of Neel's paintings and is including some of them in his on-going series of exhibitions, "The Triumph of Painting," at his London gallery. Neel will have a solo show at the Deitch Projects in New York City in the spring of 2008. Her work can be seen at the Deitch Projects Web site.

Writer and painter Paul Trachtman lives in New Mexico. His article about the Dadaists ran in the May 2006 Smithsonian.


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