Connecting Figures: New Humanism in Recent Figurative Painting

The formidable imagery of humanist painting has been troublesome to incorporate within the framework of today’s painting. In the 1960s and 70s when the art market was burgeoning for trendy “art of the day,” artists like those of the Rhino Horn group predicted the shape of things to come. In the group’s manifesto they stated:

“Realize when you see our work that the so-called “thirty years of painting and sculpture” in this country has been built on a lie; it has been packaged, promoted and super-sold by ambitious critics, dealers and curators trying to build their own reputation as they fatten their bankrolls.”

This quotation echoes in the Museum of Modern Art’s recent “Forever Now” exhibition, the museum’s first contemporary painting survey in three decades. MoMA is renowned for organizing groundbreaking painting survey’s such as Dorothy Canning Miller’s six contemporary exhibitions of American art, which introduced nearly one hundred American artists to the public. “Forever Now” was a far cry from the museum’s esteemed history of seminal contemporary painting surveys. The exhibition was loaded with (largely) derivative and abstract painting (albeit there were some gems in the show) by artists who are established art market favorites. There was very little work in the show that had an emotional impact, but rather an affirmation of the status quo. The influence of money makes the art world go round.

Humanism in the arts is an evolving concept and goes against the evolution of the status quo. Since the heyday of Rhino Horn, there have been monumental changes in technology which has pushed the way our culture communicates and functions to new extremes. The paintings in “Forever Now” felt as if they were driven by technological and material energy. Therefore, I have compiled a list (which is only the beginning and will be expanded) of contemporary painters who are swimming against the grain of technological impulses and art world trends. Their work is figurative and steeped in the human psyche and condition in times of crisis. In some cases their work explores absurd phenomena in our society, or questions the significance of life’s dualities. Sometimes it is meant to disturb, shock, and elicit a visceral response. Overall, they assert new meanings, add to the terminology, and interrogate the lineage of painting.

Aaron Johnson:

Aaron Johnson,

Aaron Johnson, Demon Pig, 2015, Acrylic on polyester knit mesh
54 × 48 inches. Gallery Poulsen

“In the current dismal state of the nation, viewing Johnson’s explosively grotesque paintings is suddenly a bit like looking in the mirror. As subtle as a popped blister, they ransack the cultural vernacular—Christianity, Thanksgiving, war, Michele Bachmann, Babe the Blue Ox—and spew it back in our face, with plenty of blood, guts, and bodily fluids. And let’s take a moment to appreciate that the announcement card for this show features the image of a military-helmeted dog crapping in Jesus’s mouth while fellating him. God Bless America.” – Scott Indrisek, Modern Painters,  January 2011.

Aaron Johnson has captivated my senses since I saw his solo show at STUX Gallery in 2011 (now Stux + Haller Gallery). His large scale canvases were engrained in an expressionist mode, with figurative narratives that were heavy on the burlesque and the political commentary. I get a very strong juxtaposition of a visceral and intellectual experience with Johnson’s figurative paintings. I also feel a connection between both the themes and medium of Johnson’s work and Nicholas Sperakis’ work during the Rhino Horn years. Sperakis used coffee grinds, beeswax, and other studio materials blended into his pigments, and Johnson uses cheesecloth, materials from his studio, and more recently (and ongoing) used crowd-sourced socks. Other links are to the work of Peter Dean and Peter Saul whose epic narratives blend reality within a fantasist world. One of the best contemporary paintings during the Armory week was Johnson’s Demon Pig, a monstrous composition in reference to the wave of injustice and unrest between police and the citizens they’re sworn to serve.

Chris Ofili:

Chris Ofili at the New Museum. Photo by Arthur Ivan

Chris Ofili is already well acclaimed as an important artist. His show “Night and Day” at the New Museum was one of the highlights of the year thus far. Ofili is a contemporary painter who makes sweeping humanist statements in his work. His large scale paintings from “The Blue Rider” and “Metamorphoses” series recalls certain allegorical elements and stylistic elements of  paintings by Bob Thompson. The two artists share a kindred spirit in their interpretations and improvisations of African American culture, the Old Masters, Jazz, film, and politics. Just as Thompson was making bold progressive statements channeling a westernized cannon of painting to create new myths of modern man, Ofili connects myths of the past with revelations of today.

While the show at the New Museum was his first major U.S. solo exhibition, Ofili has been no stranger to the cultural (and anti-cultural) discourse in this country. Ofili first made national news in America by drawing the ire of former mayor Rudolph Giuliani. 15 years ago, Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary, a portrait of a black Madonna surrounded by female genitalia and featuring a breast made from elephant dung was exhibited in the Brooklyn Museum’s show Sensation caused the Mayor to call it “sick.” Giuliani stirred the pot of the culture wars and threatened legal action against the museum if it wasn’t removed. Ofili triumphed.

Patricia Watwood, Fallen Angel, 2012, Oil on canvas 30 x 30

Patricia Watwood, Fallen Angel, 2012, Oil on canvas
30 x 30 inches

“I am not so much interested in women as a subject as I am in women as a presence. I’m not trying to create an object so much as a force.” – Patricia Watwood

The themes in Brooklyn based Patricia Watwood’s classically inspired figurative paintings take on allegorical and mythological context that reflects and yearns to make connections about our collective consciousness. One striking series of paintings features a dozen paintings (painted in 2012-13) with titles like Venus ApocalypseFaith in the Wilderness, and Fallen Angel feature classically painted female nudes in dystopian urban landscapes. Here we see both natural beauty and powerful assertion of femininity, as well as a dire reminder of the ecological and environmental disasters that are a result of human interaction.

Devon Clapp, ahhh hell yeah..., 2015, oil on canvas, 48

Devon Clapp, ahhh hell yeah…, 2015, oil on canvas, 48 x 38 inches

I was delighted when Brooklyn and Boston based artist Devon Clapp mentioned he enjoyed reading about the Rhino Horn artists. I have always made a connection between his work and theirs. Upon reading the first line in his artist’s statement: “My work recreates the same sensation one would feel when stumbling upon pornographic magazines in the woods,” one is already drawn into the mysterious and often troubling world in Clapp’s painterly vignettes, which offer humanistic statements about society’s darker image and explore phenomenon related to ritual and cognitive behavior and perpetuated by societal trends.

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 1.49.22 AM

Devon Clapp, Dead Cop, 2013, oil on canvas, 44 5/8 x 33 1/4 inches

 The abject nature of Devon Clapp’s imagery explores the fetishized natural world, where dualities at first seem contradictory but on careful examination they are revealed to have parallel effects. Images of sexual desire, corporeal, and erotic in nature, at the same time express feelings of fear and discomfort. Taboo and kitsch, indiscretion and language, death and sensuality are themes that are expressively aligned together in Clapp’s body of work. Clapp’s drippy and gestural brushstrokes along with his bold color palette further exemplify this feeling of eroticism, giving his work mysterious and alluring effects. His work creates charged metaphysical sigils and draws on the visual language of the Occult as influence. It’s as if one stumbled across a delightfully rich trove of intimate voyeuristic and seductive mementos deep within the woods. His compositions are at once glimpses into the intimate, absurd, perverse, silly, scary and mundane aspects of human nature.

Anki King:

Anki King, In Love, 2011,  oil on canvas, 80 x 80

Anki King, In Love, 2011, oil on canvas, 80 x 80 inches

Anki King is a painter whose figures embody a universal humanism and present a lineage to her Figurative Expressionist antecedents. Her work, overall  has a humanist dialog. The way that she renders the figure within the environment feels like it is informed by a collective conscious, in that they are universal figures who share the basic make-up and primacy of the human condition. The work from the series “A Room of Her Own speaks about the abuse and powerlessness of women throughout the world who are tormented by male oppression.

Neutralizing the Enemy, 84x58, oil on canvas, 2010

Anki King, Neutralizing the Enemy, 2010, oil on canvas, 84 x 58 inches

 When exhibited, Anki says “In Love will be accompanied by a pile of rocks that should sit to the side of the viewer. Uncomfortably placing the viewer in that spot where they could be the first to throw a rock on the half buried woman whose only crime was to fall in love.” It’s a Girl is referring to the killing of female babies as they are seen as of such little value they are rather killed than spending the money raising them. In another powerful painting titled Neutralizing the Enemy, King expresses the autocracies of some regimes in the world that use rape as warfare. When exhibited she says “the work will have a strong spot light mounted in such a way that the shadow of the viewer falls onto the painting and again makes the viewer part of the scene.” Other works in the series include Nip and Tuck, which references female mutilation.
Leonard Reibstein, Crowning, 2014, oil on linen, 75 x 63

Leonard Reibstein, Crowning, 2014, oil on linen, 75 x 63 inches

 The anarchic imagery in Leonard Reibstein’s work is manifested from a process both autobiographical and subconscious. Within Reibstein’s compositions, there are mythological worlds which reflect the brutal, yet romantic nature of Heavy Metal music (he considers extreme metal to be the last Romantic art form), the history of painting, and existentialism.

Reibstein has an automatic engagement with paint. He doesn’t pre-plan or make up elaborate concepts or ideas before coming into the studio. The process of paint moved around and built up on the canvas dictates the direction of his paintings. Along with his powerful gestural handling of the paint, Reibstein’s color is most stimulating. His best colors come from nature. The big florescent sunset, garbage caked on the streets, the polluted waters in his Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn. He enjoys painting “mutant nature.” Color and motion are also a way in which Reibstein responds to the painterly conversation of art history.

Leonard Reibstein, Engagement, 2014, oil on linen, 84 x 72

Leonard Reibstein, Engagement, 2014, oil on linen, 84 x 72 inches

The vibrant palette he uses also relates to the Old European Masters (especially Bosch, Titian, and Veronese) primacy of color, while his sweeping gestural brushstrokes and heavy impasto recall the imagery of Philip Guston and Leon Golub and their “impure” engagement with the flesh and what process does to it. Additionally there is a dialog with Francis Bacon and James Ensor in his mangled and distorted figuration within tumultuous landscapes that beautifully signify post-civilization. Goya, is his all time favorite artist. Goya who This influence and connection to Goya is evident in Reibstein’s paintings of fantastical nightmare realms.

Reibstein’s paintings are simultaneously challenging and inviting. This is a result from the artist’s juxtaposition of high and low brow art forms. As much as he is influenced by the great Northern Renaissance painters (Bosch, Bruegel, Grünewald), Goya, and Ensor, he is equally inspired by the art of Manga and Japanese comic books. We also spoke about the allegorical meanings of the animals, which is a recurring theme throughout his work and broaden his painterly vocabulary. A la George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Reibstein’s use of animals symbolize aspects of humanity, both innocent and malevolent.  Reibstein studied with some great painters at Bard including Nicole Eisenman and Amy Sillman, and their expertise has certainly rubbed off on him.


rudyshepherd2 Top: Michael Brown, shot and killed by police in Ferguson, MO, 2014 watercolor on paper 12 x 9 inches Bottom: Darren Wilson, police officer who shot Michael Brown, 2014, watercolor on paper 12 x 9 inches

Rudy Shepherd paints portraits of subjects that appear in the media, current events, and press archives. The intent of his paintings is an exploration of evil in human nature, and the media’s hyperbolic depictions of events and personalities. Shepherd portrays both victims and perpetrators with the same humanity and dignity, and blurs the line between guilt and innocence, making us question the way they are depicted.

Echo Sheild

Melanie Daniel, Echo Shield, 2012

Canadian born and Tel-Aviv based artist, Melanie Daniel, creates work that explores themes with Humanist, political and existential intent.  Her “Echo Shield” evokes the dichotomy between Israel and Palestinian politics. Daniel is neither Jewish or Muslim, although she speaks Hebrew and Arabic. Her outsider perspective gives interesting vantage points to her work.  However, the mimesis in her paintings is unnatural because the paintings and figuration invent the places and intent. She develops these surreal landscapes by allowing the painterly vocabulary dictate the direction of the painting. For example, in the painting Echo Sheild there is a juxtaposition of oppressive and spiritual forces that divides people who are not so dissimilar in their roots, but are polar opposites in economic and social terms. The iconic shape of the shield symbolizes many different facets of culture. It represents protective forces, and also resembles a dome, satellite, Middle Eastern architecture, and a crescent moon. All of which are symbols of the Israeli/Palestinian environment. There is an overarching feeling of anxiety within these works.

Screen shot 2015-04-14 at 4.09.09 PM

Melanie Daniel, Two Shores Away and Still Sloshing, 2014

However, in the 2014 “Lotus Eaters,” series it’s more about escapism than anxiety. If you examine the details emerging from the camouflaged scene in Two Shores Away and Still Sloshing the man dragging his rubber dingy across the lake has a spliff between his lips and a pot plant sitting in his boat. Daniel said that the “Overall feel of the show is dreamlike and vulnerable. I wasn’t thinking of Jungian theory. Lotus Eaters speaks of a self-induced reverie and need to invent stories or myths. In Homer’s story, the men fall captive to the narcotic’s spell and need to be dragged off the island. Daydreaming (take the lotus eating metaphorically save for the stoner dude with inflatable dingy) is a necessity and the characters in the paintings all seem to have this in common. They can wake up when they’re ready.”

The title of Daniel’s upcoming exhibition is “Piecemaker,” which will feature paintings of landscapes and Arabesque patterning. The polarizing and problematic fusion of two worlds, describes piece-making. The pun is intended.

Sophia Dawson:

Sophia Dawson, Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Pig?, 2015

Sophia Dawson, Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Pig?, 2015

Sophia Dawson was born and raised in Brooklyn. As a teenager she participated in the Groundswell Community Mural project, where she now teaches painting to today’s youth. Most recently she joined over 200 artists to exhibit work at the Brooklyn non-profit art gallery Smack Mellon in response to the epidemic of civil rights violations affecting black individuals across the country. Dawson also had a solo exhibition of paintings at Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation called “Color Bars.” Dawson’s work references her own experience as a black female artist. Her subject matter focuses on recent black history, raising awareness to the continued struggle of oppressed people, and  perseverance over these obstacles.


Sophia Dawson, Unlawful Assembly, 2015

She has also devoted a series to unequal police policy, which is exemplified clearly in her work Unlawful Assembly (2015). Unlawful Assembly was enacted into law in 1682 with the intent on preventing slaves from gathering in groups of four or more without their master being present. This law still stands today and is often a basis for bias policing in neighborhoods with predominantly African American residents. Dawson is also still painting grand and poignant murals that focus on the community.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s