November 30, 2006
Although I cannot fully endorse the “resurrection of the figurative” heralded by many since the rise of Neo-Expression, as my own proclivities lean toward the conceptual, linguistic and interactive in art making, I will take issue with Peter Halley’s assessment that “these artists, and the art they produce, fail to recognize the complexity of the transformations that have taken place within the social.”(1)
On the contrary, I suggest that certain contemporary artists working with the figure have been informed by the eruption of investigative knowledge on the “social order,” including but not limited to the construction of the subject (Saville) and cognitive perception (Baselitz). These artists continue to make figurative painting relevant because of the supplemental and extraneous “fields of knowledge” they bring to the studio and their work bears a much more concise examination, possibly using the general parameters which I will outline here in this limited essay.
The approach to “upside-down” figures in the paintings of Georg Baselitz generally takes the tack of “gimmickry over talent.” I fundamentally disagree with this critique, partially because “talent” has meant so very little in art making since Modernism, but chiefly because I feel that his working methods are genuinely obsessed with distancing his cognitive perception from his art making. That is to say, recognizing that the human eye initially perceives reality as an inverted one and that “we know no other reality” (2), then we have to at least consider one possible entry into Baselitz’s work ought to be the supposition that he may be attempting representations of pre-conscious cognition, which has a very rich tradition in historic art theory. Then again, we might also surmise that his inverted paintings may in fact be an attempt to reproduce the “bracketing” of reality proposed by Edmund Husserl in his phenomenology, wherein:
empirical subjectivity is suspended, so that pure consciousness may be defined in its essential and absolute Being. This is accomplished by a method of ‘bracketing’ empirical data away from consideration. ‘Bracketing’ empirical data away from further investigation leaves pure consciousness, pure phenomena, and the pure Ego as the residue of phenomenological reduction.(3)
Jenny Saville’s figuration, however, revolves around representations of the “ideal self,” an image perpetuated certainly by the “social order,” and specifically by the idealized images of women’s bodies projected by the advertising industry. Saville’s paintings of herself are brutal, topological mappings of obesity in her consideration of the imperfect form supplemented by the critical guise of a post-feminist outlook. She comes armed with the writings of Luce Irigaray to deflect and reject the “male gaze,” fully prepared to further encode the French author’s words in mirror reverse text written in her Propped (1992) as she paints “a staged contemplation of the role played by gender in authoring, viewing and critiquing the body of woman.”(4)
Whether it is emergent cognition and pre-conscious perception of retroactive figuration, or a conflation of identity construction with Lacanian psychoanalysis, the human figure holds the keen interest of a scant few painters of vision. In any case, the “cost of the romantic return they advocate”(5) may well be worth a reprisal of this kind of figurative work.
Reading for 6 December: Suzi Gablik’s “Pluralism: The Tyranny of Freedom” in Has Modernism Failed? (on reserve).
1. Peter Halley, "The Crisis in Geometry", Arts Magazine, Vol. 58, No. 10, June 1984.
4. Isabelle Wallace, "The Looking Glass from the Other Side: Reflections on Jenny Saville's Propped", Journal: Visual Culture in Britain, Vol. 5, Issue 2, Winter 2004.
5. Halley, op. cit.