Figurative Art at George Billis Gallery

Eve Mansdorf, Haircut, oil on linen, 84″ x 74″; courtesy the artist

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Abstract painters like to bitch and moan about their lot in life. Abstract art, they complain, was once the standard-bearer of high culture, but now it’s just another item on display in the dizzying bazaar that is contemporary art. Still, I’m not so sure figurative painters don’t have a harder time of it. Abstraction, largely because it continues to be puzzling to a mass public, still carries with it the faintest whiff of the outré. Figurative painters aren’t so lucky: They’re usually fobbed off as musty relics relying on an obsolete aesthetic.

Sure, there are plenty of painters, some of them well known, who have dedicated themselves to a post-ironic, Pop-based permutation of figurative art. They make a claim on a grand tradition, intending to set themselves above it (and ending up below it, instead). But what I’m referring to, for lack of a better adjective, are straight figurative painters: artists who relish the complexity of the human body without recourse to been-there-done-that cynicism, artists who seek out possibilities of form and emotion through direct observation.

Go Figure, a group exhibition of 26 painters and sculptors on display at the George Billis Gallery, won’t convince you that “the fragility and beauty that exists within the body” is an “ideal” necessarily suited to contemporary art. The majority of pieces are run-of-the-mill in their competence; few of them are inspired. Then again, those few do make you stop in mid-step and pay attention. Galleries, having consigned their A-list artists to summer break, are currently featuring not-ready-for-prime-time talent. Go Figure features a handful of painters who deserve to stick around once the temperature heads south.

Whether Marcus Cain is one of them, I’m not sure. His mixed-media works on paper offer folksy ruminations on childhood and solitude. In Mr. Cain’s cartoonish scenarios, patterning engulfs every surface and object—flesh, hair, cake and water. The narratives pictured—a boy praying, a child being measured by a parent—are Rockwellian in character, inflected with sentiment and cliché. The pieces are too squirrelly and arch to take seriously, but too tender and true to dismiss altogether.

Tom Gregg’s Eden (1997) evokes childhood as well. Isn’t that Dick and Jane, rendered in pinkish-purple, running through that encompassing expanse of floral wallpaper? The painting is less about memory than style: In the foreground, there’s a contrasting, handsomely executed still life of apples, oranges, lemons and bananas. It’s hard to know how to settle the painting’s conflicting impulses, but as a diversion, Eden isn’t bad at all.

Kurt Solmssen’s July (2000) is a bravura, though sturdy and stoic, example of painterly realism. The depiction of a woman standing on a ladder picking cherries recalls both Edward Hopper’s arrangements of structure and light and Fairfield Porter’s paint handling. Jonathan Shahn’s sculpture, Gesturing Figure (1992), is a roughhewn, life-size nude male cobbled and carved from wood. Notwithstanding his hardscrabble Expressionistic fervor, Mr. Shahn is sensitive to the nuances of material and subject. The overlays of paint are the kicker: They don’t simply adorn the work, they enhance its sculptural integrity—a tough feat to pull off.

As for best in show, it’s a toss-up. Eve Mansdorf’s Kitchen (2004) confirms my belief that she’s one of the most natural paint handlers around. Flinty yet agile, Ms. Mansdorf’s brush works its nubbly magic within a framework of curt and spiky lines. It’s heartening that the domestic dramas portrayed in her recent work have started to reveal a maturity more in line with her painterly touch. Two women face a man who has his back to the viewer; their expressions are close to impenetrable, though the tension is unmistakable. Ms. Mansdorf hasn’t altogether expunged her tendency toward theatricality, but she has learned how to downplay and deepen it.

BatyaMaureen Mullarkey, Batya oil on panel, 26″ x 18″; courtesy the artist

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Ms. Mansdorf loves the figure as a means of exploring human experience. Maureen Mullarkey loves the figure for its ability to absorb and refract the exigencies of painting. An actual person may have posed for Batya (2003)—a portrait of a topless woman in the studio holding a coffee cup—but in the picture, her body has become an armature upon which color, contour and mass are brought into contemplative equipoise. The subtle stylization of facial features brings to mind the Fayum portraiture of ancient Egypt; the muffled hands summon up the unbearable tenderness of Arshile Gorky’s portrait of his mother. The heartbreakingly subtle gradations of tone and touch suggest that this is an artist who considers painting both a responsibility and a joy. Ms. Mansdorf and Ms. Mullarkey have proven they’re ready for prime time.

(c) 2005 Mario Naves

Originally published in the August 14, 2005 edition of The New York Observer.

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