The predicament of art that takes the human figure as subject matter today recalls Dickens on pre-revolutionary Europe: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” On the one hand, with reading on the decline and the graphic image taking its place as the popular narrative form, illustration dominates the channels of cultural diffusion, multiplying familiar outlets and creating new uses for figurative art at every level of accomplishment. On the other hand, in an era when art is split several ways, including the divide between the elite, permanent avant-garde and the popular, low brow alternative that shrugs off critical scorn, the realistic presentation of our favorite subject—ourselves—may earn the money and have the mass audience, but it cannot command the respect still adhering to Giotto, Rembrandt, and even Picasso: all masters of capturing the inner dimensions of humanity through the arrangement and presentation of pose and expression.
Curators Susan Meyer and Thomas Cushman have been contemplating this dilemma while discussing artists who continue to express imagination and individual experience through the human form. “When we look in the mirror we know that we are seeing only a small, physical fragment of our being. An artist’s challenge is to reveal more of ourselves to us,” they wrote in their introduction to Meyer Gallery’s new exhibit Mirror, Mirror. But it’s not so simple as stripping away misdirection or tacking on contemporary symbols: “Figure painters face the daunting task of painting a subject for viewers that we all know only too well. We know what a human being is supposed to look like. It can be unsettling to see ourselves portrayed as anything other than what we see in the mirror.” And so they invited ten artists known for taking liberties with a range of approaches, including portraits, allegory, fantasy, narrative, and the nude, to submit recent work that might illuminate this dilemma. Mirror, Mirror opens on Saturday, four days after 15 Bytes publishes this September issue, so we arranged to see as many of the works in person as were available for preview.
Fatima Ronquillo’s quirky, instantly engaging fantasy portraits are small enough to stand on a table, and one was so displayed near the entrance of the Meyer Gallery when we called. It was fascinating to watch visitors respond to it. Ronquillo is self taught, which may explain why instead of gathering specific techniques in isolation, she’s lifted entire manners, which she combines in winning new combinations. Her figures borrow from Latin American magic realists like Fernando Botero, while her backgrounds recall the proto-landscapes of Leonardo and Giorgione. The uniform worn by the girl in “Lucy and Majorette” acquires an unsettling quality as much from resemblance to the pretentious, overly-ornamental uniforms worn by South American dictators as from the presence of this vulnerable, white outfit in a dark, looming forest. Yet most disturbing, because most disturbed, is the serious way this young woman holds in her arms not just a spotted pig, but a winged, spotted pig, cradled in her arms in a way that draws attention to the bright red ring she wears on her index finger. Another gallery visitor rushed up to one of these gems enthusiastically, and then, after closer examination, shuddered and mumbled a quiet demurral. A moment later, after a discussion of some of its references—for example, that ”Viola in Disguise,” with the curly evidence of a self–inflicted haircut still clinging to her borrowed uniform, refers to “Twelfth Night”—her excitement rekindled itself.
In spite of the odd stories they enact in strange circumstances, Ronquillo’s women maintain a feeling of repose. Not so Brian Kershisnik, a painter at war with himself, whose folkloric figures emerge from a textured world of paint the way Adam and Eve came from clay. Kershisnik’s struggle looms so large because he has the most serious mission of any painter here. His deliberately naive style, while it makes him less intimidating, more approachable, is meant to uncover — from the illusions we live with — the true, LDS life. His didactic purpose reveals itself through a lack of context or setting beyond generic hints and the presence of occasional props necessary to a specific narrative. This pared-down presentation, with its emphasis on meticulously modeled gestures, can leave viewers aching to trade our messy world for the Platonic realm glimpsed in the painting. Just as war—any war—provides us with a life-and-death predicament in which our choices actually matter, so Kershisnik reproduces the mental world of a man who constantly questions human behavior, for whom everything matters. It works even for those not affiliated with the answers he starts from because his grip on the anatomy of gesture is so powerful. The woman in “Find Me” repeats her plea a hundred times, but it’s the fervent way she rises on one foot that carries her intensity. She could be seeking salvation or just asking for someone to cross a moat of her own making and encounter her true, inner self. The man in “I Am Thinking of Something Else Altogether” gazes straight as us, but points in the direction faced by his occluded profile, as if we have incorrectly guessed what preoccupies him. He seems to be telling us, as directly as possible, that it’s about another, less visible level of being.
In contrast to Kershisnik’s characters covered in paint, Emily McPhie brings her similarly self-referential figures forward in meticulous flesh and places them in oddly detailed, meaningful spaces. Yet while Kershisnik’s images come from ideas, hers emerge from interaction with her children and associates; her paintings are more fanciful, less pre-determined and controlled than his. Like Ronquillo’s, they are also usually of women. In both “Camouflage” and “Come Sail Away With Me,” the pattern on her clothing repeats in the wallpaper. Tom Cushman relates this device to “The Yellow Wallpaper,” but Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story is no more free of ambiguity than McPhie’s vignettes. Such protective coloration is certainly better than the misleading, false faces some of her other figures have donned. Many of her characters contemplate flight, while others seem unwittingly or willfully oblivious to their plight. What is really “on her mind” may slip past her effort to repress it, as in “Puppet Show,” by means of an allegorical tableau nesting in her hair. Puppets could be almost any responsibility, but in “Of Two Minds” one head clearly features children, while the other proffers a voyage of adventure. Here she channels one of the most intriguing yet mysterious paintings in art history: an anonymous double portrait of the mistress of the king of France and her sister. The original was probably done to celebrate the mistress’s pregnancy with the king’s child, but 400 years later, even with the mother doing the painting this time, children remain a source of complex and unclear feelings.
Ray Bonilla’s naturalistic paintings stand apart here for their loyalty to visual fact, which here precedes action or events. Rendered in a space made palpable by an inky darkness, their thick impasto insists on the intervention of brush and hand. Although two of them portray outdoor scenes featuring anonymous city dwellers, they all feel more like portraits than anecdotes. “Bob” and the woman in “Repose” and “Repose 2” are clearly specific individuals. But more to the point, in them and in “New Morning, New York,” the figures emerge from darkness as though being drawn forth by Bonilla the way a portrait seeks to pull personality out of appearance. Even in the sunlit “Liberty Ave 1,” one feels how the lone grocer is coiled, waiting to act.
If Bonilla’s men and women are alive inside rather than in action, Chris Miles’ fantasy figures can scarcely be said to have lives. His archetypes and the landscapes they inhabit often suggest how Henri Rousseau might have painted if he’d had today’s ready access to imagery, though Miles is a better painter, using Old Master techniques to make his stuffed subjects and the equally stuffed-looking landscape surrounding them appear round and solid. In a time and place where Disney movies are considered suitable as adult entertainment, animals may as well enact the human comedy. The question is, what is the value of the originals that become illustrations? “Revelers” and “The Concert” are better seen in a child’s book than on a wall, just as it’s easier to picture “Peace and Movement” on a greeting card. Yet occasionally, as in the cubist sea on which the “Castaway” floats, or the way “Friendly Game” exploits the contrast between the angel’s anonymous back, with wings and halo in place, and the leering anticipation on the devil’s face, Miles pulls off something genuinely novel and, if not deeply moving, at least engaging.
Bronze sculptor Jim Rennert’s command of anatomy, even under the anonymous cover of a business suit, is matched by a knack for creating original visual metaphors. Both here and at The Face of Utah Sculpture V Ithough, he tends to mythologize more than examine the lives of his “Men in Suits.” Here, as elsewhere above, the temptation to speak of the artist’s subjects as “characters” speaks volumes about the rise of narrative as a method in visual art. What that means for the future will bear watching.
Deadlines prevented us from seeing the work of Glen Hawkins, Fidelis Buehler, and Justin Taylor in person. Each is a well-known artist who will undoubtedly add a dimension to this exhibition. So do Ted Gall’s category-defying table top heads, which to talk about here would exceed the available space. Trust, then, that the struggle to achieve legitimacy by incidentally or deliberately popular means has engaged artists of real accomplishment in a project that, if the results remain mixed, continues to generate art worth diving into, capable of going beyond the mirror to show us different views of ourselves.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.