In 1982, “New American Nudes,” an exhibition of precedent–breaking figure studies, began its introductory essay with a closeup photograph of a particularly shapely … ear. This bit of anatomy, which few readers probably had thought of that way before, was as nude as it was unexpected in its context. In the same way, the playful feet in Lindey Carter’s “Simple Touch” aren’t visibly part of whole bodies, but that doesn’t disqualify them as figures. The same goes for “Lost in Thought,” a portrait in which the mood is conveyed not by the face, but by posture: the angle of the neck and shoulders, which are seen first and establish a mood the facial expression agrees with. For that matter, along with the pose, the shadows the posture produces are part of the figure, too. With Go Figure, Phillips Gallery welcomes some recent advances in our understanding of just what qualifies in art as a figure.
So four of Carter’s eloquent watercolors hung together might once have been labeled heads, busts, or even portraits, though seeing “Suspended in Green,” “Let it in,” “Of the danes,” and “Longing for Something” so close calls attention to some common qualities that add up figures rather than, say, portraits. One is Carter’s use of prepared grounds, which lends them a tactile quality even as it diminishes specific, individual identities. Prepared grounds can do many things, such as impart a patina of age, but in this case they create a sensuous atmosphere more appropriate to an emphasis on anatomy. The postures, treatments, and titles argue further that there’s more going on as well. Then there’s the inclusion of “As One,” “Apart, and “Together,” three seemingly narrative paintings of birds, that make sense here considering their postures as well as their anatomy. In fact, they stand comparison to the more elaborate works that share the gallery, including scenes of humans interacting in complete settings. It would seem it’s time that an artist can place a figure in a scene without having to worry it will lose its independent interest.
Another artist who has been making similar points for years, Kathy Peterson has frequently shown, in addition to her familiar landscapes and communities of women, individual trees standing out in the landscape, sheep grazing around her neighboring Manti Temple, and other figures through which she quietly dismisses the hubris that says of all divine creation, only those at the top deserve admiration. In “Sweeping,” a woman cleaning a street prompts the timely question: Is the mask that sets her apart to ward off dust, or disease, or something else? “A Story” actually relates two, one being the framing tale of a mother and child sharing one of the more important moments in both their lives, and the other being the story we can only watch them share. And, in “Words, Works, and Thoughts,” a woman in profile, and in a handmade dress, is seen surrounded by verdant plant life, both in her world and in the frame that surrounds it, while the artist shares her modest conviction that all our words, thoughts, and actions have the capacity to be prayers.
Patricia Kimball also uses clothing to further explicate a figure. The dozen or so bodies in “Life’s a Beach” span a range from nearly naked to attire that might be worn to work on Casual Friday, thereby bringing “life” to the beach. “Beach Investigation V” looks at a man bent over from the waist to examine something in the sand, while his Calypso pants, with their red and white stripes, lean the other way to palpably balance the tilt of his torso and arms. In “Oh Brother,” the plaid stripes on this sibling’s shirt reveal just how far he’s leaning to support his sister’s weight.
Sports obviously offer frequent opportunities to see human bodies as the center of attention. A couple of Kimball’s works, “Eyes on the Line” and “Ball Girl,” capture ritualistic postures seen on the sidelines of the tennis court, while in “Good One,” a distant view of two women golfers, we’re reminded that just as we can tell with uncanny accuracy that someone was looking at us an instant before we turned to look at them, we can accurately discern from far away that these two subjects are watching the flight of one of their balls with approval.
In her figures, even when they’re alone, Kimball is always aware of social significance. The woman in “Stay Cool” sits by herself on the water’s edge, but the direction she looks points us to half a dozen swimmers frolicking together. In “Afternoon at the Lake,” five persons in close physical proximity look everywhere but each other. And the quartet of familiar joggers in “Beach Boys” form such a tight group it’s a wonder they don’t trip over each other.
Brad Slaugh’s “Arrangement in Green and Violet” recollects his desire to find a way to use photography as just another artist’s tool, without letting it negate or overwhelm a painter’s own creative intentions. Like his palette of brilliant colors, the often lovely, baroque distortions, which could have come from that effort as well as elsewhere in his background, constitute one of the distinguishing qualities of so much of his art, working like the rhythm and melody in a song to massage the expression towards pleasure. The suburban paradise of the splendidly-titled “How we Roll,” in which the kids who are clearly clamoring for attention are balanced by a set of lawn darts that resemble tulips, presents the humorous visual of a pair of motocross trikes with human heads. Returning to photography, this time not as a technique but more as a subject, “Exhibit A” shows how narcissism can carry art a long way, but only so far.
Speaking of photography, since the daguerrotype was invented in the middle of the 19th century, each new advance—negatives, color, stereoscopy, motion, video, cell phones, go ahead and name it—has had the paradoxical effect of narrowing the range of ways humans are convinced they can see. We learn from example, and the model of higher visual acuity that the camera promotes ignores phenomena like synesthesia, in which perceived sensations are experienced in other ways, as for instance when heard sounds are seen as colors in the mind. Other alternate ways of seeing include dreams, hallucinations, and memories, all mental processes not included in what the camera can actually show. Nor can a camera separate a reflection in glass from what is seen through it; the eye and mind together can. John Erickson has parlayed a virtually encyclopedic, lifetime encounter with the history of art making into a manner of painting that comes closer than most to comprehensive and unfiltered vision, but he’s also added cerebral extras from the history of art and ways of marking up used by designers, engineers, and others who speak a visual code among themselves. “Possible Venus” may have started out in a sculpture studio, or begun elsewhere and come to resemble one. “Atelier,” owes something to cubism, in the three-dimensional ambiguity between what’s on the floor and what’s on the table, annotated with one of Erickson’s signature tropes: the electrical outlet and cord that run a bolt of realism through the accumulation of creative chaos. Additions like the dog, a blur brought into focus by an outline, its feline companion, cast shadows like that of the electrical plug, and the overall balance of realistic and skillfully implied details make this a rich and arguably inexhaustible viewing experience, as good as painting today gets. And compared to this, most art done before it can be seen to have been, as the familiar caption warns, “edited for content and clarity.”
Go Figure, Phillips Gallery, Salt Lake City, through May 13