Painting The Figure Now

The upcoming show from PoetsArtists titled Painting the Figure Now is a yearly snapshot of where figurative painting is at, and how we are doing with portraying the oldest of subjects, ourselves.

I love figurative art and I love skill and mastery. I’ve had so many brilliant figurative artists on my podcast that when I was asked to be a guest curator for the show I was spoilt for choice.

So if Painting the Figure Now is a snapshot of where figurative art is at, what I hoped to do with the artists I invited was take a snapshot of what the landscape of working figurative artists is like.

And yes, using a snapshot analogy for a group of artists with a strained relationship with photography is chucklesome, to say the least but let’s press on.

I chose a cross-section of working figurative artists, young emerging artists, mid-career artists and figurative artists who have been working for a long time. Artists like Vincent Desiderio and Bo Bartlett who are definitely old school. They have been figure painters for as long as it’s been unfashionable.

And they’ve suffered for it too. Bo was famously told by New York critic Roberta Smith, upon reviewing his massive painting, God that it was, “idiotic.” He still smarts from the memory.

And Vincent’s brief association with Kanye West could have sparked a rebrand as the latest avant-garde discovery, a bit like Salvator Mundi, but instead, Vincent kept painting his compelling figurative paintings and the avant-garde spotlight and money moved on.

You didn’t know? Kanye used Vincent’s painting Sleep as inspiration for his Famous installation, and music video, and t-shirt, and bottled water, and cologne, and . . . but let’s keep going . . .

Through it all Bo and Vincent just kept painting their mighty figurative paintings. Why? Like me, they love it too and it shows in their work.

Vincent Desiderio

I always think of Vincent as being like the John the Baptist of figurative art, preaching away in the desert. Mad with passion and history. Painting his beautifully poignant paintings with roofing tar and soot and twigs, that’s not metaphor. The depth of Vincent’s knowledge is impressive and he shares it far and wide. From his yearly masterclass in Italy to his ongoing teaching dates in China.

You can hear my conversation with Vincent, and get the low down on the roofing tar, here.

Bo Bartlett

Bo is a lilting powerhouse with a dreamy loquacious personality that belies his wattage as an artist. His big paintings are condensed with power. Like the painting he has in the show, the sheer size of it makes the simple composition pulse with implied meaning. What at first glance looks like a Sunday boating jaunt quickly turns into the great flood and possibly the end of the world. Powerful stuff for this soft-spoken Southern Gentleman.

With his island studio off the coast of Maine and his institute in Georgia, he gently imposes his perspective on us.

And we I think are the better for it.

You can hear my conversation with Bo here.

Shane Berkery

Young Irish artist Shane Berkery has a lust for figurative painting too. Discouraged from representational art in art school he painted a nude diptych of himself and the dean of the college for his final show.

He was asked to take it down.

Controversy ensued.

Making figurative art controversial again? No mean feat, and an auspicious beginning for his art career, no?

Shane is very much aware of his position in life as a young man and a young artist yet his paintings have the confidence of a much older artist. I think his work is great and look forward to seeing his growth.

You can hear my conversation with Shane here.

Nick Alm

Stoic and very Nordic to talk to Swedish artist Nick Alm’s paintings are anything but.

They are delicate, light, and capable of a lonely pathos like Stairwell, the painting he has in the Show. Nick’s skill level is incredible across a number of mediums. He is one of those artists who conveys a lot in seemingly offhand brush strokes. Nick has established himself as one of the foremost figurative artists of his generation and with two hundred and fourteen thousand followers on Instagram an unlikely social media star.

You can hear my conversation with Nick here.

Lucy Hardy

Australian artist Lucy Hardy makes wild paintings as if from another era in a parallel universe. They are like something and Edwardian futurist might have made. Surreal, exquisite and kooky beautiful, her precision and level of detail are so impressive. Her painting, The Opening which she has in the show is a great example of her work. Her paintings are laden with personal meaning that feel almost within grasp of understanding like a waking dream.

You can hear my conversation with Lucy here.

Adam Miller

Grandiose and epic, there is nearly always a catch with Adam Miller’s paintings. Something to hitch up the attention and arrest assumptions.

“Oh yes here is a beautiful classic scene, of Venus I think. Hang on, she’s standing in the mouth of a giant fish!”

Or “Oh yes the satyrs are playing together in the dark. Hang on, they’re emptying a trash can.”

Or like the triptych Adam has in the show. “It is a beautiful depiction of a Greek myth I think, with beautifully rendered Godmen and Godwomen. Hang on that woman is a man, or is it the other way around? Did they have trans people in Ancient Greece?”

Shock value aside Adam’s beautifully crafted paintings reference the past but are very much of their time. They are part of and advance the ongoing conversation of figurative art.

You can hear my conversation with Adam here.

Old Masters Anew.

The Old Masters are referenced a lot in figurative art. “True painting died with Vermeer,” Or “There hasn’t been a real painter since Rembrandt.”

I often wonder what the old masters would be painting if they were alive today? How would they handle the issues of the male gaze for example, or Instagram, the “me too,” movement, gun control or the climate crisis? You only have to look at the work in Painting the Figure Now to get a glimpse of what that might be.