Figuration is the art of our time for one simple reason: because artists paint “what they love”.

In the history of art, some decades are defined by a single style. In the 1950s it was Abstract Expressionism; the 60s, minimalism; 70s, conceptualism.


“If we look back to that period of the 2010s, we will see that this was a moment of figuration,” Ruth Erickson, the curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) behind a new exhibition showcasing eight of the brightest young exponents of the genre is dedicated, among them the painters Aubrey Levinthal, Arcmanoro Niles and Celeste Rapone.

As for Erickson, it would be hard to disagree. In recent years, artists have revived form with eyes sensitive to art history’s tendency to omit marginalized communities and recapitulate a colonial gaze.

They have done so with tremendous success, filling galleries and museums – and auctioning lots and Magazine cover– at dizzying prices. Demand has turned these artists into salable superstars and their works into collectors’ items – so much so that discussions about the quality of their production are often tinged with the sickly greenish tint of money.

Sleeping on your roof in August (2020). Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. © Louis Fratino.” width=”799″ height=”1024″ srcset=” August_highres-799×1024.jpg 799w,×300.jpg 234w, https://×50.jpg 39w, /2022/04/PL.21_Fratino_Sleeping-on-your-roof-in-August_highres.jpg 1000w” sizes=”(max-width: 799px) 100vw, 799px”/>

Louis Fratino, Sleeping on your roof in August (2020). Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. © Louis Fratino.

Erickson had no intention of capturing the market for her Boston show, entitled “A place for me: figurative painting.” For her, the show’s prompt was not about why people are buying this type of art, but about something else: why is portraiture so prominent right now?

“I think each of these artists has a different way of answering that question,” Erickson said. The show, she said, is “really about resisting that sentiment, lumping them together, and instead trying to single them out as eight individual voices with a shared interest in one type of art.”

(Nevertheless, the market created some obstacles: in several cases, pieces intended for exhibition by the curator were looted by collectors.)

Erickson organized the show one artist at a time, selecting one at a time and occasionally asking selected artists who they thought should be included.

Out of this process emerged a group of relatively young, up-and-coming talents rather than established stars, each with their own approaches to figuration as varied as their backgrounds.

Gisela McDaniel, <i>Made for a time like this</i> (2020).  Courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias, London.  Photo: Clare Gatto.  © Gisela McDaniel.” width=”1024″ height=”823″ srcset=”×823.jpg 1024w, https:/ /×241.jpg 300w, 50×40.jpg 50w, 1244w” sizes=”(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px”/></p>
<p class=Gisela McDaniel, Made for a time like this (2020). Courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias, London. Photo: Clare Gatto. © Gisela McDaniel.

Only one artist, David Antonio Cruz, lived before the 80’s. (He was born in 1974.) Viewers will find the show’s most “realistic” approach to figuration in his staged portraits of blacks, browns, and queer sitters, though that’s not to say the artworks leave no room for interpretation.

The artist’s two diptychs in the exhibition each feature overlapping images and gaps between the canvases—an acknowledgment, Erickson says, of painting’s inability to truly convey the human experience.

The youngest artist in the exhibition, Gisela McDaniel (born 1995), also points out the limits of her canvases. As she paints portraits of women and non-binary people of color who have experienced personal or inherited trauma, the artist invites her sitters to record audio statements about their stories.

“Many of the people in the paintings have difficult but important stories that other people need to hear. They have been historically wiped out.” McDaniel told Artnet News earlier this year. “I ask each person’s permission at every step, especially when I’m painting someone. I can’t wait for that back, but I hope when people experience my work, they walk away with some kind of awareness to move around people with respect. That’s a big reason I’m including the voice.”

Doron Langberg, <i>sleep 1</i> (2020).  Courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery, New York and Victoria Miro, London.  © Doron Langberg.” width=”858″ height=”1024″ srcset=”×1024.jpg 858w, https:/ /×300.jpg 251w, 42×50.jpg 42w, 1000w” sizes=”(max-width: 858px) 100vw, 858px”/></p>
<p class=Doron Langberg,sleep 1 (2020). Courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery, New York and Victoria Miro, London. © Doron Langberg.

Elsewhere in the ICA show are Louis Fratino’s (born 1993) everyday still lifes and moments of tender queer love, each enlivened with a sort of Cezanni perspective play. Another artist, Doron Langberg (born 1985), is drawn to similar scenes, but he finds sensuality through a gentler, more impressionistic approach, with details becoming sharp and fuzzy, like the first moment you open an eye in the morning .

In organizing A Place for Me, Erickson asked many of the participating artists why they were doing it figuratively painted. “The straight answer,” she explained, “was because they paint what they love. It was so easy.”

“I think it comes from that moment of empathy, humanism and softness that we’re in where the blinders have been pulled back,” Erickson added. “We know we should spend time doing the things we love most.”

A place for me: figurative paintingis on view now through September 5, 2022 at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.

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