I, again, found myself recently talking about the “problem” of the figure in my own work. I put this in quotes, because I have to say that I don’t mind the human figure being more implied than explicit, even if the body is a central locus for thought. But I am especially interested in uncovering why I feel this way. Because I love the figure in others’ work…
The question becomes intent.
Just got done watching a documentary on Alice Neel last night (stream it on Netflix if you’ve got it!), and am so entranced by her ability to uncover the particularity of her sitters. She was a master portrait painter for that reason– as she teased out the idiosyncratic and hidden layers of a persona, her images became so different from the momentary surface capture of the ubiquitous photograph. Robert Storr describes the effect of the lapsed time within a painting as “inhabited time.” In the film, Alice talks about the shock of leaving the painting space, because she’s been virtually living inside this other body for a series of hours. And that visitation is felt in her work. In an interview with Patricia Hills in 1983, she had this to say:
Art is a form of history. That’s only part of its function. But when I paint people, guess what I try for? Two things. One is a complete person. I used to blame myself for that, do you know why? Because Picasso had so many generalities. And mine were all– mostly a specific person. […] A good portrait of mine has even more than just the accurate features. It has some other thing. If I have any talent in relation to people, apart from planning the whole canvas, it is my identification with them. I get so identified when I paint them, when they go home I feel frightful. I have no self–I’ve gone into this other person.
Portrait painting seems like something Alice Neel was made to do. She lived a long life full of stark sacrifices before she became celebrated as an important artist, raised two sons in a small apartment in Spanish Harlem, and painted like it was her lifeline. As much as I admire this chutzpa, my passion has never angled toward the portrait. In truth, I’ve always been critical of my inability to get striking likenesses. Watching Alice paint on film makes me want to try live drawing or painting again, but it’s not really where I am right now.
Another approach to the figure that has been prevalent through history is the archetypical figure. Especially within mannerist traditions, the figure becomes a specifically designed model for an artist’s stage, and a world is populated through almost interchangeable characters. Maybe this is what Alice Neel was describing when speaking of Picasso’s “generalities.” I think of people like William Blake…
…whose God and Job and demons all share close to the same features. (Click the link above to see more images and scout out what I mean.)
In a contemporary setting, I think of people like Mel Kadel:
Or Edward del Rosario:
Or even fellow Neddy nominee, Stacey Rozich:
…and just like my fascination with the particularity of portraiture, I find the work of all of these “archetype” (or “prototype”?) artists to be rich. They end up becoming studies of situations and tensions, rather than of specific personalities. As such, this approach is closer to my own aims, since I am more concerned with existential strains and the universal weirdness of living in a body, the relationship of humans to the earth and to an unseen world, and our tangly urbane habits. But it may come down to the fact that I haven’t invented a body that works for me. I have secret little tiny people that have been creeping into my pieces… in part because they emphasize the vastness of the rest of the scene, but also because I am quietly testing whether a whole corporeal frame is called for in the pursuit of my goals. Maybe strands of hair and dripping fluids are just as well in the capturing of a visceral conundrum.