5 Must-See Figurative Painting Shows You Can View Online

Artsy Editorial
Apr 21, 2020 9:03PM
Hayv Kahraman
Walkers, 2020
Pilar Corrias Gallery

While galleries have temporarily closed worldwide due to COVID-19, we can still get inspired by the work of contemporary artists. As part of Artsy’s Art Keeps Going campaign, we’re exploring shows that have been impacted by art spaces going dark. Each week, we’re featuring five exhibitions that you can access via Artsy, with insights from the artists and our editors. This week, we’re sharing a selection of work by leading figurative painters at galleries from London to San Francisco.

Genesis Tramaine

Almine Rech, London

Installation view of Genesis Tramaine, Bearer of Good News, 2020. Courtesy of Almine Rech Gallery.


The works in Genesis Tramaine’s first solo exhibition at Almine Rech are far more than a series of portraits. “Each work is a gospel song,” Tramaine told Artsy. “They are portals.” Deeply inspired by the 1980s graffiti scene in New York, Tramaine creates striking depictions of Black people. Her characters illustrate her interest in the real and the imagined—disparate realms that meet harmoniously in her frames. In this show, titled “Parables of Nana,” Tramaine continues to explore the shape, definition, and emotion of Black expressions.

“The show is a reflection of the conjunction of my understanding of lessons that my nana gave me, embedded ancestral messages and prayers,” Tramaine said. One piece, Bearer of Good News (2020), feels especially relevant; it reminds us of the positive change that often lives on the other side of adversity. The work depicts a seemingly collaged figure against an electric green background; bold strokes of yellow, black, and blue break up the frame. Parable of Nana (2020) shows a face with multiple sets of eyes and mouths against a deep red background. The figure appears to be experiencing several emotions at once.

Tramaine described her artistic process as intensely spiritual. Alongside oil, acrylic, and spray paints, she lists Yeshua, a Hebrew word meaning “Son of God,” as a material in each of the works in the exhibition. “Parables of Nana,” she noted, came out of a vision she had. The divine place from which her vibrant work is born shines brilliantly during a time that feels increasingly gray.

—Daria Harper

See the show on Artsy.


Altman Siegel, San Francisco

Installation view of Koak, “Return to Feeling,” at Altman Siegel, 2020. Photo by Phil Bond. Courtesy of Altman Siegel.

For her first solo exhibition with Altman Siegel, San Francisco–based artist Koak presents a new body of work meditating on the ways we communicate through physical touch, or the lack thereof. In addition to paintings and a sculptural bench, she presents smaller drawings with searingly intimate poems on the back that grapple with her relationship to her absent biological father.

The poem scrawled on the back of one drawing, Return to Feeling (2020), reads: “a tree on fire with all my thoughts in a spring bloom of thunder. All weather at once. Those are my feelings for you.” In the drawing, a storm with the strength to blow over a telephone pole cannot quench the billowing flames that engulf a nearby tree, which twists and sways in the rain. “The tension in the poems is about reconciling with the idea of a person you will never know, but who unequivocally is part of your identity,” Koak said in a recent email exchange. “I think the abandonment and confusion I’ve had surrounding this absent man has been one of the greatest heartbreaks of my life.”

Rendered in her signature bold and curving linework, Koak’s figures negotiate touch within their interactions, but are so charged with emotional resonance that they leave an indelible mark on viewers. She conveys her most vulnerable experiences in a way that feels universal—tapping into the disillusionment and self-questioning that follows the end of a relationship.

—Harley Wong

See the show on Artsy.

Ella Walker

Huxley-Parlour, London

Installation view of Ella Walker, “Cosmati Floor and Wax Fruit,” 2020 at Huxley-Parlour. Courtesy of Huxley-Parlour.

In a recent interview with Berlin’s Horst und Edeltraut, London-based artist Ella Walker described her style in three words: “medieval, fashionista, and otherworldly.” Given medieval art’s current appeal, Walker’s first-ever solo show at Huxley-Parlour is timely. Exploring mythmaking, Walker’s larger-than-life canvases subtly merge classical compositions with pop culture motifs and costumes to uncanny and wonderfully tongue-in-cheek effect. They’re like strange, indecipherable allegories for our strange, indecipherable world.

The show’s titular work, Cosmati Floor and Wax Fruit (2019), is particularly alluring. In it, an aquamarine figure with elf ears, ribboned gloves, and heeled boots grabs her cartoonishly blushing bottom while looking back at us. Directly behind her stands another nearly nude figure, wearing orange fishnets, a brassiere made of fried eggs, and Maison Margiela’s iconic split-toe Tabi boots. Closer inspection reveals a face hidden in her kneecap—an homage to the internet phenomenon known as “knee baby.” A halo of haunting, disembodied Cheshire smiles surround the duo.

Adopting the now-faded hues of old frescoes and illuminated manuscripts, Walker uses sheer gossamer veils of rusty oranges and pastel blues punctuated by inky blacks. Despite finishing a postgraduate program just two years ago, her work has already been included as part of the Royal Collection—a promising sign for an artist whose career is just beginning.

—Shannon Lee

See the show on Artsy.

Hayv Kahraman

Pilar Corrias, online only

Hayv Kahraman
3 Bends, 2020
Pilar Corrias Gallery

Hayv Kahraman’s work has long focused on women’s bodies and the violence that gender roles can inflict upon not just the mind, but also the flesh. The Iraq-born, Los Angeles–based artist has a knack for giving invisible social structures a skin-crawlingly tactile presence. Her works often feature pierced, flayed, sewn, or otherwise disembodied female figures acting out the rituals expected of women, especially immigrant women.

Her show “Not Quite Human,” which is on view online with Pilar Corrias, explores much of the same ground, but instead of fracturing, it keeps its central figures agonizingly, disturbingly whole. The women in “Not Quite Human” are contortionists, their knotted forms teetering somewhere between tantric positioning and traumatic injury, which Kahraman uses as an exploration into how foreign women are objectified in Western society. “These bodies are submitting to something,” Kahraman explained in a video about the exhibition. “In this case, I refer back to ideas of assimilation, of becoming what your colonizer wants you to become.”

It’s clear that the inhuman contortions are a performance, a routine the women are put through that is meant to reduce them to objects of desire or pity. But Kahraman places just as much focus on their faces, which reflect back no pain or pleasure, only calm apprehension of the viewer. Their expressions don’t entail some dutiful shouldering of burden, though. There’s a sense of accusation, of complicity. There are no bystanders in objectification, their gazes seem to assure you, only participants.

—Justin Kamp

See the show on Artsy.

Shannon Cartier Lucy

Nina Johnson, Miami

Installation view of Shannon Cartier Lucy, “The Ever-flashing Strap,” at Nina Johnson, 2020. Courtesy of Nina Johnson, Miami.

Pleasure, pain, shame, and redemption commingle within Shannon Cartier Lucy’s frames. The works inspire uncanny questions, like: Why is this nude woman kneeling on the beach with her hands and feet pinned by men’s feet? Why does this subject have her toes tied to her braided pigtails with brightly colored strings? Lucy hides her figures’ facial expressions, creating further ambiguity: Is this all about kink or something more sinister?

Lucy’s own story is as compelling as her surreal fictions. She studied with an encouraging Lisa Yuskavage at New York University in the late 1990s. In her twenties, she quickly rose throughout the city’s gallery system. A dramatic downfall ensued: a descent into drug dependency, an exodus from New York, and a 10-year hiatus from making art. This break, Lucy said recently, “involved quite a bit of pain and healing.”

Finally, in 2017, the muse returned as Lucy began making art inspired by her childhood—specifically, the occasional chaos of growing up with a schizophrenic father. She recaptured that discombobulated mood in her own work and swiftly secured a gallery show with Lubov in 2019. This current exhibition with Nina Johnson suggests a sustained, well-earned comeback for the artist. “Maybe I needed that time to integrate all of my difficult life experiences, so that could express it all more clearly through art,” she said. “Painting has really saved me from myself.”

A similar sense of rebirth and epiphany is present in the show. Bathtime (2018) suggests a contemporary baptism, featuring a woman in black sitting in a chalky tub. In Adrienne’s Apple (2019), a brunette tilts her head back, an apple resting on her eye. Floral patterned curtains—the allegorical garden—serve as a backdrop. Knowledge, for better and for worse, is just a bite away. Lucy captures her subject in a tranquil moment, before Adrienne’s decision alters her fate.

—Alina Cohen

See the show on Artsy.

Artsy Editorial