What Makes a Figurative Painting Good?
The most famous artwork in all of Western literature, the fictional portrait of Dorian Gray, imagines
If figurative painting could once inspire fear and awe, the form became nearly passé as the art establishment became enamored with abstraction in the mid–20th century. While artists have never stopped creating human likenesses, critical attention and praise began promoting more wrote that “most figurative art being made in Britain today is derivative, shallow nonsense.” Yet over the past 15 years, some publications have also asserted that figuration is back and as interesting as ever.
Though other art forms—such as
“One of the exciting reasons to paint the figure in 2019 is the expansion of whose images are being depicted and seen,” Los Angeles–based artist
Good figurative painting can also go beyond reinterpreting single historical artworks—it can also reference entire traditions. One of Mockrin’s favorite artists working in the genre,
Nguyen herself makes paintings that reimagine mythical and art-historical characters such as the cyclops or the goddess Venus emerging from the sea. On her canvases, they become bright-yellow characters of ambiguous sex. Two of her favorite up-and-coming figurative painters, Meena Hasan (who uses Indian Khadi paper) and
In Mockrin and Nguyen’s estimations, then, contemporary figurative painting is good if it makes viewers think differently about art history and widely accepted cultural tenets. The best figurative painting can also disrupt our ideas of how the body in a painting—and in our world—should look.
To ensure that figurative paintings do elicit a reaction in the viewer, it’s the artist’s job to keep working and making whatever feels most important in the moment. “If an artist is compelled to make an image,” offered Nguyen, “they should do so without overthinking its urgency or its reasoning to exist—figuring out those big-stake questions takes a lot of time and deep reflection.”
It’s only dead, of course, if you’re trying to compete with photography (and even then, painters ranging from
The ability to portray an imaginative, alternate reality can be a figurative painter’s greatest asset—the art form allows artists to revel in the peculiar and uncanny as they render life askew. Hernández herself is a fan of figurative painters such as Monica Hernández,
Alina Cohen is a Staff Writer at Artsy.
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