How a Group of Artists Are Revitalizing One of Art’s Most Classic Subjects

As artists have been proving since the early 20th century—with Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) a seminal example—art can be anything. For those wishing for something more traditional, however, look no further than Denver’s Gallery 1261. In an expansive group exhibition this spring, the gallery presents paintings by artists focusing on one of the most timeless subjects in all of art history: the human figure.

Titled “Figurative I,” the exhibition includes wide-ranging approaches to the human figure, and to painting itself. A number of the compositions feature nudes, among the most fundamental ways of portraying the body. In Hollis Dunlap’s Days of Rest (2015), for example, an expressively painted nude woman lies on a couch, her face turned away from the viewer. While her full body appears open and available to our gaze, we cannot see or read her face, and her emotional state remains inscrutable, unknowable. Such a contrast, between exposure and privacy, animates this work with an unresolved tension.

The exhibition also includes a generous selection of portraits, of the artists themselves and of others. Kate Sammons comes out from behind the canvas in a spare self-portrait from 2015. She frames herself against an off-white background (a primed canvas, perhaps, ready to receive her painted visions), arms crossed casually, holding a long paintbrush in each hand. She appears confident and focused, as if she were only pausing momentarily in this pose before turning away from viewers to get back to art-making.

Images of children also grace many of these canvases. Vincent Xeus renders the young girls in his compositions with glowing whites, pinks, and yellows, such that they appear suffused with light, almost diaphanous. Errant brushstrokes and paint splatters interrupt the illusion, reminding viewers of the two-dimensionality of the canvas and the materiality of paint. Works such as these reflect his reverence for the Old Masters, as well as his urge to forge his own artistic path. “I loved their traditions and I had an equally strong desire to break away from [them],” he once explained. “This conflict gave me struggle, and the struggle kept painting alive for me.” Xeus, of course, speaks only for himself. But as the works on view seem to suggest, his sentiment could be shared by the rest of the diverse artists in this show.

—Karen Kedmey

Figurative I” is on view at Gallery 1261, Denver, Mar. 27–Apr. 24, 2015.

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