Radical Figures: Painting in the New Millennium

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Love painting but find that you’re only ever concerned with works from the classical period? Well then don’t. A new generation of painters are using the figurative form to challenge the way in which we perceive the world that we have inherited; invoking timely social and political discussion through the groundbreaking work that they are producing on the canvas. And what’s more, these inspiring artists aren’t even dead yet. 

For the very first time, London’s Whitechapel Gallery has consolidated the works of ten of these important contemporary painters for Radical Figures; a bold new exhibition showcasing the vibrant and often thought-provoking, the sometimes controversial, and the almost always consistently engaging pieces from a broad global spectrum of talented artists. 

Oinops-Cecily Brown Courtesy of the artist. Thomas Dane Gallery & Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Defiantly flying in the face of those that gave painting it’s premature post-mortem back in the 1980’s, this new exhibition aims to show the public that the medium is very much alive and kicking. With a modestly comprehensive spread of 40 canvases on display – and each created after the new millennium, a good number of these works boldly push the artistic parameters, challenging our preconceptions of what exactly defines figurative painting as we know it to be. 

In the words of the organisers themselves: 

‘The bodies they depict may be fragmented, morphed, merged and remade but never completely cohesive. They may also be fluid and non-gendered; drawn from news stories; represented by animals; or simply formed from the paint itself’. 

The work of American painter Dana Schutz seems to exemplify this observation; with her contorted figures taking on a surrealistic form that diverges significantly from the human bodies we might be used to seeing painted by her predecessors. Other notable works, like those by artists Daniel Richter or Michael Armitage for instance, shine light on current political and social issues such as the ongoing migrant crisis, or social injustices in East Africa.   

Dana Schutz – Imagine You and Me, 2018. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist; Petzel, New York; Thomas Dane, London; Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin.

There are some wildly innovative works on display here too, like Tschabalala Self’s conglomeration of paint, fabric and print used to capture the vibrancy of characters inspired by the streets of Harlem. Artists Sanya Kantarovsky and Ryan Mosley too have delved into the realms of art history, folklore and children’s stories to paint their carnivalesque scenes, whilst Cecily Brown’s canvasses present to the viewer a mishmash of figures whose sources encompass everything from pornography to art history. 

‘By charting the return of an expressive mode of figuration, this exhibition asks broader questions about art and society today’. 

-Lydia Yee (Chief Curator at Whitechapel Gallery)

Radical Figures: Painting in the New Millennium is the latest in a long and colourful history of painting exhibitions housed at Whitechapel Gallery, which has been committed to putting figurative art on display for the public, from artists including Max Beckman, Georg Baselitz, Frida Kahlo, Philip Guston, Lucien Freud, Peter Doig and Alice Neel. This coming spring exhibition is a wonderful opportunity to see the kind of radical and bold artists that have taken to the brush in a new and exciting age.

Radical Figures: Painting in the New Millennium 

06 Feb – 10 May 2020

Whitechapel Gallery

Article written by Sonny Arifien for Privilege of Legends


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