Contemporary Figurative Painting Part 1: The Gallerist’s Perspective

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Study of Baby Boy by Laura Raborn

In an attempt to learn more about figurative painting, I concocted an idea. Why not call some of my favorite galleries and ask the owners the questions I ponder? We can learn so much through online research, by visiting galleries, or by finding incredible artists on Instagram. But how about some old fashioned one-on-one conversations? I am extremely grateful to the following galleries for accepting my calls and for taking the time to talk. Of course there are many more galleries I could call but after four conversations, I see patterns of information emerging and feel I’ve learned what I set out to learn. Plus, I don’t want this post to be too terribly long. Here are the notes from the insightful talks.

Rachel Stephens, Wally Workman Gallery, Austin, TX31ib37xge0in
What are the challenges in selling figurative work? Is there a strong collector’s market for figurative work?
“I do think there is a strong collector’s market for figurative work. There are some barriers with figurative work like cultural stereotypes. People have an expectation of what men and women should look like…some people bring to the painting an idealized version in their minds of what they want to see in a figure. So that is one barrier…accepting a figure that is not idealized. There is also sometimes a barrier with new collectors when they don’t know the person in the painting. They sometimes wonder why they would hang a painting of someone they don’t know in their house…but they are thinking more of portraiture. So we talk with customers about the difference between a figure painting and a portrait.”

What is the difference between a figure painting and a portrait?
“To me a portrait is about who the person is…for example in a traditional portrait, there might be objects that connect with the person, that are meaningful and define the person. But a figure painting is not neccessarily about the person and who it is, it is about an idea and what an artist is trying to say.  I hope that people look at figurative work and see something that reminds them of something in their life. The painting is also about what the viewer brings to it.”

Who are some of your favorite figure painters working today?
“Oh, there are so many. I enjoy Malcolm Bucknall. His work has anthropamorphic qualities that he uses to bring a narrative to each painting. Elizabeth Chapin’s use of color and line – it is really about how she paints more than what she is painting. I love Patrick Puckett. His figures are definitely not about specific people. I’ve always enjoyed Lu Cong’s work and the work of Kris Lewis – both have haunting qualities. Of course, Kehinde Wiley. We see his work influencing so many emerging figurative artists.”

“Ellen Heck is a printmaker whose figurative work is mostly children – she captures adolescence in a such a beautiful way. We have a show coming up in November for artists Sara and Shane Scribner. The couple shares a studio and models and it is always to interesting to see the similarities and the differences in their work that comes from working in a shared space.”

“Figurative work is what I collect myself. I explain to people who come in the gallery that figurative work is like a great book. You can keep returning to it and keep reading new chapters. You can keep going back to it and continue to “read” a painting.”

Greg Thompson, Greg Thomspon Fine Art, Little Rock, ARgreg-thompson-fine-art-interior-shot-gallery-8-6-14-lr
What are the challenges in selling figurative work? Is there a strong collector’s market for figurative work?
“We don’t sell many traditional figurative paintings.  But as for any type of figure in the composition, well, it depends on the artist. Carrol Cloar, for example, I consider to be a figurative artist. The figure is in a scene. We sell lots of Kendall Stallings work and over half of his work is figurative. He uses the same type of figure again and again…the man in the suit in different scenes. These works have something mysterious about them, something to make the viewer try to figure out what is happening.”

“I sell secondary market work that is figurative such as Picasso. We have a very nice painting now by William Schwartz and it is figurative. And I recently sold a Thomas Hart Benton which is figurative. His work always connects the figure with the scene and there is a narrative.”

“When I think about places like the Arkansas Arts Center, and they have a large number of figurative pieces, I think about the history there. Starting with Townsend Wolfe, they’ve bought work from galleries all over the place and in the work they collect there is always more going on in the composition than just the figure. There is mystery or a narrative. Like their William Beckman pieces. They have pieces that are self portraits but there is something mysterious about the way the artist presents his own figure, like a missing arm or something strange is happening to make the viewer wonder. There is layer upon layer of something else going on….I think this is what makes interesting art. There are many artists like this, Odd Nerdum, for example.”

Do you have a favorite figurative artist?
“Thomas Hart Benton is one of my favorites – it is his form and his approach to the human figure, the way he ties the figure to the surrounding landscape or scene. He creates a narrative and says so much with the way he paints the figures.”

Dolores Justus, Justus Fine Art, Hot Springs, ARy1vlmuw9_400x400-2
What are the challenges in selling figurative work? Is there a strong collector’s market for figurative work? 
“It is actually hard to say. I have had people in the gallery who would only consider figurative work in which the subjects are depicted as more universal forms and not particular people. There are others who want the specific characteristics of the individual. The real test lies within whether the work is good. Good, truly original work speaks to the viewer.”

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“Katie and Her Fish” by Emily Wood

“Emily Wood is a wonderful figurative artist who depicts people doing everyday things with a great deal of detail, however because the subject is engaged in activities that are well known to the viewer, they can easily relate to the works. The artist often refers to her work as being “universally specific” and judging by the response to the paintings, I would say they hit the mark. It should also be noted that the pieces also happen to be very well executed.”

“I know that I personally tend to shy away from overly idealized figurative work, along with pieces that are demeaning or exploitively disturbing.”

“People are always going to be drawn to the figure. Even in non-representational work, many people see faces and figures that were not intended by the artist. The key to whether it is collected again lies with the quality of the individual work.”

What is the difference between a figure painting and a portrait?
“To speak in generalities, portraiture tends to follow a seemingly standard arrangement. The figure is in a still position, facing forward and the artist is seeking to capture the likeness and personality of that particular person in that setting. A figure painting is the larger circle into which any painting that incorporates a figurative form is included.”

Who are some of your favorite figure painters working today?
“Close to home, I am happy to be able to carry work by Emily Wood, Rebecca Thompson, and Laura Raborn. Three women artists with very different approaches to the figure, but all with their own unique interpretation. Further afield, I greatly admire the work of Daniel Sprick, Ali Cavanaugh, and David Shevlino, among others.”

Robert Lange, Robert Lange Studios, Charleston, SC1341332108-img_4836thumb
What are the challenges in selling figurative work? Is there a strong collector’s market for figurative work?
“We are fortunate in this town – figurative work does rather well. Selling figurative work is not problematic, especially when you find truly unique work. Say you put 100 paintings in front of you, when you can identify each artist, you know the work is not like everyone else’s, its totally creative and unique and about that one artist. Then selling it tends to not be a problem. That’s what we collect personally. I wish portraiture was more accepted. People question why they would hang someone so specific on their walls, but it’s my favorite.”

What is the difference between a figure painting and a portrait?
“I don’t know if there really has to be a difference between portraiture and figure painting. Sometimes it can be about the directness of the eye contact. So if the figure is looking away, the painting can become about something else. A narrative can begin to form. We are gifted in the the collectors who come to the gallery tend to be comfortable with the figure. So they are not as hesitant about figurative work or something that looks more like a portrait.”

Who are some of your favorite figure painters working today?
“I would say Jeremy Geddes. You must take a look at “A Perfect Vacuum.” He has almost an Andrew Wyeth handle on the paint and light. The work is humble, the palette tends to be quiet but the figure is so powerful, so dynamic. I would also say Brad Kunkle. His figures are profound. And David Kassan. His paintings look like they take years to complete….hundreds of layers building up the surface. The surface of a painting is what fascinates me these days. And Candace Bohannon. She is an incredible painter. There is an intimacy, a quietness, a profoundly introverted nature to the models. Her application of the paint is so slow and thoughtful. The paintings by Karen Ann Myers are beautiful, detailed, psychological portraits. She’s got something special.”

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After talking with the gallery owners, some specific comments and ideas stand out.

Each gallery owner uses the word “unique” when describing the style of their favorite artists. Greg Thompson and Rachel Stephens talk about a narrative or something mysterious happening in today’s figurative compositions. The gallery owners seem to agree on the general idea that overly idealized figurative work is not sought after or as provocative. As Dolores Justus states, “I tend to shy away from overly idealized work….” Additionally, there is an emphasis on the artist finding his or her individual path and creating work that reflects something personal.

Robert Lange’s utter enthusiasm about figurative work and about specific artists is infectious. Early in our conversation he explains, “Megan and I decided when we opened the gallery we would run it like artists and not like art dealers. We wanted the artists to be free to take risks and try different things, even if the result was failure with a certain body of work. Those risks can lead to an artist’s best work.”

Why? What? 12x12" watercolor on clayboard by Ali Cavanaugh

“Why? What?” 12×12″ watercolor on clayboard by Ali Cavanaugh

When I mention gallery owner, Dolores Justus, just told me that Ali Cavanaugh is one of her favorite figurative painters today, Lange excitedly explains, “There are so many artists who find their way and find success and then plateau. I commend Ali for considering a new chapter even when her style was working well and she was having great success with her body of work. She wanted to try something new which took courage and I really admire her for that. Her new paintings show one of Ali’s greatest skills – she knows when to stop. She has an amazing sensitivity of knowing when to stop.”

Lange spoke of specific paintings and artists with unadulterated joy and admiration. While he spoke of being fortunate for the figurative collectors in the Charleston area, it occurred to me that he and his wife, Megan, surely have helped figurative work flourish in the area. He has a way of educating that opens eyes and minds to the beauty and messages in art. “As artists, our art is a visual journal. I love it when artists share why they do what they do, when it becomes personal and real.” I imagine he is skilled at sharing this concept with clients which is a win-win-win situation for the gallery, for the artists, and for the collectors.

 

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