The new, the rediscovered and the rising stars of figurative art
Eight names to have on your radar, as selected by Christie’s post-war and contemporary art specialists. In our video above, Anna Touzin expands on her four favourites
Who: For the past three decades, the French artist Nicole Eisenman (b. 1965) has been painting allegorical murals and canvases depicting dreary commutes, bicycle accidents and French Impressionist cafés reimagined as trendy Brooklyn beer gardens. The surreal characters who populate her works have been likened to those of Edvard Munch (1863-1945) and were described in a recent New Yorker profile as ‘people with cartoonish distortions of their hands, feet and noses trying to make the best of tragicomic circumstances’.
Why: Figuration was unfashionable when Eisenman started out, but in 2015 she received a surprise phone call announcing that she was being awarded a MacArthur Fellowship — also known as a ‘Genius Grant’ — worth $625,000. It was given to her because she had ‘restored to the representation of the human form a cultural significance that had waned during the ascendancy of abstraction in the 20th century’.
Eisenman’s figurative works had brought her acclaim well before that. In 1996 she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and in 2013 she won the Carnegie International Prize. Her annus mirabilis, however, was 2019, when she signed a representation contract with Hauser & Wirth, smashed her auction record by selling a work for £639,000, and was selected to show at the 58th Venice Biennale. She also had her third show at the Whitney Biennial, having previously exhibited there in 1995 and 2012. Her submission was described by ARTNews as ‘the standout entry’.
Where: Nicole Eisenman — Giant Without a Body, Astrup Fearnley Museet, Oslo, Norway, opening soon; Nicole Eisenman: Where I Was, It Shall Be, Hauser & Wirth, Somerset, UK, 2020-21; Nicole Eisenman: Sturm und Drang, The Contemporary Austin, Texas, USA, 2020
Who: Born in Lahore, Pakistan, in 1983, the painter Salman Toor started his career fusing the South Asian styles of figurative artists such as Amrita Sher-Gil and Bhupen Khakhar with elements of Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassical art that he had gleaned from books. In 2006 he enrolled at the Ohio Wesleyan University to study art, and in 2009 he graduated from his MFA programme at New York’s Pratt Institute. His work turned to the subject of life as a queer Asian in America in around 2015.
Why: In 2020, Toor’s thick, confident strokes, lurid palette (featuring prolific amounts of arsenic green) and rousing depictions of social isolation won him a solo show at New York’s Whitney Museum. He was hailed as a new star of figurative art, with New York Times critic Roberta Smith saying his paintings ‘pluck at your heart strings’.
The Whitney also acquired three of Toor’s paintings for its permanent collection, and within months others began to appear at auction in London and New York. Last December, his 2015 work Rooftop Party With Ghosts 1 sold for more than eight times its low estimate at Christie’s in New York.
Where: Salman Toor: How Will I Know, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA, until 4 April 2021; I Know a Place: Salman Toor, Nature Morte, New Delhi, India, 2019-20; Salman Toor: Time After Time, Aicon Gallery, New York, USA, 2018
Who: While studying for her BFA at Newcastle University in the north-east of England, Joy Labinjo (b. 1994) began working up old family photographs into large, figurative canvases. She used household, acrylic and oil paints to apply blocks of colour and create a collage-like effect that reflected the boldness of African textiles.
More recently, she has been working with digital images, overlaying photographs from Instagram and furniture websites to recount her journey as a young, black female growing up between Lagos, Nigeria, and England in the 1990s and 2000s.
Why: Labinjo is still a student, studying for an MFA at Oxford University’s Ruskin School of Art, but her irreverent paintings have already received a great deal of attention. In 2017 she was awarded the Woon Art Prize, and in 2019 she was given a solo show at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art. At Frieze London that year, three of her works sold within hours of the fair opening.
In 2020, Tiwani Contemporary presented a solo ‘online viewing room’ of Labinjo’s work for Art Basel Miami Beach, and it was announced that, late in 2021, she would undertake a public commission for Brixton Underground Station in south London.
Where: Joy Labinjo: The Elephant in the Room, The Breeder, Athens, Greece, 2020; Joy Labinjo: Our Histories Cling to Us, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, UK, 2019-20; Joy Labinjo: Recollections, Tiwani Contemporary, London, UK, 2018
Who: Bob Thompson (1937-1966) died more than 50 years ago, but he deserves a space on this list thanks to the radical reappraisal of his eight-year career over the past two decades.
As a young, black painter from Louisville, Kentucky — who, some say, paved the way for Basquiat — Thompson hung out with jazz legends and Beat poets, travelled across Europe to settle in Ibiza, and exhibited his acid-coloured kinetic canvases at the same New York gallery as Rothko, de Kooning and Pollock. Such success was previously unheard of for a black artist. Tragically, Thompson died from a drug overdose aged just 28.
Why: After his death, Thompson’s efforts to synthesise European Old Masters with the American Abstract Expressionist movement fell into obscurity. In 1998, however, he was thrust back into the limelight with a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art that was described by critics as ‘long overdue’. In 2020, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, which had represented Thompson’s work for 23 years through his widow, acquired the artist’s estate and went on to exhibit his work at Frieze online.
His reputation looks set to grow yet further, with a solo show opening this summer at the Colby Museum of Art in Maine, which then tours to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.
Where: Bob Thompson: This House Is Mine, Colby Museum of Art, Maine, USA, 20 July 2021-9 January 2022; Paper Power, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, USA, 2020; Naked at the Edge: Bob Thompson, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, USA, 2015
Who: The work of the self-taught portraitist Jammie Holmes (b. 1984) tells the story of life growing up as a black man in America’s Deep South. He says his pictures celebrate the rituals and traditions that bring a community scarred by racism and poverty together, and that his raw style, which borders on abstraction, mirrors the short transition of his images from memory to canvas. He has also said that he wants people to rethink how untrained figurative painters from Louisiana have historically been labelled as ‘folk artists’.
Why: Holmes burst onto the scene on 30 May 2020, hiring planes to trail banners that reproduced George Floyd’s cries for help — notably ‘They’re going to kill me’ and ‘My neck hurts’ — over the skies of Detroit, Miami, Dallas, Los Angeles and New York.
The ensuing rush of interest in the artist’s powerful figurative paintings led to a raft of exhibitions as well as gallery representation by the Library Street Collective in Detroit. The spike was such that Holmes became the first artist since 2019 to topple Amoako Boafo from the number-one spot on the ‘Top Emerging Artists’ list established by the art-world analytics engine Articker.
Where: High Voltage, Nassima Landau, Tel Aviv, Israel, 2020-21; Jammie Holmes: Everything Hurts, Dallas Contemporary, Texas, USA, 2020; Anatomy: Jammie Holmes, Library Street Collective, Detroit, USA, 2020
Sophie von Hellermann
Who: The German artist Sophie von Hellermann (b. 1975) lives and works between London and Margate in south-east England. She paints huge, gestural pictures that draw upon fables and myths, using unprimed canvases and applying light washes of pastel colours to create a sense of weightlessness. She has a BFA from the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf and an MFA from the Royal College of Art in London.
Why: Charles Saatchi was an early admirer of Hellermann’s figurative works. A number of acclaimed group and solo exhibitions in Europe and the US have also helped to bolster her reputation as a rising star of the genre.
In 2002 the present work was included in Dear Painter, Paint ME: Painting the Figure Since Late Picabia at the Centre Pompidou. Pilar Corrias gallery is currently staging an online exhibition of her latest paintings, inspired by the Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber (1791). With her works currently selling for relatively low prices at auction, she could be a wise investment.
Where: Sophie von Hellermann: Swirls and Circles, Wentrup Gallery, Berlin, Germany, 2019; Sophie von Hellermann: Ileden, Greene Naftali Gallery, New York, USA, 2019; Sophie von Hellermann: New Waves, Pilar Corrias, London, UK, 2018
Who: The French artist Claire Tabouret (b. 1981) first won attention in 2012-14 when she began every day by painting herself, creating 700 self-portraits in the process. Not long after, her focus shifted to paintings of girls in make-up (their first act of ‘painting’ themselves, she says), as well as pictures based on archival imagery of boys wrestling. During the pandemic, however, her gaze moved back to her own identity, resulting in the 2020 show Lockdown Self-Portraits at Perrotin Gallery in Tokyo.
Why: Tabouret is an artist who grapples with complex themes of memory and anxiety. She’s also a skilled colourist, overlaying fluorescent paint with darker tones to create luminous grounds. Her works have won over eminent collectors such as François Pinault, as well as institutions including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Pérez Art Museum in Miami and the Musée des Beaux Arts de Montréal.
Her auction prices have risen accordingly: in 2020, one of her works sold for $451,600 — more than four times its estimate.
Where: Siblings, Perrotin, Seoul, South Korea, 2020; The Pull of the Sun, Night Gallery, Los Angeles, USA, 2020; If only the sea could sleep, Hab Galerie, Nantes, France, 2019
Who: Born in Zimbabwe in 1993, Kudzanai-Violet Hwami tackles the complexities of diasporic identities and the subject of the black body, as well as gender and sexuality. Her bright, energetic canvases start life as digital collages and are later worked up using mixed media on paper and canvas.
The artist’s own family histories and personal narratives are at the heart of everything she creates: ‘I’m still trying to discover it all and it’s a journey; I want to see it as such. I don’t want to pin my work down.’
Why: In 2016, the year Hwami graduated with a BFA from Wimbledon College of Arts in London, she won the Clyde & Co Art Award and Young Achiever of the Year at the Zimbabwean International Women’s Awards. She also made the shortlist for Bloomberg New Contemporaries.
A year later she won rave reviews for her first solo show at Tyburn Gallery in London. In 2019, at just 26 years old, she had her first institutional exhibition at Gasworks in London, and was selected to represent Zimbabwe at that year’s Venice Biennale, placing her at the forefront of a new generation of African figurative artists.
On 7 December 2020, Hwami signed a new deal with Victoria Miro gallery, where she will have a solo exhibition this summer. The following day, she made her auction debut in the coveted first slot of a sale in New York. Her painting sold for $252,000 against a low estimate of $30,000 — and she isn’t due to graduate from her MFA programme at Oxford University’s Ruskin School of Art until later this year.
Where: I See You, Victoria Miro, London, UK, 2020; Kudzanai-Violet Hwami: (15,952km) via Trans-Sahara Hwy N1, Gasworks, London, UK, 2019; If You Keep Going South You’ll Meet Yourself, Tyburn Gallery, London, UK, 2017