Six contemporary female artists who reintroduced the figure into art history
Confronting issues of gender, race and politics, these contemporary artists being offered in Christie’s 21st Century Evening Sale have reimagined the norms of figuration
Somewhere between the rise of photography and the birth of the avant-garde, the human figure vanished from the pages of art history: the 20th century saw a rapid decline in portraiture and figuration in favour of an increasingly abstract approach to art.
Today, a growing number of emerging artists are returning to figuration to expose our complex histories or explore the simple realities of everyday life. Now, more than ever, female artists are investigating what it means to occupy the human form through a diverse lens of perceptions and experiences.
From teenybopper to career girl, ingénue to housewife, Cindy Sherman has tackled all aspects and archetypes of femininity, femaleness and womanhood in her performative works that upturn the expectations of portraiture. In each of her investigations, Sherman has turned the camera on herself, creating an intricate tableau of props, make-up and prosthetics to navigate her distinct world of femininity.
Beginning with ‘Film Stills’ in 1977 and followed by ‘Centrefolds’ in 1981, each of Sherman’s series has built upon the success of the former, so that by the mid-1980s, the artist sought out a newer and more challenging subject matter. Executed in 1985 as part of her ‘Fairy Tales’ series, Untitled #150 combines an alluring mix of grotesque and seduction that marks an important conceptual departure.
‘I wanted there to be hints of narrative everywhere in the image so that people can make up their own stories about them,’ Sherman recently attested of the series. ‘It shouldn’t seem so real that it looks like it was shot in a studio today. I want it to transcend time somehow.’
British painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye is one of the most important artists working today. A writer as well as a painter, the characters in Yiadom-Boakye’s work are less portraits of individuals than essays in paint’s capacity to evoke narrative, emotion and tension.
‘Diplomacy III is her most important painting to come to auction in the last five years,’ explains Kathryn Widing, Co-Head of Day Sale, Post-War and Contemporary Art, New York. ‘With the sale running concurrent to her career retrospective at the Tate Britain, we have high hopes that this masterpiece will achieve a new record for the artist.’
From a formal standpoint, Yiadom-Boakye’s art shares many similarities with the European portraiture of Rembrandt and Franz Hals. Yet her immediate approach to painting harnesses the fresh effect of working with wet oil paints — allowing characters to come to life through bold and spontaneous brushstrokes.
‘Layered with bright pink, baby blue and rich earth tones, Diplomacy III is as much a luscious homage to paint as it is a historical allegory,’ Widing adds. ‘Yiaom-Boakye’s intentional inclusion of all Black diplomats and female protagonists upends traditional norms from a historical standpoint as well as in terms of portraiture.’
Best known for her collage-inspired paintings embellished with rhinestones, glitter, and vibrant acrylics, Mickalene Thomas reconstructs the history of art with her bold depictions of Black female beauty and sexual identity.
While in school, Thomas was profoundly affected by the absence of strong Black women throughout the history of art. Using the aesthetics of Western painting and the sexualised blaxploitation films of the 1970s, Thomas has dedicated her practice to expanding the representation of women in art.
Thomas’ monumental 2015 work, Racquel Reclining Wearing a Purple Jumpsuit, features the artist’s partner and frequent muse Racquel Chevremont reclining along a red couch in a similar fashion to Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ odalisques or Edouard Manet’s Olympia.
In a striking amalgam of painting, photography and collage, Thomas alludes to a number of time periods and genres. While her art historical references often trace back to the 19th century, her use of fabrics and domestic spaces often reference the 1960s–80s — a time during which many women, particularly African American women, rejected and redefined traditional standards of beauty.
One of the foremost figures in contemporary painting, Dana Schutz is known for her bold and dramatic canvases that combine abstract elements with striking gestural figuration. Her paintings explore everything from art historical tropes to the grim realities of contemporary life, such as political instabilities and mass shootings, while conjuring a sense of surreal familiarity — of life refracted and re-ordered.
Reminiscent of John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark, Schutz’s The Fishermen continues her exploration of art historical motifs, depicting a haunting cast of characters adrift at sea in a rudimentary boat. As she explains, ‘a boat can be like a contained world within the painting. In The Fishermen, the boat is confined, almost like a fruit bowl, and the characters within seem to be similar to the creatures they are catching. They are rudderless, as an oar-like sunbeam seems to be pushing them downriver.’
Despite their often challenging content, Schutz’s canvases paradoxically seduce viewers with vivid colour palettes and sumptuously painted surfaces. Like Georges Braques’s Cubism and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Expressionism, her brushwork fragments objects and bodies into bold, geometric planes that reward extended viewing.
The granddaughter of civil rights leader Whitney Moore Young Jr, Jordan Casteel grew up in a household with social justice at the forefront. Today, the artist creates life-sized portraits of the people in her community, focusing on promoting figures who might otherwise remain unseen.
Painted in 2013, Jiréh is the first of Casteel’s series of richly coloured paintings of Black male nudes. ‘I’ve followed this painting since it appeared on the cover of the exhibition catalogue for Jordan Casteel: Returning the Gaze at the Denver Museum of Art,’ says Johanna Flaum, Head of Department, Post-War and Contemporary Art, at Christie’s New York. ‘When I saw it last year at her exhibition at the New Museum, it was the standout of the show.’
Upending art historical norms, where male artists commonly painted the female nude, Casteel’s ‘Visible Man’ series seeks to challenge our understanding of the nature of gender and race by employing the Black male nude.
‘Casteel’s art is the very best of contemporary portraiture. Her paintings of nude men are an apt riff on the age-old relationship between artist and sitter, and some of the most exciting painting being done today,’ says Flaum.
Nina Chanel Abney
Nina Chanel Abney has described her art as ‘easy to swallow, hard to digest.’ Through a combination of representation and abstraction, Abney’s brightly coloured collage-like paintings mine the subjects of race, celebrity, religion, politics and sex. Capturing the frenzied pace of contemporary life, Abney’s paintings challenge the age-old trope of history paintings.
A champion of the Black Lives Matter movement, many of Abney’s early works have emerged as ominous precursors to the present socio-political climate. Painted in 2015 in the aftermath of the fatal shootings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, Untitled (XXXXXX) flips the narrative by depicting two Black officers arresting a white male in an effort to pose larger questions about the dynamics of power, responsibility and ethics surrounding policing and other discriminatory practices within our systems.
‘There is a renaissance happening around figuration that has had a significant impact on our generation,’ explains Paola Saracino-Fendi, Specialist for the 21st Century Evening Sale. ‘Artists such as Nina Chanel Abney have given us a window into the present and have taught us that we cannot walk away from what is difficult.’