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Updated: Aug 20, 2021




Frustrated painters whose St Ives seascapes or puppy portraits on velvet have not garnered the critical recognition they deserve, may be about to have the last laugh. Turns out it was nothing to do with the artists’ abilities or the subject matter, but the fact that painting itself has been out of fashion for the last few decades. Painting? No call for it. Or that’s the premise behind the Whitechapel’s first new show of the year Radical Figures: Painting in the New Millennium. Since the stock market boom of the late 1980s art has been about installations, site specific performances, video and photography, anything but picking up a paintbrush and rendering their vision on canvas.

Left to right: Tschabalala Self, Lenox 2017; Dana Schutz; Imagine You and Me 2018; Christina Quarles, Casually Cruel 2018

While the case for a decades long painting drought may be stretched a little thin, Radical Figures does provide a fresh and refreshing perspective on modern life. Michael Armitage (b. 1984), an artist with studios in Nairobi and London, uses a lush Gauguin like palette to create large, striking paintings of contemporary issues. They are paintings rather than canvases, as Armitage paints on Lubugo, a Ugandan bark cloth, with all the nobbles, knots and pinpricks, the medium dictates. There is an amazing video in the Studio section of the exhibition, where the artist narrates the process of removing the bark with a machete, wrapping the now nude trunk in sweat soaked banana leaves to protect it, then gently charring, soaking and malletting the bark to create cloth. Lubugu is also used for shrouds.

Mangrove Dip (2015) shows a pink fleshed woman upside down, almost doing a handstand, partially obscuring a less delineated dark figure, being used as an involuntary prop or support. Her bush is a dense brown heart shape, but most of her rib cage, where her heart should be located is a sludge grey brown, as if it has been ripped out. Mangrove Dip is arresting because it is Armitage’s response to European female sex tourism in Kenya. A subject that is normally brushed under the carpet with a few sniggers, or material for ‘toy boy love rat’ tabloid headlines, is presented as a serious and urgent issue for the viewer to confront.

Upstairs American artist Tschalbalala Self (b 1990) presents another striking image of shifts in perceptions of gender and ethnicity power relations, in NYPD (2019). The work depicts a huge, smiling African American police woman, made of expanses of blue cloth. The juxtaposition of the comforting cloth books of childhood vibe, and the immensity of the tactile cloth uniform, with the size of the figure, and contrasting scratched whiteness of her NYPD insignia, is so disconcerting. While the officer’s face is depicted in a smiling, simplified form, reminiscent of Otto Dix and the interwar German Expressionists. Self says that the thread used in all her work connects her to the older generations of women in her family. And having sadly lost her mother while at Graduate School, the process of her work feels layered in meaning, and sometimes difficult feelings.

Left to right: Ryan Mosley, Cave Inn 2011; Sanya Kantarovsky, Feeder 2016; Cecily Brown, Oinops 2016

While Radical Figures rightly celebrated the young guns of figurative art, the older generation is represented with work by Daniel Richter (b 1962), Nicole Eisenman (b.1965) and Cecily Brown (b 1969). Brown’s Maid’s Day Off (2005) is a beautifully controlled jumble of colour and perspective, full of coral pinks and earth tones, as if the viewer has entered the middle of a drama, and must piece together the narrative before being allowed to move on, like a murder mystery game.

The five other artists exhibiting in Radical Figures are Dana Schutz, Christina Qualrles, Ryan Mosley, Tala Madani and Sanya Kantarovsky. The quality of the painting and curation mean visitors are bound to come away with new personal favourites to learn more about. Going home from the Whitechapel I walked along Middlesex Street, where the fabric shops had rolls of patterned cloth that brought the paintings even more alive. It was as if the walls between the gallery and real life had dissolved.

Michael Armitage #mydressmychoice 2015



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