Even as digital and installation art explode around the world, threatening to change the nature of collecting and the role of museums, figural painting has had its own revival -- that's the anything part of "anything goes" spirit of contemporary art in the 21st century.
Academies that teach the discipline of the figure are popping up like mushrooms. And portraiture, once a sad cul-de-sac of faded society, has ridden the selfie boom to new relevance, even mania.
So when the dean of representational portraiture in New Jersey, Mel Leipzig, decides to bring four figural artists to the Center for Contemporary Art in Bedminster for "The Figure: Clothed and Unclothed," it feels like catching a wave. Four mature artists, too -- one, Jenny Tango, just reached 90 years old, and she's at the CCA as both an artist and a model.
Of course, the figure is often the most radioactive part of contemporary art because it can provoke censorship. Nudity is still the tripwire for most art controversies in New Jersey -- there was another one last fall in downtown Newark, set off by reproductions of classical Greek and Roman nudes taped to a window near a charter school by the artist Kate Dodd.
"There's nothing erotic about this art, though," Leipzig says. "These figures aren't even all nude, after all. What this is about is painting the figure, the human form, today. It's as old as paint itself, really. And I doubt it will ever go away."
The home base of figural painting in America is still Philadelphia, and two of the artists in Bedminster teach at Philly's Academy of the Fine Arts. Perhaps the best known is Alex Kanevsky, a Russian-born oil painter who studied theoretical mathematics at Vilnius University before emigrating to the U.S. in the early 1980s. He took painting classes at the Philadelphia Academy beginning in 1989, and won a Pew Fellowship in 1997 that allowed him to devote himself to painting full time.
"Taking the Pose" by Scott Noel is armored in its neo-classicism. Courtesy CCABedminster
When Kanevsky first won attention, it was for the almost Rembrandtian richness of his color and facture; he still claims the Dutch master and atmospheric realist Diego Velasquez as inspiration. But he has settled into a kind of working -- involving painting and rubbing out over and over again -- that leaves an echo of the figure on the picture surface. Sometimes the effect is almost like a double or triple exposure, with the figure (almost always a female model) appearing multiple times in the same space.
Kanevsky's paintings register the passage of time, in a way, each erasure and repainting adding a layer clearly executed in overlapping moments. But this viewer finds it to be more like looking at an image through compound eyes. The figure is abstracted by each successive iteration, rendering the models indistinct and their presence somehow allusive. But here and there-- in the dimple of shadow by a belly button, say, or soft curve of a breast -- an authentic sensuality bursts out. It's almost like looking through a kaleidoscope at details of the classical nude.
The classical nude itself, or at least, the neo-classical nude, is Scott Noel's chef d'ouevre. Noel has taught at the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts since 1996. His pictures have the chalky essence of the classroom: The main subject is always a young woman posed in a studio setting.
Noel never ventures out of a mid-tonal range in his color -- no loud hues or sharp explosions of black and white -- which gives his pictures a calm, soothing quality. It's almost as if he's the theoretical mathematician here. Psychology in these paintings is always incidental, almost accidental, and the models seem possessed of as much agency as the artist.
Upstairs are the work of Jenny Tango and Robert Bunkin, who are married to each other--Tango was Bunkin's teacher when they met, and they've been together now for more than 40 years. Active in the feminist art movement of the 1970s, Tango's been an editor of Women in the Arts Newsletter, and her paintings, often done in series, treat details of the figure almost like quotes from Renaissance art, even down to Parmigianino-esque distorting mirrors. Her "Striptease" (2004) is a series of small canvasses that show her shedding layers of baggy clothes in series, all of them cropping off her head, and all as dispassionate as a Pollaiuolo.
Jenny Tango's "Leaving Staten Island" is a self-portrait--she says she paints herself because "the model's always there."Courtesy CCABedminster
The two artists live in the Westbeth artists' building in Manhattan now, but for years they lived in Staten Island, where Bunkin has curated shows for the S.I. Museum.
Bunkin went to Mason Gross at Rutgers, where he studied with Joan Semmel and Leon Golub; he also studied with Philip Pearlstein. His realism is of the precise, unflinching sort -- he has four portraits, including one of Tango lying nude on a bed, that are gnarly with detail. His portrait of painter Bill Crist, with a looming factory out the open studio window behind him, is British delirious realist Stanley Spencer come back to life -- not in Cookham but in Staten Island.These are terms and analogies used for great art of the past, but rarely discussed in contemporary art today. But if you take the trip from Noel's neo-classicism through Kanevsky's neo-analytic Cubism to Tango and Bunkin's painterly literalism, it will feel like art, but outside time. The Figure: Clothed and Unclothed
Where: Center for Contemporary Art, 2020 Burnt Mills Rd., Bedminster
When: Jan. 13-Feb. 25. Office hours 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Galleries are open throughout evening classes, often till 9 p.m.
How much: Free. For more information call (908) 234-2345 or see www.ccabedminster.org