Ella Kruglyanskaya. “Profile in hat qith cut papers, 2015.” Oil and oil stick on linen, 84 x 64 inches. Image courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise. 

Jeffrey Deitch On the New Generation of Painters Obsessed with Francis Picabia

For Garage No. 11, gallerist Jeffrey Deitch locates a brash new generation of painters.

by Jeffrey Deitch
Jul 3 2018, 8:58pm

Ella Kruglyanskaya. “Profile in hat qith cut papers, 2015.” Oil and oil stick on linen, 84 x 64 inches. Image courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise. 

The acclaimed gallerist Jeffrey Deitch was director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, from 2010 to 2013, where he oversaw a complex and controversial mix of performance, pop, canvas, and spectacle. In December 2015, at Art Basel Miami, he and fellow gallerist Larry Gagosian collaborated on Unrealism, an exhibition of more than 50 artists that showed works by established figures such as David Salle, John Currin, Elizabeth Peyton and Urs Fischer, alongside that of emerging artists. In the essay below, Deitch articulates this new generation of artists within the history of figurative painters.

Jonathan Gardner, studio life 2014. Oil on linen 50 x 50 inches (137.2 x 127 CM) Courtesy of the artist, Mary Mary, Glasglow, and private collection photograph by Max Slaven.

Figurative painting always comes back; in fact, it never goes away. Each artistic generation reinvents figurations to reflect the contemporary experience.

Figuration is one of the oldest art forms, but it is continually evolving along with our changing concepts of human identity. It also has to respond to technical innovations such as printing, photography, and digital reproduction, allowing the ancient craft of rendering the figure to renew itself with each generation.

Figuration in painting and sculpture develops in cycles. During the 2000s, the art community focused primarily on new developments in abstraction. But recently, the wind has been shifting, and an exciting new generation of figurative painters has emerged. This group of artists, primarily young women, is shaping a new figurative vision that reflects modernism in history, embraces the present, and looks toward the future. These artists are able to work within the figurative canon without becoming academic.

The present moment in painting is reminiscent of the early 1980s, when the emergence of artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Francesco Clemente, Keith Haring, David Salle, and Julian Schnabel revitalized the art dialogue after the extended dissolution of bold minimalism into pallid post minimalism. At the recent Unrealism exhibition, in Miami in 2015, crowds gathered in front of works by Jamian Juliano-Villani, Emily Mae Smith, Ella Kruglyanskaya, and the other emerging artists. Their enthusiasm was multiplied by the rapid accumulation of likes on their Instagram posts. It became thrillingly clear that today’s art audience has been waiting for artists who create resonant images that address contemporary life.

The exhibition title Unrealism describes the challenge of portraying contemporary reality—where the real and the unreal are often conflated and deliberately confused. A conventional “realist” painting would not accurately respond to the contradictions of life in the 21st century. These new figurative painters are transforming the modernist mantra of “form follows function” into “form follows fiction.”

Dan Colen, The Ghost and the Cloud, 2002-2003. Oil on plastic/panel 66 x71 1/8 inches/167.6 x 180.6 cm (unframed) (Collen 2003.0001) © Dan Colen, photography by Jeanne Noonan courtesy of Vito Schnabel projects and the artist, Gagosian galkery.

There is a fascinating difference between the new figurative painting and the figurative painters of the 1980s and the 1990s. Today’s artists are immersed in digital imagery, sourcing images on the internet and drawing on digital techniques in their painting process. Brushstrokes are more precise, lines are sharper, and color is more highly keyed. The seamless collage of their composition reflects a fluency with Photoshop. The artist’s touch is more meditated, the facture more flat. The expressionism is in the image, not in the paint handling.

In contrast to the narrower aesthetic confines of earlier periods, Unrealism embraces a more open platform. The artistic dialogue is global, the artists’ backgrounds are diverse. The modernist exchange between high and low art forms is extended into fields such as fashion illustration, lowbrow comics, and suburban style interior decoration. Image hierarchies are subverted and reversed.

In addition to its embrace of vernacular imagery, the work of some of the most exciting new painters shows an engagement with the work of 20th-century masters. It’s fascinating to see the vibrant presence of Picasso and Matisse in new works by artist such as Jonathan Gardner and Kruglyanskaya. However, Francis Picabia is the artist whose influence is most visible in the work of this emerging generation. Picabia was visionary in his anticipation of the overlay of imagery in contemporary visual perception and the juxtaposition of elevated and vernacular imagery.

Figurative painting and sculpture can become academic and conservative. It is exciting to witness an emerging generation transforming the most venerable art form into bold contemporary vision that shuffles the art of the past and present and gives us an insight into the future.

A version of this story appeared in GARAGE No. 11.

Francis Picabia