Since painting was pronounced dead in the 1980s, a new generation of artists has been revitalising the expressive potential of figuration. Charging their vibrant canvases with a social and political undertow, they echo the words of Philip Guston: ‘I got sick and tired of all that Purity. I wanted to tell stories’.

The Whitechapel Gallery, London, has now brought together exemplary artists who explore contemporary subjects including gender and sexuality, society and politics, race and body image. Pushing the notion of what figurative painting can be, the bodies they depict may be fragmented, morphed, merged and remade but never completely cohesive. They may also be fluid and non-gendered; drawn from news stories; represented by animals; or simply formed from the paint itself.

Embodying the painterly gesture to critique from within or broaden the lineage of a style long associated with canonical Eurocentric male painters, each artist references and creates work in dialogue with 19th and 20th-century painters including Victor Eugene Delacroix (1798–1863), Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), Willem de Kooning (1904–1997) and Maria Lassnig (1919–2014).

Lydia Yee, Chief Curator, Whitechapel Gallery says: “By charting the return of an expressive mode of figuration, this exhibition asks broader questions about art and society today. These artists expand and destabilise fixed notions of identity through their depiction of indeterminate figures and partial bodies.

By employing digital methods to create compositions; drawing subjects from online sources; or employing a flattened perspective reminiscent of a screen, they reflect new possibilities for the figure in an age when technology is transforming bodies and relationships. The narratives they explore encourage us to consider how painting can reflect personal anxieties and wider social concerns. Moreover, these artists are challenging and expanding the canonical Western painting tradition”.

The paintings of Daniel Richter (b. 1962, Germany) draw from current events – the migrant crisis or Taliban mythology – as do Michael Armitage’s (b. 1984, Kenya) narratives of politics and violence in East Africa, equivocally conveyed in the lush, exoticised style of Gauguin.

The rollicking surfaces of Cecily Brown’s (b. 1969, UK) canvases congeal into figures, whose sources range from pornography to art history, before dissolving back into painterly marks.

Nicole Eisenman’s (b. 1965, France) protagonists occupy a brightly lit universe that is both dream and nightmare, while Dana Schutz’s (b. 1976, USA) contorted figures give form to unconscious drives.

Tala Madani’s (b. 1981, Iran) primal fantasies of abject men and children shift from comedy to debasement, from paint to shit. Sanya Kantarovsky (b. 1982, Russia) and Ryan Mosley (b. 1980, UK) look to art history, literature and children’s stories in their darkly humorous and carnivalesque scenes.

Artists also critique from within or expand on the styles and subjects of canonical male painters. In Christina Quarles’s (b. 1985, USA) canvases, groups of polymorphous nudes are intimately entwined, merging with graphically patterned surfaces.

Tschabalala Self (b. 1990, USA) pieces together paint, fabric and print for a cast of characters inspired by the streets of Harlem. Exuberant and explicit, each artist revels in the expressive potential of paint.

Images: Dana Schutz, Imagine You and Me, detail (2018), oil on canvas, courtesy the artist, Petzel Gallery, NY and Thomas Dane Gallery // Ryan Mosley, Cave Inn, 2011, oil on linen, 214x180cm, Private collection, courtesy of the artist, Galerie EIGEN+ART and Tim Van Laere Gallery, Photo: Dave Morgan // Michael Armitage, #mydressmychoice, 2015, oil on Lubugo bark cloth, 149.9 x 195.6 cm, Private Collection, London © Michael Armitage. Photo © White Cube (George Darrell).

Through 10 May 2020
Whitechapel Gallery website

Stay updated on international art exhibitions, fairs and events with our BLACKQUBE 2020 ART FAIRS GUIDE  as well as our pick on best institutional shows listet in our BLACKQUBE 2020 TOP MUSEUM SHOWS guide.