On ViewWhitechapel Gallery
Radical Figures: Painting in the New Millennium
February 6 – May 10, 2020
In 1816, the incompetent captain of the Méduse, a French frigate bound for Senegal, left 146 people to die. Having run aground off the coast of Africa, and without enough lifeboats for his passengers, he piled the unlucky onto a raft and left them in the hands of the ocean. When the wreck was recovered some two weeks later, only 15 people were still alive. They were rescued from the frontier of human suffering—they had eaten their dead companions.
As far as we know, none of the people left to die on the Méduse were figurative painters. But according to the show Radical Figures: Painting in the New Millennium, curated by Lydia Yee, it is a story with which these painters can empathize: nearly half of the artists here present works based on Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (1819), the icon of French Romantic painting. It is as if to say that the art of painting too has been cast out, abandoned to the ocean of its own despair, to consume itself from within. It’s an anxiety felt by painters everywhere for at least 200 years, the same as the dread the radio feels in a world of video: why paint when you have VR? The viscera, however, of Radical Figures, is a powerful answer to that question.
Here, bodies luxuriate, gorge, writhe, and eat themselves, squirting, smoking, kissing, suffering, even sculpting their own dismembered legs. The great plethora of bodily experience is imagined in all of its infinities, the expressive potential of the human figure as boundless as the ways of painting it. Painters, it seems, can still speak for themselves, and the voices in this show are howling.
They can go so far as to effectively colonize other media, appropriating their qualities and making them submissive to paint. Daniel Richter’s Tarifa (2001) is based on a news photograph of migrants making the sea-crossing into Europe, and the figures are painted with the toxic glow of the thermal-imaging cameras used by the coast guard at night. And while the artist takes for his own the immediacy and documentary realism of the photographic original, the epic scale turns the image vertiginous, with a vertical format that crops the raft at the painting’s left. It is more like a monumental grave-marker than the theatrical panorama of Géricault’s Raft. The blackness of the sea looms 10 feet tall, and it is a plunging blackness that is only achievable through the thickness and thingness of painting.
Philip Guston hangs heavily over Radical Figures, and his famous line on Abstract Expressionism is quoted extensively in the catalogue: “I got sick and tired of all that Purity! I wanted to tell Stories!” In the best works here, their stories make the pleasure of looking more acute. Michael Armitage’s #mydressmychoice (2015) is based on a video of a woman being stripped and abused at a Nairobi bus station because she was wearing a miniskirt. Misogyny in East Africa is a subject that could as well be explored in sculpture, film, or poetry, and here we are asked to think through this trauma with an image that is like the Rokeby Venus as seen by Gauguin in a dream. Its painterly qualities transcend the gravity of its subject matter.
The triumph of the show is Nicole Eisenman’s Progress: Real and Imagined (2006). Here we see the painter in the same position as Géricault’s surviving few, lost in the roiling chaos of the sea and trying her best to make a painting. To the figure’s side, a palette wet with paint is as sculptural as it is painterly. It is both the presentation and representation of oil paint, a moment of self-reflexivity that baffles and delights and then crescendos with a fire-like bouquet of flowers sculpted in paint. It is an intellectual and aesthetic riddle that can take your breath away.
Painters of the new millennium ought to stop worrying so much. Painting is and has always been its own greatest justification, however rapidly technology is evolving. At the Whitechapel gallery there are two unrelated installations in the rooms adjacent to Radical Figures, projects that involve soundscapes and moving sculptures. They feel deathly weak in comparison. I left the gallery wondering whether it is installation, not painting, whose health we should really be worried about.