With regard to Cooper’s assertion, I would first point out that his use of the word “explosion” is a rather obvious case of artworld hyperbole-as-usual. But if we substitute the word “resurgence,” then yes, we can certainly say that figuration is again on the rise, which is usually the case when right-wing politics move into the discursive foreground. All of this was predictable. Ever since the pretentious frivolity of the MoMA’s Forever Now exhibition of so-called “Zombie Formalism” fizzled on delivery in December of 2014, it was only a matter of time before changing circumstances would outstrip that exhibition’s feeble postulation of a Modernist counter-reformation. This is largely because there is now no way to redeem any exercise in abstract painting from its aspirational co-optation into the realms of investment-grade corporate decoration, and insofar as the culture of the museum is concerned, it was also inevitable that the proclamation of an “atemporal” transcendence of history would make an awkward fit in any institution dedicated to enshrining that very thing. Now that recent events have once again thrust an uppercase notion of History upon the world in such a way so as to breed contention, controversy, and worse, Forever Now has become the sine qua non of the Forever Then of the Clinton-Obama era, and many artists now seem to be feeling the call to respond to the dispiriting reset of current political priorities—though they may be poorly prepared to do so. This was indicated by the brouhaha around Dana Schutz’s Emmett Till painting, Open Casket, at the Whitney Biennial: a controversy that was so shrill that it eclipsed everything else that may have been said about the exhibition.
Although there are many realist painters doing impressive and highly accomplished work at the moment (one thinks of the exemplary work of Vincent Desiderio, or in my own northern California habitat, the consistently impressive work of Chester Arnold, Luke Butler, Brett Reichman, Michelle Ramin, Rico Solinas, Travis Somerville, Taravat Telepasand, and Ted Vison), I am seeing only a very few of them summoning a grander view of humanism that reaches beyond the realm of the ironic, the personalistic and the confessional—all residues of cultural relativism, French Theory, and their kindred tsunami of social media-inspired self-infatuation. All of these things can be blamed for making any existential understanding with a “humanistic” perspective almost impossible to achieve. And that may or may not be a good thing, depending on differing perspectives.
To put the matter more plainly, I am not seeing anything at all that resembles the kind of uppercase “H” History painting that would be intelligible as such by the picture mavens of the French Academy during the time of Bonaparte. This is not to say that there are some artists who have selectively appropriated the tropes of history painting for satirical purposes, but they tend to content themselves with Photoshop mashups rather that committing their ideas to paint and canvas—one thinks of the recent photo-collage work of Martha Rosler as a case in point. The last artist in recent memory who did persuasively engage with the idea of history painting was Neo Rauch, and even he had to lard it with an over-abundance of ironic absurdism to make it palatable to his world-weary audience. If there is any other 21st-century artist who tackled the problem of history painting with the seriousness that it deserves, than surely it was the late Mark Lombardi. He did it with manically unsentimental graphite-on-paper diagrams of the ebb and flow of dark money oozing into the hands of political actors, thereby broaching the only topic left to us that can truly be called “historical.” The rest is mere spectacle, almost always pre-packaged, its only salutary attribute being the way that it compels us to perpetually re-consider the relationships between truth and loyalty in a world governed by manipulative deceptions.
Most of the recent figurative work that I am seeing has less to with any notion of realism than it does with a reaching back to the interstitial “symbolist” space between the work of James Ensor and Philip Guston, balancing wry humor with a sometimes sardonic and sometimes playful expressivity that eschews bombast. Here is where I see the idea of “modern understanding of the human condition” given the most convincing painterly shape, although, again, I find myself wishing that some of these artists would also reach further beyond the personalistic and the confessional, because continued faith in the idea that the personal is synonymous with the political is now looking like insincere genuflection on the overcrowded altar of ’90s hipsterism.
In the work of these artists, color is used with very little restraint, and the artist’s psychographic brush moves vigorously while never hiding behind veils of finis. The obstreperous figuration of Kerry James Marshall looms particularly large as a model for this approach to painting, as do the paintings of Adrian Ghenie, which so often seem like labyrinthine echo chambers of a dimly remembered historicism inhabited by unquiet ghosts. There are many other painters who are working in or around this mode, and it is worth pointing out that a large percentage of them are women. The work of Dana Schutz is an obvious example, as is that of Nicole Eisenman, standing out as the proverbial sore thumb of figuration in the aforementioned Forever Now extravaganza. Although Wendy White’s recent figurative paintings have stepped back from the frenetic expressionism of her earlier abstractions, they too seem very much of a piece with the recent symbolist turn—more despite their Pop overtones than because of them. The same might be said about the more subtle figurative work of Nicole Wittenberg, which conjures contorted figures emerging like ghosts from floods of frothy color. Although the figure is not a major part of her work, the southern California painter Annie Lapin also deserves to be considered in the comparative light of these other artists. In northern California, the contenders would be Caitlin Mitchell-Dayton, Jennie Ottinger, and Cate White. Peter Mitchell-Dayton paints Alice Neel-esque images of people playing the roles of painfully shy teenagers, while Ottinger’s work is rich in spirited color and reaches back to the lighter and more playful moments of Ensor. White’s work does something similar with Daumier’s most overtly satirical works, adding additional dollops of pathos, panic, and self-deprecating humor.