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The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2021

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NOV 2021 Issue
ArtSeen

Genieve Figgis: Immortal Reflection

Genieve Figgis,<em> Irish house</em>, 2021. Acrylic on canvas, 59 1/8 x 78 3/4 x 1 1/8 inches. © Genieve Figgis. Courtesy the artist and Almine Rech. Photo: Dan Bradica.
Genieve Figgis, Irish house, 2021. Acrylic on canvas, 59 1/8 x 78 3/4 x 1 1/8 inches. © Genieve Figgis. Courtesy the artist and Almine Rech. Photo: Dan Bradica.

On View
Almine Rech Gallery
November 4 – December 11, 2021
New York

For years now, Genieve Figgis has been playing—with astonishing success—the double game of caricature. A double game because caricature involves simultaneously viewing Figgis’s paintings and viewing in the mind’s eye the things she mocks. This double vision is further complicated by Figgis’s blending of satire with caricature. Her large (39 by 31 inches) Lady with a bird (2021) transforms compositions like Chardin’s 1753 Lady with a Bird-Organ in the Frick Collection into a bizarre evocation of Picasso’s Blue Period. Chardin shows light streaming from the left onto the lady in question and reflecting off her white dress as she sits in her study, apparently getting musical cues from her canary. Figgis puts her murky light source behind her huge-headed lady, so we focus not on the play of light and Chardin’s Euclidean geometry of composition but on color alone. It is as if by parodying a source Figgis is able to find and explore her own painterly space.

Genieve Figgis, <em>Reflection</em>, 2021. Acrylic on canvas, 78 3/4 x 59 1/8 x 1 1/8 inches. © Genieve Figgis. Courtesy the artist and Almine Rech. Photo: Dan Bradica.
Genieve Figgis, Reflection, 2021. Acrylic on canvas, 78 3/4 x 59 1/8 x 1 1/8 inches. © Genieve Figgis. Courtesy the artist and Almine Rech. Photo: Dan Bradica.

But caricature and satire impose their own compositional laws on Figgis. That is, we have come to see a typical Figgis canvas as a stage where characters are arrayed, usually facing the viewer, alone or in groups. Even as the Lady with a bird satirizes genre painting, it must necessarily use (however perversely) the structures of genre painting to make its point. But just as her use of blue liberates Lady with a bird, color takes precedence in many of her other works. Two in particular: Orange family room (2021) and Irish house (2021). In the first, the family room has all but disappeared as a room. It is a swath of bright orange punctuated by irregularly shaped black forms that might be paintings or windows. The numerous family is posed on top of and within the orange band, so we may imagine they have either been consigned to hell or that being in the family is like being in hell. Again, the parodic representation of a genre, the family portrait, provides Figgis with a point of departure, but the real point here is color. Much the same is true of the Irish house, where an Expressionist sensibility makes brick pink and cobblestones orange. The family on display outside the house, as if for a photograph commemorating some special day, is a pretext: again, the real matter here is color, which suggests that within the context of her own work Figgis is moving toward new territory.

Genieve Figgis, <em>House</em>, 2021. Acrylic on canvas, 47 1/4 x 39 3/8 x 3/4 inches. © Genieve Figgis. Courtesy the artist and Almine Rech. Photo: Dan Bradica.
Genieve Figgis, House, 2021. Acrylic on canvas, 47 1/4 x 39 3/8 x 3/4 inches. © Genieve Figgis. Courtesy the artist and Almine Rech. Photo: Dan Bradica.

Where that might be leads us to two paintings facing each other at opposite ends of the gallery’s west room: House (2021) and Reflection (2021). Both relate directly to the show’s title, Immortal Reflection, and both show Figgis making new discoveries. House depicts a house and its reflection in (of course) a reflecting pool. At the top center of Figgis’s house is a triangle with a dark splotch within it. It may be a mere coincidence, but the real-world version of the aristocratic château Proust named Guermantes also contains at the roofline a triangular structure within which there is a clock. The château, famously photographed with its reflection in a pool, becomes an icon for Proust’s recovery of lost time and his consecration of it in his novel. Figgis too creates an “immortal reflection” in her painting: the world of reality (the house) captured in its reflected image in the water. This glorious work reveals Figgis’s preoccupation with escaping the transience of momentary vision by means of art. Here there is no caricature, no satire, just a meditation on art as immortality.

Reflection is a grand scale (78 by 59 inches) tour-de-force. Here Figgis’s experiments with color and her meditation on the fleeting nature of life and the permanence of art come home to roost. The figures might be posed in some Matisse-like Orientalist fantasy house, arrayed before another reflecting pool. So once again, the artist’s work makes a transient scene immortal, but where House restrains Figgis’s exuberant use of color, Reflection sets that passion free. The figures are transformed into their artistic doubles, much in the way that Narcissus, the image of the artist looking into himself, becomes a work of art. This is Genieve Figgis at the top of her game.

Contributor

Alfred Mac Adam

Alfred Mac Adam is Professor of Latin American literature at Barnard College-Columbia University. He is a translator, most recently of Juan Villoro’s Horizontal Vertigo (2021), about Mexico City.

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The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2021

All Issues