The Big Picture
“The Big Picture,” an exhibition of seven huge canvases on view at the New York Academy of Art, puts a simple premise to work, with unexpectedly riveting results. The show includes paintings by Vincent Desiderio, Eric Fischl, Neo Rauch, Jenny Saville and Mark Tansey, all of whom have ties to the Academy. Collectively, these paintings ask two questions that feel newly urgent, and appropriately auspicious for 2014: How does contemporary figurative painting fit into art history? And, more important, does painting even matter, in the larger scheme of things? Not long ago, such questions would have seemed irrelevant. Several of these artists first came into their own when postmodern critical judgments assumed they were doing what everyone else was—intervening in the very idea of historical narrative, dismantling dichotomies, questioning the notion of “the real.” But this is a post-postmodern show, and these painters are less concerned with questioning assumptions than they are with focusing on what we value, and why. Does painting matter? The answer here is a resounding yes.
Inevitably, the scale of these works is fundamental to the experience of viewing them. As Peter Drake—the curator of the exhibition, Dean of Academic Affairs at the Academy and a compelling painter whose own work is often large-scale—points out, their size immediately foregrounds their deliberate dialogue with great painting of the past. Referring to such varied uses of monumentality as Bierstadt’s glorification of the American West and Picasso’s confrontation with the horrors of war, Drake writes: “In the past, grand scale often established an artist’s bona fides…. The big picture was an emblem of mastery….” In this show, too, there is a sense of mastery; the paintings’ physical presence alone is impressive, and one imagines the artists’ struggles to stretch and cover these canvases (it was also tremendously challenging to mount and hang the work, the show’s organizers confirm). But here, as in the past, there is also a fascinating diversity to the way each painter relates subject matter to scale, and it is on this level that the paintings are most powerful.
Desiderio’s complex triptych Quixote (2008), is the largest work. Measuring roughly eight by thirty-eight feet, it is a virtuosic study in opposites. On the left, looking like a lost Magritte, is a mildly surreal depiction of a grand piano; wrapped entirely in mover’s blankets, floating or falling through a serenely cloudy sky, it invokes both weight and weightlessness. At center, the enormous shadow of a spoked bicycle wheel stretches across a span of splotched city pavement; this imagery inhabits a beautifully undefined space between figuration (a term Desiderio has eloquently disavowed, preferring the broader “representation”) and abstraction. The straightforward reference to the wheel, and the human presence it suggests, play against the abstract shapes and gradations in color of the lower ground. On the right, a larger-than-life-size pig’s carcass, gutted and splayed, hangs from a set of hooks against a tiled wall scarred by bullet holes. In contrast to the piano image, this section calls to mind the ocular realism of Chardin, particularly his great still-life of a bloody ray, hanging from a hook against a stone wall. On the whole, the painting, like Cervantes’s gigantic, deeply humanist novel of the same name, suggests an abiding futility in what it records (these things have no earthly use, as they are) while insisting on recording on the grandest scale possible, with both humor and pathos. What is here matters, not least because the artist has put it here, like other artists before him. The paint itself asserts the value of the things painted.
For Jenny Saville, paint’s material quality is paramount. Like Desiderio, Saville combines figuration with abstraction, but she does so as much through surface as shape. In Bleach (2008), the dense peaks and valleys of the paint’s application resolve, from some distance, into the huge face of a staring girl. In reproduction, Saville’s work can seem crude, but these loosely shifting planes of paint are elegant and multivalent, balanced by thoughtful passages of tiny marks. The painting has both formal and conceptual depth, offering an ultimately moving view of the body, in all its ordinariness—lips, nose, eyes—as a flawed surface that is nevertheless worthy of endless contemplation.
By contrast, Mark Tansey’s two landscapes dwarf the bodies he depicts. Coastline Measure (1987), as Drake explains, dramatizes the chaos-theory paradox that the more precisely one measures a coastline, the longer it gets, though the area of the place being measured does not change. There is a tender anxiety in Tansey’s image of tiny figures, trying by different means to measure various parts of the vast coastline they inhabit, evidently with little success. This work has a Romantic sense of the beautiful yet terrible inscrutability of the natural world. A similar feeling persists in Duet (2004), in which small figures scale a steep rock face, clinging tenuously to the surface. Here, the bold cobalt blue of the entire painting serves as a slightly disorienting element, which gives the viewer some of the same vertigo as the figures must feel. But it is an intensely attractive color, hard to turn away from. As with Desiderio, we bump up here against both the futility and the value of this endeavor. And we keep coming back.
“The Big Picture,” organized by Elizabeth Hobson and sponsored by Cadogan Tate Fine Art, is on view through March 2, 2014. For more information, visit nyaa.edu/exhibitions.