Jeffrey Deitch, Los Angeles June 29- August 17, 2019
Written by Lorraine Heitzman
The sweeping show of figurative painting, Punch, now at Jeffrey Deitch will engage anyone curious about the current state of the genre. Originally presented at Deitch’s New York gallery last year, it has been greatly expanded to include more West Coast artists. Assembled by Nina Chanel Abney, she takes full advantage of the ample wall space at the Los Angeles venue to present a very particular vision of contemporary figuration and in the process almost manages to steal the show with her own contribution, a mural–sized diptych that anchors the back wall. Her painting, “Junk Mail Scribble # 2”, incorporates many of the same attributes that are evident in the surrounding work. The common denominator is a predilection for comic expression, abstraction and bold, undiluted colors. While the appearances of the paintings may be similar the content is decidedly more varied, encompassing political and cultural commentary and varied emotional states. If the artwork is a reflection of who we are, it is interesting to take note of what is exalted in Punch and what is out of favor.
We have long since learned the tricks to coax three dimensions from two, but one realizes that these painters, for the most part, have little interest in depicting space and form. Instead, their work is generally flat and they relish the two dimensionality of their canvas. In lieu of subtleties, they opt for powerful portraits of individuals and groups of figures that impact the viewer, often in a forthright or even confrontational way. Such is the scale and simplicity of most of the paintings that they could easily be transformed into billboards. There are exceptions, of course, (the suites of watercolors by February James are modest, as are the collages by Narcissister) but overall, the experience of the show is primarily one of paintings that communicate with the primacy of graphic images. The show is entertaining, extroverted and reflects the influences of popular culture, advertising and digital media.
Several artists demonstrate the power of these elements. Monica Kim Garza’s “Resort” depicts four women of color relaxing by the water. In the vein of Picasso”s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”, these women, clad in bathing suits, sip their drinks and gaze directly at the viewer with insouciance, making us feel as though we are interrupting an intimate moment. Brashly executed, the painting has energy, despite the subject of relaxation. Garza makes us privy to a scene that is historically unfamiliar, but thoroughly relatable.
Similarly, Georgina Gratrix’s irrepressible “Desert Island Disco” presents a group of people standing in the water, posing for the unseen, but implied, camera. This group selfie is crude, painted in a naïve style (if naiveté can be said to constitute a style) but conveys a tremendous bonhomie. With very few details, and even less finesse, Gratrix nevertheless convincingly allows you to feel the movement of the ocean and the joy and physicality of the scene, no small feat.
Tschabalala Self, Amoako Boafo, and February James each take a minimalist approach to figuration, deftly communicating a wealth of information and emotions about their subjects with economy. Self creates larger than life portraits with fabric and paint that bring to mind that perennial school project in which children draw the outline of their bodies on butcher paper, and color them in with crayons afterwards. They are delightfully wonky and charming, conveying flesh and fluidity with curvaceous cutout shapes. Boafo’s serene portrait, “Blue Suit”, shows a towering, male figure positioned above us, looking down to meet our gaze. Dressed in blue, against a lightly mottled neutral background, Boafo electrifies his portrait with an orange outline, a simple device that doesn’t distract, but instead amplifies the singular shape and quiet mood. February James’s series of intimate watercolor and ink paintings are beautifully evocative portraits. Her subjects are thoroughly captured in an expressive manner, with only their faces floating against the bare paper. The spare color and softness of diluted inks conjure unique pensive moods and is part of their charm. We can’t help but delight in the specificity of the portraits created with such an unexacting method.
At the other end of the spectrum, a few painters tackle figuration with more complexities. Examples of these outliers are Jamie Munoz and Umar Rashid. Munoz’s “Madre” and “Existence” are tautly rendered monochromatic compositions. These beautiful, precise paintings feature equivalencies and contrasts with Mesoamerican cultural iconography and language within a grid format. More formal than most of the other paintings, Munoz’s cool imagery has a somewhat illustrative quality, but they are lush and lovingly painted. Rashid’s “The Majestic Manor Of Maroons” is a wildly dense and imaginative historical narrative. Excessive and obsessive, Rashid relates a tale of colonialism in a richly painted style that is personal and complex. This Henry Darger – meets- Howard Finster painting makes history come alive despite its pure invention.
Figurative painting as envisioned by Nina Chanel Abney offers a look into a thriving genre with enthusiasm and insight. What may seem limited in certain respects reveals a vastly broad and rewarding show. Punch celebrates the figure, and in doing so, also offers a glimpse into the work of many Los Angeles artists in very good company.
Participating Artists: Nina Chanel Abney, Trevor Andrew aka GucciGhost, Greg Breda, Amoako Boafo, Jordan Casteel, Jonathan Lyndon Chase, Caitlin Cherry, Jeffrey Cheung, Theresa Chromati, Kenturah Davis, Danny Fox, Monica Kim Garza, Georgina Gratrix, Lauren Halsey, Lucia Hierro, February James, Khari Johnson-Ricks, Cheyenne Julien, Austin Lee, Jaime Muñoz, Narcissister, Robert Nava, Arcmanoro Niles, Matthew Palladino, Pat Phillips, Umar Rashid, Gabriella Sanchez, Koichi Sato, Tschabalala Self, Alake Shilling, Devan Shimoyama, David Shrobe, Henry Taylor