Larger Than Life (Center for Figurative Painting, May 12 - September 28)

by Hearne Pardee


Bell (1)

Georges (1)

Georges (2)

Larger Than Life features paintings from the collection of the Center for Figurative Painting by Leland Bell, Paul Georges, Peter Heineman, Aristodemos Kaldis and Albert Kresch. It's a diverse and contentious group, often at odds with the art world, with one another, or with themselves. Their generation was marked by the dominance of abstract expressionism, with its rhetoric of Americanism and its idealization of pure form. In their opposition, these artists all had to deal in personal ways with big issues - what is real? And what is real painting?

There's poignancy to the show's title, given the recent death of Paul Georges. He and Leland Bell, who died in 1991, dominate the show, and both were indeed larger than life figures in the world of painting. Their prominence grew in part from their contentious relationship to contemporary art. Endowed with talent and ambition equal to the abstract expressionists , they reacted against that.

Beyond their common combativeness, though, they tend in contrasting directions. If Bell, who studied to be an abstract painter, turns to the figure with the zeal of a convert, he still seems committed to forging a union of abstraction with representation. Deeply inspired by the abstract energy of angles and shapes, in which he still sees the deep truth of painting, Bell obsessively reworks his figures, generating his larger than life subjects from the rhythmic development of forms. Georges, on the other hand, tries to reinvigorate the great tradition of history painting, matching the grandiosity of abstract expressionism with his own large-scale interpretations of contemporary subjects. Where Bell interprets the figure from a constructive point of view, with planes of color, Georges aspires to a robust naturalism more reminiscent of Courbet. His Looking at the Landscape (1982), with two nudes outdoors, harks back to this tradition. Georges sensual figures appeal to our sense of touch, while Bell's monumental nudes in Morning II (1978-81) emphasize the articulation of volumes. Bell assumes an ethical stance, talking about the responsibility of representation , by which he means portraying a subject in its full three-dimensional world within the two-dimensional structure of painting; the black outlines around his figures reinforce this pictorial logic. Bell suits up in formal armor before addressing his subject, while Georges reacts like a teenager given keys to the family car. For him, the great tradition offers a springboard, a source of ideas.

Yet both artists are more complex than these initial impressions suggest. If Bell's subjects a cat killing a bird, a stray butterfly are on one level mere armatures on which he choreographs expressive gestures, they also achieve something specific and personal. Here, an impressive late version of Figure Group with Bird (1987-90) moves from a very abstract treatment of the left figure's arm to a fully realized self-portrait in the head. Bell struggles to domesticate abstraction by bringing it home, and his most convincing works stay close to the world of friends and family, like those of Giacommetti, one of his heroes. Bell tests Giacommetti's maxim that the most stylized art Egyptian or Mesopotamian is also the most real; his images are built to last.

Where Bell's self-portraiture is discrete, reflecting his struggle to reconcile abstraction and representation, Georges is always front and center. His gaze engages the viewer's in self-portraits that are often large and theatrical, like Self-Portrait with Model , in which he paints himself on a couch with his subject. Georges aims for naturalism, but his technique lacks the finish of Courbet, and his more recent paintings court an abstract expressionist rawness. If Bell's paintings can become just shapes, Georges can become just paint. But Georges areas of pure color, however unrefined, keep him in touch with his medium and his feelings, especially in his grandiose paintings of flowers, where his sensibility achieves its fullest expression. In In the Studio (1989-90), a large self-portrait seemingly inspired by Courbet's Atelier , such exuberance is harnessed in the higher effort to convey a comprehensive image of the painter's life. The intense green of the world outside the studio door jolts against the dark interior, where an abstract painting in red and blue hangs on one wall and a sketchy figure composition on another; the artist, in the same vivid blue, seems pinned at the threshold. There are allegorical overtones in the interplay of abstract and figurative elements and an overall impulse to universality. Georges incorporates abstraction, in his own literal way, with an all-embracing generosity of spirit. The work is a fitting emblem of his life-long devotion to painting's potential.

If Bell and Georges are contentious, Peter Heineman reminds us that painting can also evoke a realm of inward contemplation. His powerfully modeled heads, presumably self-portraits, are isolated on dark grounds, and project a moody, existential outlook. Heineman reconciles abstraction and representation in a meditative way, by surrounding his monochromatic backgrounds with decoratively patterned borders, applied in thick, methodical impasto like a woven tapestry. This decorative device casts an ambiguous light on the heads themselves: there s gentle irony to Heineman's stance, whereas Bell and Georges throw themselves into figuration with ideological conviction.

Two very different landscape painters round out the show - Aristodemos Kaldis, an exuberant extrovert, and Albert Kresch, whose intimate landscapes are tempered with darkness. Kaldis colorful improvisations recall the freely associated images in Gorky's late work; Minerva Surveying Europa of 1974 also echoes Kandinsky's spontaneous paintings of Murnau. Kaldis seems more at home in such modernist idioms than the other artists in the show perhaps too much so. In their context, his paintings, vivid as they are, ask to be pushed and questioned further. Kresch, on the other hand, absorbs himself in small images of vast landscapes. He sublimates the overt egocentricity of Georges but not without residual tension there's understated drama in the dark poignancy of his colors. Studies of the Catskills are dominated by dramatic shadows cast across undulating hills, while in two views of Temple, Maine, primitive houses return our gaze. Kresch recalls us to the spiritualized landscapes of Georges Rouault, which he combines with something more home-grown and American.

All these works arouse a sensual response in the viewer. When problems of representation can be reduced to the engineering of digital grids, it's refreshing to encounter the poetic electricity by which shapes and pigments come to life. They also offer the excitement and poignancy of perseverance in the face of official neglect, unresolved questions and inner doubts. One hopes that the Center for Figurative Painting, or other institutions, will expand its program of exhibitions and consider the work of other such artists. The rich history of post-war representational painting, in Europe as well as America, invites further exploration.

-- Hearne Pardee


  Copyright © 2002 Hearne Pardee