Figurative painting – art featuring people and stories – has seen an unprecedented rise in the past decade, with the style dominating art market trends and museum displays worldwide. We all know figurative painting has been a feature of art history for centuries, but the contemporary art painting styles we see emerging today are anything but traditional. These have acid-bright colors, mashed-up imagery, and crude slashes of paint, proving there is still so much mileage to be explored in this arena. Styles, approaches, and imagery are hugely varied, but several common themes have emerged that suggest this is a real contemporary art movement on the rise. One such theme is the playful, neo-pop approach to bright color and flat pattern. Another reflects contemporary identity, with many artists exploring their mixed-race heritages or issues surrounding black culture and racism. Let’s take a brief look at the historical developments that paved the way for today’s figurative painting before delving into some of the most striking examples of recent years.
A Brief History of Figurative Painting
If figurative painting dominated much of early art history, by the early 20th century, the genre had become a symbol of stale tradition, one to be rebelled against with progressive styles of avant-garde abstraction. Pop Art and Photorealism of the 1970s brought a new form of figuration to the table that was as slick and polished as a freshly printed photograph, from David Hockney’s stylized portraits to Chuck Close’s startlingly lifelike motifs. The Neo-Expressionists of the 1980s, including Julian Schnabel and Georg Baselitz, made messy figurative painting trendy again. These artists worked with crude, experimental styles that veered close to abstraction; an ethos echoed in the anarchic, rebellious, and purposefully ‘bad’ imagery of German conceptual painters Albert Oehlen and Martin Kippeberger.
But in the early 2000s, a truly explosive boom in figurative painting occurred, led by an international crew of artists including George Kondo, Alex Katz, Peter Doig, Marlene Dumas, Kehinde Wiley, Elizabeth Peyton, and John Currin. Though stylistically diverse and spread worldwide, these contemporary artists share a desire to make images that merge pop culture references with the sticky, gooey matter of paint. Since then, a second wave of figurative painting has emerged that is similar in style, but with a greater emphasis on the identity politics of today and an even more heightened, saturated color palette that seems to reference the digital realm. Here are just a handful of the contemporary artists leading the way with this exciting new trend of figurative painting.
1. Aliza Nisenbaum
Aliza Nisenbaum is a rising New York-based artist with an upcoming solo show at Tate Liverpool set for June 2021. Although her subject matter has been hugely varied over the years, she is best known for her colorful, large-format canvases that portray diverse community groups: the staff at Anton Kern Gallery, NHS workers, or team members from the London Underground. These complex figure groupings capture the lively, multi-cultural mixes of people that make up so many of today’s communities. She particularly enjoys painting human skin, observing its nuanced differences from person to person, noting, “color is something that is very contingent. Everyone perceives it differently and it’s a myth that even within a particular race there’s a seamless color.” Painted with flat panels of acid bright color and eye-catching pattern, her richly decorative paintings nod as much towards the interiors of Henri Matisse as the Pop Art portraiture of David Hockney.
2. Michael Armitage
Kenyan-born artist Michael Armitage has been making waves across the international art world with his dreamy, complex, and vibrantly colorful paintings. He is now considered one of the most exciting and adventurous contemporary art painters working today. Much of his art is made as a response to the turbulence in East Africa, taking influence from historical events, personal memories, and recent news, which he collapses together into splintered, multi-layered images.
The urban or jungle scenes he creates are filled with figures caught mid-action as if teetering on the brink of violence or collapse, a state that reflects the ongoing uncertainties within African society. But he is also keen to keep any political references oblique and obscured, allowing for the romantic qualities of art to take precedence. “There is a poetic side of art that you cannot trust as a historical document,” he notes, “but it is the poetic side that can be moving and that can also provide a subtle, less political way of questioning a situation.” Armitage also nods towards European art history, referencing a vast pool of predecessors including Paul Gauguin, Titian, Francisco de Goya, Edouard Manet, and Vincent van Gogh, whose potent colors and compositional motifs are given a new lease of life in his art.
3. Jordan Casteel
American artist Jordan Casteel paints marginalized black and brown figures who have been historically sidelined and excluded from art institutions. Her colors are heightened, flattened, and saturated, allowing for maximum visual impact. They recall David Hockney’s recent, artificially-colored portraits inspired by the Day-Glo hues of a digital screen. Like Hockney, Casteel paints people from her immediate social circle in New York City. She captures them in relaxed poses and informal settings at home or at work, surrounded by the seemingly banal ephemera of daily life. Observing the ordinary aspects of these people’s lives allows Casteel to highlight their quirks and idiosyncrasies and emphasize their fragile and approachable humanity.
4. Cinga Samson
South-African artist Cinga Samson’s works are painted with deep, entrancing gold, black, and green shades, lending them a quietly sumptuous air of mystery. His most recent body of work is an exploration of self-portraiture, but his own image is merely a starting point from which to expand into a broader reflection on what it means to be a young, black male today. Much like the traditional portraits that Rembrandt van Rijn made over 300 years ago, Samson’s self-portraits are a process of self-discovery, continually shifting as he experiments with different staging, clothing, and poses. He sets luxury items, including gold chains, fancy sneakers, and shimmering underwear, alongside more generic and banal props such as hoodies, coffee cups, and toothpaste. Often placing his figures in lush and tropical backdrops, Samson refers to the botanical flora and fauna of his childhood in Africa. However, these scenes also take his characters away from the real world and closer to the realms of dream and fantasy.
5. Jonas Wood
L.A.-based painter Jonas Wood makes comic-book-style observations of his daily life, painting the people, places, and objects that surround him in a flat, decorative style that is buzzing with clashing plants, patterns, and prints. His playful, neo-pop style of contemporary art has been likened to a wide array of predecessors from Henri Matisse to David Hockney and Alex Katz, sharing with them a love of vibrant texture, surface, and color. Much of his work is driven by a desire to paint what he calls a “visual diary” from personal experience. “I’m not going to paint something that doesn’t have anything to do with me,” he writes, “Of all of the possible things I could paint, the thing that interests me is something that I can get close enough to in order to paint it honestly.”
6. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye
British artist and writer Lynette Yiadom-Boakye is renowned today for her stirring figurative portrayals of fictional black characters, painted from found images, memory, and imagination. Set amidst brooding light in active poses and unusual costumes or clothing, they suggest stories without giving the game away, leaving their meaning up to personal interpretation. Ambiguous titles add further layers of meaning to her work, encouraging us to search deeper for stories hiding within. One of the most important painters to emerge in recent years, she was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2013, and her paintings are on display in a major showcase at Tate Britain until May 2021.
Figurative Painting Within Contemporary Art: Looking Forward
Figurative art continues to be one of the most popular genres in contemporary art practice, taking up more and more space across studios, art venues, and auction sales worldwide. In the publication A Brush with the Real: Figurative Painting Today (2014), Margherita Dessanay and Marc Valli argue that figurative painting is the perfect antidote to the media-saturated world in which we live, observing that “the role fulfilled by painting has never been so vital or timely: in our image-saturated culture, digital technology has given painting and its slow, full-resolution images a new lease of life.”
Writer Dean Kissick has also wryly observed a new, rising trend in contemporary art circles for what he calls “bad figurative painting,” scornfully writing in The Spectator, “There’s just so much of it.” He argues this particular branch of “bad” figurative painting is defined by strange, crude, or crass imagery that aims to immediately grab our attention in the same way as a punchy social media snapshot. Cited examples include the surreal, faintly disturbing work of Texan artist Emily Mae Smith in which people are reimagined as broomsticks set amidst kitsch, saturated landscapes, and interiors, or French painter Julie Curtiss, whose strange and uncanny world is dominated by shiny brown hair. Only time will tell where the next avenue of figurative painting may lead.