The containment has made collectors even hungrier for paintings of the human form. Is the fatigue of figuration the next?

The Art Detective is a weekly column by Katya Kazakina for Artnet News Pro that lifts the veil on what really happening in the art market.

Reflecting on the contemporary art market’s voracious appetite for portraiture today, an art dealer recently told me over coffee: Imagine all those collectors waking up one morning, looking around their house and asking, “Who are all these people?”

It was a joke, of course. But that made me think: is there a fatigue of figuration on the horizon?

There is an overabundance of figurative art: on social media, in galleries, auction houses and museums. Built before the pandemic, the desire for figurative paintings, and portraits in particular, has only accelerated in the past 16 months. Recently, Asian collectors have been pushing up the prices of works by Dana Schutz and Amy Sherald, Amoako Boafo and Emily Mae-Smith.

Amoako Boafo, Baba Diop (2019). Image courtesy of Christie’s.

Human figures have appeared in all but three of the top 30 contemporary and ultra-contemporary works of art auctioned in the first half of 2021, according to Artnet Analytics (two of the three exceptions represent plants and trees).

“It’s hard to get away from the portrait,” said Miami-based collector Mera Rubell, whose family museum will showcase new figurative works by three artists in December. “He remains powerful. Each generation has its own version.

Artists have represented the human figure for millennia, starting with cave paintings. But the current obsession has been fueled by a number of factors. Among them: as museums and private collectors strive to fill gaps in their collections of women and artists of color, and especially black artists, whose work has been underestimated for decades, the portrait has become an important genre.

Some, however, question whether the determined goal of profit-driven collectors may prevent them from engaging in the true scale of cultural production. “People want to tick those boxes and say they’re participating in the present moment,” said art consultant Rachael Barrett. “They want something recognizable, something that people can easily spot on a wall. I think there will be fatigue because of that. I hope that the range of artistic practices of color artists will become more appreciated.

Installation view, "Hugh Hayden: Huey" © Hugh Hayden.  Courtesy of the Lisson Gallery.

Installation view, “Hugh Hayden: Huey” © Hugh Hayden. Courtesy of the Lisson Gallery.

There are signs that this is already starting to happen. At Chelsea’s Lisson Gallery, Hugh Hayden created three chapel-shaped spaces filled with meticulously carved, sawn and woven objects such as salvaged pews, basketball hoops and school desks.

Nearby, Gagosian has mounted “Social Works,” an exhibit that emphasizes community engagement in the practice of noir art, with monumental sculptures, video installations, and even a working farm. Theaster Gates contributed to an exhibition of 5,000 records amassed by DJ Frankie Knuckles, who was influential in queer black circles in the 1980s. House music fills the gallery and an on-site DJ is busy digitizing the archives throughout. the duration of the show.

Works of this scale and complexity would be difficult to appreciate, if not grasp, on Instagram, the social media platform that has contributed to the saturation of figurative art during the pandemic. Portraits are much easier to digest and acquire because people know what they are looking at.

social works, installation view, 2021. Works © artists.  Photo: Rob McKeever.  Courtesy of Gagosian.

social works, installation view, 2021. Works © artists. Photo: Rob McKeever. Courtesy of Gagosian.

“Even the sculptures, in times of lockdown, it’s hard for people to take that leap of faith and buy something digitally,” art advisor Ed Tang said. “Unless you’re standing in front of it, looking at it from different angles, it’s hard to engage with it. “

In a moment of social isolation, the figurative imagery was heartwarming. “There was a desire to see us one way or another, to see the context around the human figure, socially, historically or just on a physical level,” said gallery owner Franklin Parrasch. “The figurative drive is part of the replacement of the socialization process. “

As physical interactions with art resume in museums, art fairs and biennials, the public can switch to something more difficult.

“The way people look at art is going to change,” Tang said. “Can you imagine going to Venice and seeing figurative painting in each pavilion?” “

While it’s hard to say what the next big trend will be, the pendulum seems to regularly oscillate between abstraction and figuration. And while some artists do work that responds to prevailing ideas and tastes, many do what they do independently of them. Sometimes it takes decades to understand the meaning of a particular work or artist. A recent overhaul of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City radically associated Faith Ringgold’s 1967 American People Series # 20: Dying with that of Pablo Picasso The Ladies of Avignon.

“We didn’t have the same versatility of context in the 1960s when this work was made,” said artistic advisor Allan Schwartzman. “The figuration was considered dated. “

Installation view, "A sublime thought." Courtesy of Galerie Marianne Boesky.

View of the installation, “A sublime thought”. Courtesy of Galerie Marianne Boesky.

While pure abstraction remains a bit old-fashioned these days, the landscape, which hasn’t been a hot genre for decades, makes an appearance in several shows, including “A Thought Sublime” by Marianne Boesky and “Ridiculous Sublime. », Organized by consultant Lisa Schiff.

“It’s a relief to all of this figuration,” said artistic advisor Wendy Cromwell. “It can be a bridge to abstraction for some artists and collectors.”

Some artists merge the figure and the landscape. Matthew Marks Gallery has sold its current exhibition of Julien Nguyen, 31, who makes haunting portraits and allegorical jewelry-like scenes inspired by the Bible, Renaissance painting and anime. (The waiting list for his job is growing.) Prices ranged from $ 30,000 to $ 50,000.

One block to the north, at the Cheim and Read Gallery, the ink drawings of the late Matthew Wong depict his iconic solitary figures in exquisitely rendered mystical spaces. Several sold, with prices ranging from $ 275,000 to $ 450,000.

Julien Nguyen, Ave Maria (2019).  © Julien Nguyen, courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery.

Julien Nguyen, Ave Maria (2019). © Julien Nguyen, courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery.

Many see the fatigue of figuration as linked to the sheer volume of matter, some of which is necessarily of lower quality. “Bad figurative painting is everywhere,” wrote critic Dean Kissick last year in an essay on a wave of painting he called Zombie Figuration. “It crawls through all rooms, from museums to galleries, to cool young project spaces and the world at large.”

Others just yearn for a more sophisticated and critical level of speech than a social media post that says, “Hey, I just got this piece of art. I bought it online. What do you think?”

“And there are 400 likes or kisses,” Parrasch said. “It’s never deep enough to create an argument. What we have are clicks and underdeveloped thoughts.

But weaning from the figure won’t happen overnight, said Ron Segev, co-founder of the Thierry Goldberg gallery on the Lower East Side.

“The collectors who come to see me want figurative work,” he said. “I can’t get people to buy abstract paintings right now. But you can see that there are artists who work against the grain. One of these artists will start a new one.

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