Thomas Butler curates The Figure in Contemporary Art at Cypress College

A strength that almost gives up is present in Domenic Cretara’s Caretaker. A wedding band signals marriage – I see it on the man, laying slumped on a couch, bare-chested, his left arm hanging to the floor. The young woman – his wife? – sits on a chair, her hands are folded in her lap, and her head is downcast. She faces away from the man, near his feet. (This pose feels important, and is charged with equivocal emotions: placing the woman facing away from her husband conveys to me her exhausted emotions – she cannot look at him. I think also that the woman’s hips and legs complete the figure of the man – they are one. Here, the artist shows us despair and yet gives us hope.) That the artist denies me a glimpse of her own wedding ring may signal this wife’s denial: care-taking is rough on the soul – it tries every commitment. The selfishness of disease can hollow out love.

“This is a show I would want to see as a student.” (curator Thomas Butler)

There is a freemasonry of painting among figurative painters – and I mean the term in the metaphoric sense of a secret club as well as the sense of a guild of highly developed craftsmen, for great skill is required to observe and render the body. And it is both, observation as well as drafting. Over a lifetime of close watching one learns how muscles move and pull and place our bones into postures, and the ways that our bodies and faces can reveal our thoughts; the long, slow, laborious practice of making marks to represent what one sees isn’t as direct as the same thing might be if one takes a photograph, the mark-making also conveys what one senses and feels. The hand is an interpreter, not a copyist. In my simplistic way, it seems to me that other arts can make statements about the human experience, while painting offers a breadth of interpretation that equals life.

Melancholy and resolve. The tightened and thin lips of a man dying, struggling to breathe. Vilmos Abeles is on his deathbed in his cousin Sigmund’s painting. A plastic tube circles his over-large old man’s ear and small plastic nibs feed oxygen into his nose. This is a small painting, and Vilmos’s head – all that is shown – is smaller than lifesize. The waste of death has left a large, bony nose and huge plate-like glasses. While this face might have been comical in life, the palpable chill of Vilmos’s demise, imminent as it must be, leaves no room for humor.

“Tom did studio visits with every artist in the show. Assael invited him to draw with him, as did Abeles! Can you imagine?” (gallery director Ed Giardina)

The same freemasonry that joins artists in a pursuit also joins artists to students who are willing to devote themselves to the study and practice of art. Learning the nature of the exhibition, and recognizing the seriousness with which Butler approached his plan, the twelve artists offered works that were not on the curator’s list and would otherwise have been beyond the college gallery’s capabilities. The support structure that makes the art world also played a part in Butler’s scheme to bring great paintings to his students: Dealers stepped forward to help, shippers made services available, the Cypress College students themselves put in long hours beyond their class time. It seems that the shared experience of art which begins in the making (at lease for observation-based figurative work) continues and reforms itself throughout the processes of shipping, storage, exhibition, and with each new viewer.

Jerome Witkin framed together two unequally-sized stretched canvases for his painting The German Girl, on the left a young woman crouches alone in a room, her corner is placed high on the canvas, and the interior space around her is in disarray: I see scattered concrete blocks, in the foreground a dirty mattress is folded awkwardly and this frames (and crowds) the girl’s space. To the right, near the other canvas, potatoes spill from the circle of a tipped-up basin. The chaos continues and turns to horror: a skull that might be a mug and might be a symbol partly blocks from view a swastika on a soldier’s jacket, the swastika mirrors a similar Nazi design in the floor tiles. Also on the floor a puddle reflects a bit of blue sky and sunshine, and this seems weird in an otherwise dark painting. It’s unnerving to me that this moment of light continues up a door frame – maybe there is daylight in an outside, but not in this painting. I think I see a painter’s easel lying folded across the puddle, and I wonder if I am correct, and I wonder what this evidence of an artist might mean.

The cowering girl’s expression is impassive. I expected to see fear, she is huddled on the floor, covering her mouth and clutching one ankle – considering her context in relation to the rest of the painting, and to history, my mind wants her to be terrified and maybe punished. I don’t think Witkin wants this to be easy for me. I think that within his powerful moral statement there is a ton of ambiguity.

In the right-hand panel everything is dark, and the puddle that on the left shows sunshine, here reflects a dark, empty village square. A crowd of prisoners fills the space, they are identity-less in striped uniforms, and where a name-tag might be on each is a yellow star – so the only identity these men are allowed is that of Jew. Some of them are wounded, many have their hands raised and three hands penetrate the divide and appear in the German girl’s space. I believe they are grasping for potatoes, and passing them back to their mates. One hand casts a large shadow over the crouching girl – and the scene again is ambiguous and insubstantial: being made only of the absence of light, this hand can do no harm to the German girl, in fact the hand that casts the shadow is already marked for death. Perhaps the certainty of its destruction explains the girl’s calm look toward the nightmare outside.

I wonder whether the moment of sunshine indicates a possibility for hope beyond the human-made terror, and then I wonder if the hope I sense is the hope of this German girl – for a sunny day and a village square outside, empty of the Jews she hates.

“These artists show that the “concept” in art is not something that can be separated from the “skill.” They are one and the same.” curator Thomas Butler

While I don’t know that figurative painting needs to defend itself with regard to conceptual or abstract art (and this exhibition proves the point), I also don’t find Butler’s statement to be true in an absolute sense. Looking at these paintings, there is a wealth of expressive possibility, and as with all art, my own insight and ability to interpret are important. Human feelings about death, love, time and pleasure are compressed into a single painting. Nuance rules. This is all good. But I recognize that this work begins in limitation – one must be able to draw and be willing to draw from life – and these limits may be what sets figuration apart from the main current of contemporary art. Profound and beautiful the outcome may be, still limitations seem old fashioned.

The Figure in Contemporary Art is on view at Cypress College through November 1. There is a reception scheduled tonight, Thursday, September 20.



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