“Art Now: Confronting Figures”

September 16–December 11, 2005

Press Preview: Friday, September 16, 11:00 a.m.

For immediate release: August 15, 2005
For further information, contact: Emmie Donadio, Chief Curator, (802) 443–2240

MIDDLEBURY, VT—On Sept. 16th the Middlebury College Museum of Art opens Art Now: Confronting Figures, the fourth installation of its ongoing contemporary series Art Now. The exhibition, comprised of three large paintings by internationally renowned artists Marlene Dumas, Gary Hume, and Nicola Tyson, offers an opportunity for viewers to come face to face with three engaging and provocative depictions of the human figure.

Also on view, adjacent to the exhibition, is “Serge Protector,” a large abstract canvas by Mellon Distinguished Visiting Professor Peter Plagens. Contributing editor and art critic for both Newsweek and Artforum, Plagens considers himself a painter who also happens to write art criticism. He will be teaching an undergraduate course and a faculty colloquium on contemporary art and criticism at Middlebury College during the fall semester.

While the human figure has always been a permanent reference point for artists, the current interest in the subject follows more than half a century of Modernist production emphasizing predominantly abstract, non-figurative art. While the three artists in this exhibition are aware that their recognizable imagery may seem to signal a turning back to more traditional subject matter, there is no doubt that their works are post-modern. For one thing the pervasive, inevitable influence of photography and mass media representations of the figure are evident in their treatment of the figure. For another, their works employ a range of contemporary expressive techniques ranging from high gloss paint in bold, assertive colors to radical distortion.

Marlene Dumas, the most traditional painter of the three, was born and educated in Capetown, South Africa, and has lived in Amsterdam since the early 1970s. Racial identity has been one of the central concerns of her work, and “The Conspiracy,” the work on view in the exhibition, is no exception. Two toddlers, one black with blond hair, and one white-skinned and blue-eyed, stand motionless and tranquil, knee deep in a pool of water. They hold their ground with equanimity and an unmistakable self-assurance that belies their physical immaturity. Dumas derives her subjects “second hand,” she says, from photographs, but she paints them with unabashedly direct “first-hand emotion.”

Gary Hume lives and works in London. Since 1988, when he graduated from Goldsmiths College at the University of London, he has been associated with the YBAs—the young British artists who burst onto the scene in that year in an exhibit of student work organized by Damien Hirst. Hume uses high-gloss commercial grade paint, which he spreads liberally on aluminum panels, a procedure that gives his work remarkably high visual impact. Hume’s “Francis,” the painting on view here, is a putative portrait of Francis Bacon, godfather to the unruly, irreverent YBAs. The painting looks like the work of a small child, but it has been blown out of all proportion to cover an entire wall of the gallery. Francis himself appears to be a monster puppet, with a few wild and wiry purple hairs standing on end and tiny teeth visible between fuchsia lips. The figure’s yellow eyes don’t match. They seem focused in separate directions, giving a somewhat fey melancholy to the depiction, and they peer out from a chocolaty brown face, which one critic has interpreted as an indication that the subject was either “too long under the tanning lamp” or else wearing a terrorist’s balaclava.

Verging upon the grotesque is Nicola Tyson’s “Figure in a Blue Bikini.” Tyson, like Hume, was born and educated in the U.K. She came to New York in the early 1990s because she believed it offered her more freedom as a woman to pursue her own idiosyncratic, expressionist style. A participant in the punk rock scene in London and founder of Trial Balloon, a now defunct gallery in New York that provided a venue for art by women only, Tyson has situated her blue bikini on a citron field so yellow one can almost taste its acidity. The artist paints the human form in a way analogous to her outrageously inventive, remarkably free drawings, in which figures with impossible anatomies, unevenly matched limbs, or misplaced and oddly sized sexual organs predominate. The style suggests a kind of exploration or experiment, as if the artist were testing the tensile strength of the physical boundary—the outline—of a human being. Tyson’s figures achieve a kind of empathetic bond with the viewer. One finds oneself wondering how it might feel to be trapped in a weirdly behaving body, a distorted form over which one could exercise no control. Some critics have justly labeled Tyson’s works “psychofigurations.” It has also been remarked that they bear a visual resemblance to canvases by Francis Bacon, whose specter is invoked in this installation in a variety of ways.

Peter Plagens’s abstract canvas provides an unexpected contrast to the figurative paintings on view nearby. A large number of his works are touring the country this year in a retrospective exhibition organized by the University of Southern California, where the artist completed his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. Plagens painting is conceived in the formal vocabulary of Modernism. The unnamable shapes and disjointed configurations of his imagery include irregular, hard-edged forms as well as graceful and tenuous ones. His palette, restrained overall in this canvas, still carries some allusion to California, but his painterly handling is more reminiscent of New York School predecessors.

On Wed., Sept. 28 Plagens will speak about his work in a free public slide lecture titled “A Simple Country Painter.” His talk is at 4:30 p.m. in Twilight Auditorium on Rte. 125 and is cosponsored by the Museum and the Faculty Lecture Series.

The Middlebury College Museum of Art is free and open to the public Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. It is closed Mondays. The Museum is accessible to people with varying disabilities. Parking is available in the Center for the Arts parking lot. For further information, please call (802) 443–5007 or TTY (802) 443–3155, or visit the Museum’s website at http://museum.middlebury.edu.