Re-Presenting the Figure

Body of Work

By Gretchen Giles

THE LONG, CURVED, female hip of a nude reclining on a sofa, stomach draped, a slight smile playing upon her lips, A woman standing, caught gently soaping down the pinked flesh of her limbs before a mirror. An unclothed model braving the chill of a studio podium as students sit scratching away at pads in a semi-circle before her. These are images familiar to both the viewer and the progenitor of figurative art. The gaze of the artist is predominantly male, staring dispassionately at the innate beauty of the female form. The woman’s body, her surroundings, and the mystery of her face all withhold a secret, a story, one that a viewer can tell privately to oneself.

There is something to guess at beyond the simplicities of a human naked or clothed.

But take that same figure and examine it simply for line and form. Disregard passions and pasts, look for the stark juxtaposition of elbow and knee. Refuse to pity or covet: see the body as a thing, an object of utility uniquely politicized by the very restrictions of focus. And then look again.

“In the ’80s, a lot of artists were looking at the issue of identity, and so the body became this very major motif–especially after the 1970s, when conceptual art reigned supreme and the figurative just didn’t exist,” says Michael Schwager, Sonoma State University art professor and gallery director. “The body came back in as this carrier of identity, sexuality, race, class. You know: What does our own carrier of ourselves mean to the outside world and how can artists use that?”

These questions and others are among those raised by Schwager’s latest curatorial effort, “Re-Presenting the Figure: The Body as Image and Object in Contemporary Art,” opening Nov. 7 at the University Art Gallery.

For this exhibit, featuring works by abstract painters Willem de Kooning and Jean-Michel Basquiat, the dense inversions of painter Georg Baselitz, the photographic self-studies of John Coplans, and the multimedia images of Kiki Smith, Schwager has gathered a roster of 26 artists that each define and reflect a consciousness of body in a radically different manner.

“Kiki Smith was making these latex casts of human bodies that she would hang from hooks so that they would just drape, or she’d cut them up into one-inch squares that had all of these associations–the Holocaust, science, but also just the body as a thing,” says Schwager, seated on a stool in the gallery foyer. Explaining the show’s genesis, he says,“I was thinking that if we looked at the body as an object, as an image, not as a narrative, you might find people who look at the figure and the form in a very different way. I thought, can I do a figurative show without doing a figurative show?

“De Kooning was sort of the defining kind of spirit of the show,” Schwager continues, “because he used the figure as the ultimate starting point. You can see the woman in [his paintings]. I know people have interpreted his figures as angry or misogynist, and I’m not sure that I agree with those interpretations, because the fact is he used the figure to make a painting. The figure became a thing that became the understructure of a beautiful abstract painting. I wanted to investigate that.”

WHILE SCHWAGER may see the New York­based de Kooning as his jumping-off point, it was the figurative work of Bay Area artists that finally coalesced the exhibit into a viable metaphor.

“I wanted a contemporary view of this subject, knowing that we have that tradition in this area and that the world has changed. The issue of the body is a bigger issue than they were grappling with,” he says, referring to local figurative art’s late-’60s crest, spearheaded by such artists as David Parks and Richard Diebenkorn. “I mean, I worship Parks and Diebenkorn, but they’re for my next show,” he smiles. “They’re for a narrative show.

Schwager, who has been curating five gallery exhibits a year since he came to SSU in 1991, came to the “Re-Presenting” exhibit through an interest in mounting a narrative show– one in which the works speak out their mysteries–finally deciding that this kind of a figurative show is more timely.

” I think that anyone who has been aware of the world at large–with its gender and identity politics–knows that a lot of people have been thinking about what it means to be a white woman, an African-American man, or an Asian-American person,” he says. “And that was in the air during much of the ’80s, maybe in response to Reagan and his longing for the world the way it used to be–the way it never was. We’re a melting pot. We’re not melting together–but we’re here together and we can’t ignore each other. I quite frankly hadn’t addressed it in any of my other shows, and this is a way to look at that, because much of it took the form of the body.”

Looking up from the slides and photographs covering the gallery’s desk, Schwager smiles. “I hope that it encompasses a wide range,” he says of the exhibit, “from the political, to the social, to cultural critique, to the really well-done, by artists who have used a singular image to make us look at the body and not its surroundings and not who it is. I hope that politics and power are going to be the subtext. I have no agenda, but the artists do.”

Re-Presenting the Figure opens with a reception from 4 to 6 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 7, and runs through Dec. 20. University Art Gallery, Sonoma State University, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park. Gallery hours are Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and weekends, noon to 4 p.m. Closed Mondays. Admission is free. 664-2295.

From the October 31-November 6, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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