Picasso captured a spirit that had long existed in African sculpture when he fragmented the human body into expressive planes. Since Cubism, the distorted human figure has developed a close association with modernism, and although there are periodic returns to representational art, these carry with them a certain self consciousness. When painters seek to represent complex emotional depth, the distorted or abstracted form is usually the vehicle.
Contemporary representational artists such as John Currin and Eric Fischl(above) cultivate an extreme shallowness in their work: they focus their energy on the most superficial layers of reality. Currin has developed a remarkable Venetian technique that he uses to direct attention to the surface texture of his paintings. Analogous precedents, such as Titian and Velasquez, also focused on surfaces, but their canvases suggest an inner life beyond the paint. Behind a Fischl painting one senses a great void, an emptiness emphasized by the unnatural arrangement of figures and by the vacuum of space that isolates them.
On the other side of the spectrum are artists who distort or abstract the figure but intend to show complex inner states. Laylah Ali‘s paintings often carry an emotional charge similar in intensity to Goya’s The Third of May, that feeling of inevitability in the face of suffering. Her figures, though, are cartoons painted on flat backgrounds. Their bodies are pared down to the emotive fundamentals necessary to spark empathy: eyes and mouths are drawn with the most care. Her ‘Greenheads’ are carefully arranged, and despite their simplified appearance, they evoke specific sociological positions.
Daniel Richter is a figurative painter closer to the Expressionist tradition: his distortions are painterly and evocative. With Richter, it’s like looking beneath the veil of Maya. His world is as black and infinite as deep space. The figures in his work are like polychromatic ghosts moving along deterministic paths. He reaches towards the human soul in his paintings and comes back with nightmarish ectoplasm.
So, are there trends between these artists? Isolation of minds, maybe. A sense of determinism, of semi-sentient beings acting out unalterable scenes. A sense of emptiness. Most notably, an inversion between realism of execution and emotional depth.