Go Figure: Three Women Refashion Figuration

Written by Alfred MacAdam         

There is a new day dawning for figurative painting. Not that pictures of naked ladies or racing horses are making a comeback, but intellectual, political, and social content are forging their way back into the forefront of painting, and it’s women artists who are leading the way.

Genieve Figgis,  Royal Friends,  2014. Acrylic on canvas. 16 x 20 inches. ©Genieve Figgis; Courtesy of Harper's Books.

Genieve Figgis, Royal Friends, 2014. Acrylic on canvas. 16 x 20 inches. ©Genieve Figgis; Courtesy of Harper's Books.

         Genieve Figgis, Jane Corrigan, and Kate Groobey, each in her own eccentric style is showing that representational art has an important role to play in our visual culture. Very different artists, they nevertheless share affinities with Expressionism's distorted reaction to Impressionist placidity. Like the Expressionists, they inscribe their work within an artistic tradition that they demolish through parody and satire. These three women find humor to be the best weapon for abolishing the subaltern status imposed on women artists because humor is empowering, disarming, and seductive.

         In all three, there is a will to the grotesque and a delight in the capriccio-- the caprice or whimsy. The grotesque, as in Roman decoration, is exuberant, with intertwined vines, a metaphor for natural continuity and growth. But mixed in with those vines are faces, mermaids, putti, a vast encyclopedia of fantasy figures. The capriccio  links the real world to the inner world of the subconscious, with its  memories, desires, fears, and outright horrors in the tradition of Goya. All translate into visual images that sidestep the gender neutrality of abstraction in order to maintain social, political, and cultural ties to everyday reality. These artists are not simply reporters or social critics but creators of a parallel, parody reality. By reconfiguring the grotesque and the capriccio they interrupt one tradition to establish another. These women interrupt and refashion an inherited male-dominated artistic tradition that history has imposed on them.

         Genieve Figgis is the most obvious case in point. Her signature paintings take apart the "conversation piece" paintings of the 18th century--the family or friends grouped together by Johann Zoffany and Joshua Reynolds. Figgis transmutes those placid aristocrats into grinning monsters, her groups of ladies more reminiscent of vampires at play than Jane Austen's young ladies at tea. She respects the decorum, the composition of the conversation paintings but turns them inside out.

         To what end? Once again, to acknowledge a tradition while reconfiguring it. Goya saw Tiepolo's capricci and transformed them into something more profound than Rococo divagations. In doing so, he translated the Romantic imagination into visual images: political denunciations, witches' Sabbaths, murders, rapes--along with the horrors of war and a host of personal demons. This sense of a personal exorcism pervades Figgis' painting but with a gender-specific nuance: her parodies mock not only the originals but also the very idea of a dainty, well-mannered concept of female art. Her 2014 Making Love with the Devil transforms the Rococo erotic into what it really is: the downward spiral of sex, submission, and perdition.

Jane Corrigan,  Morning (I'm scared Mo  m) , 2015. Oil on linen. 70 x 55 inches. ©Jane Corrigan; Courtesy of MARINARO gallery. 

Jane Corrigan, Morning (I'm scared Mom), 2015. Oil on linen. 70 x 55 inches. ©Jane Corrigan; Courtesy of MARINARO gallery. 

         Jane Corrigan documents--again in a style reminiscent of childish attempts at art--the life of the new girl, who revels in her sense of agency, her sexuality, and her freedom from the social shackles of yesteryear. Corrigan's young woman doesn't live devoid of fear; far from it: many of her paintings are charged with danger--monsters lurking in stairways, storms, or the stress of adolescence. Morning (I'm Scared, Mom) [2015] shows a young girl in her undies being tidied up, perhaps for school. What does she fear? Bullying, cliques, lack of attention/affection? Who knows?

         The point is that the girl is alone, despite mom, friends, or her cat. Much in the way Corrigan is alone in front of the empty canvas. The Noise Upstairs (Creep) [2015] captures perfectly the idea of the unaccompanied young woman exploring alien space. She can't see the monster (or creep), but she knows what she wants and will use her own light (her lantern) to open up previously forbidden worlds.

         Kate Groobey rehabilitates the zany. Not that she is personally zany or that her wonderful large-scale paintings are zany, but that she brings to artistic life the zany, the clown, the zanni or Gianni or Giovanni of the Commedia dell'Arte. Groobey's large-scale paintings evoke an ancient tradition of stock types and improvised dialogue intimately linked to music and dance.

         Her types are, however, her own invention. Take the milkman in the painting I'm Made of Milk. He's crudely drawn, his words are crudely drawn, and a child's drawing effect dominates the composition. The allusion to childhood and therefore to dreams, daydreams, and fantasies, takes the viewer back to Expressionism. The Expressionists sought to disrupt Impressionism's shimmering but socially innocuous optical effects and bring painting back to a social matrix. This they could only accomplish through parody and overtly unnatural color and drawing.

         Kate Groobey's work may best be understood as an appropriation of that Expressionist dynamic, but linked in her case to a woman's affirmation of presence within a male-dominated artistic tradition. Meaning to say that her milkman, with all his phallic and inseminating energy--those huge drops of milk he scatters around certainly look both familiar and dangerous--is actually androgynous.

Kate Groobey,  I'm Made Of Milk , 2017. Oil on canvas. 73 x 59 inches. ©Kate Groobey; Courtesy of Horton Gallery.

Kate Groobey, I'm Made Of Milk, 2017. Oil on canvas. 73 x 59 inches. ©Kate Groobey; Courtesy of Horton Gallery.

         This we can only see in the absolutely zany video she incorporated into her New York show. In each sequence, Groobey dresses up as the central character in her paintings--the Milkman or the Melon man for example--and does a grotesque dance. This masking and costuming constitutes a metaphor for female artistic endeavor: to succeed you must "man-up," just as so many 19th century women authors could only publish under male pseudonyms. But the longer we look at the figures in her video, the more androgynous or multi-sexual they become: some even have vague bosoms the images in the paintings evidently lack.

         Groobey's zany vision argues coherently for a new kind of gestural figuration. Beyond geometric or expressionistic abstraction, there is a vast territory that women artists must appropriate and reconstitute. Groobey shows how to go about achieving that goal: humor both disarms and seduces spectators; brilliant color draws them in. Her paintings delight and teach at the same time.

         Each of these women deploys figuration in her own way, yet they share a penchant for irony and humor, the traditional weapons of those deprived of power who take on the task to subvert and overcome it.

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