Roberta Smith of The New York Times wrote in 2008 that “[Elizabeth] Peyton’s prominence is either a fluke or a further sign of the ascendancy of the feminine.”[1] Over the last two decades a brand of ‘disfiguration’—practiced by female painters in particular—has been championed by the art market of all things. Beginning in the early ’90s with the pumped-up on steroids disfiguration of English artists Cecily Brown and Jenny Saville, or American Lisa Yuskavage, to the more whimsically pretty disfiguration in the paintings of Americans Karen Kilminik, Elizabeth Peyton and Dana Schutz , these female artists exemplify art market success, fetching over two million euros in some instances, but not conceptual value. As painting is synonymous with the art market, and spectacle is a good marketing tool, how do artists who practice such disfiguration on the canvas avoid being typecast as clichéd purveyors of the ugly and the beautiful against the backdrop of the art market beast?

This symbiotic relationship between the feminine and the art market unintentionally surfaced in Cristín Leach Hughes's Sunday Times review of Genieve Figgis’s solo exhibition ‘Fictitious Possibilities’ at Talbot Gallery and Studios, Dublin. In the review Hughes’s criticism of the global art market’s ignorance of Irish artists was understandably general, but combined with the all-female cast of contemporary painters referenced by the critic (Allison Schulnik, Chantal Joffe, Dawn Mellor) vs the dead male ones (Bacon, Freud, Velasquez), and the ambiguous but potentially spectacular statement that the critic can’t wait for Figgis to “go large,” there is a sense from the review that Figgis’s subject was being drowned out by the questions of gender inequality in the artworld and ‘spectacle’, rather than focusing on the ambitious modesty of the artist‘s painterly and conceptual concerns. As ‘spectacle’ is a newspaper’s bread and an editor's butter, newspaper art critic’s are frequently being asked to dish it out on a table of binary arguments in their reviews. But to what cost to the artist and critic, and to what end? When spectacle vajazzles the subject of an artist’s work, no matter how much attention the artist gets, there is a sense that the integrity of the artist, critic is being traded off for ... what? Admittedly, it must be a frustrating business for art critics who write for Irish newspapers. Articles are increasing built on superficial binary arguments or grand statements (i.e., ‘rural vs urban’, ‘The Death of Painting’). The short-stacked paragraphs suggest rather than critically explore. I imagine such art critics have mountains of notebooks hidden in their living spaces where all the unexplored ideas and editor’s deletions go; and perhaps a dartboard and voodoo doll graced with the editor‘s pin-pricked head. That said, is any attention better that no attention at all?

Speaking of attention, it's interesting that Hughes mentions Irish artist Amanda Doran in her review of Figgis’s exhibition, who graduated from NCAD in 2012. A young painter who showed massive promise in her Degree show, Doran was recently selected to exhibit in the Saatchi ‘New Sensations’ (2012) and Saatchi ‘NEW ORDER: BRITISH ART TODAY' ( 2013). This was not a surprise as Doran’s ballsy application of subject had Saatchi written all over it before it had even left NCAD: but is that such a good thing? I’m not so sure. Minus the spectacle, Doran offers so much more via the luscious formalism performed in her paintings, as does Figgis. Perhaps there is no avoiding such clichéd spectacle when it comes to ‘disfigurative painting’. It brings to mind Paul Virilio’s observation that “Nothing but disfiguring events” happened in the twentieth century.[2] Or Mark Rothko’s admission: “I can no longer use the figure without destroying it.” On the other hand abstraction is usually better received by critics and curators. Take for instance Turner Prize winner Tomma Abts, whose abstract paintings suggest rather than perform disfiguration, with their regimentally consistent first name titles: eg Schwero (2005), Bilte (2008), etc.

Bust when I think of Figgis and the potential for inflated art market attention I am catapulted back to the example of Karen Kilminik—whom Figgis evidently has an affinity with—and the question of how this “girly”[3] subculture of painting continues to sit so pretty in the art market. Laura Cumming lambasted Kilmnik’s solo show at the Serpentine Gallery, London, in 2007, when she wrote in The Guardian:

Wan and whimsical paintings—why does anyone want to make them? Why does any self- respecting painter ever set out to be feeble? Many do and have done for the last couple of decades to the point where deliberate feebleness can get you a show at a mainstream gallery. And at the forefront, forging ahead from the start, were all those American women who seem to have created such a strong market out of pitiful weakness.[4]

After experiencing Kilimnik’s exhibition at the Serpentine gallery myself in 2007, I thought at the time that the artist’s mix of dollhouse stagecraft and decoratively displayed paintings was overtly, sickly-feminine, in a forced My Little Pony kind of way. There was too much of Jane Austin and not enough Charlotte Brontë. There was also a sense that Kilminik was perpetuating a nostalgic turn for the Grand Style of eighteenth century English portraiture, exemplified by Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, painters who were a little My Little Pony themselves, and to whom English art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon referred to as ‘phizmongers’[5] (painters of the faces of the rich). The most interesting remark by Dixon in the same review from 1994, however, is his observation that Reynolds and Gainsborough‘s “discontent with the narrow scope of 18th-century English portraiture” and the “restricted taste of the English gentry” forced both painters to put lavish painterly execution before the ‘true’ appearance of their sitters. It maybe farfetched to describe the two Englishmen as the grandfathers of formalism, but Graham-Dixon’s observation does bring us forward a couple of hundred years to Gerhard Richter’s so-called ambition to render ‘appearances’, and Figgis’s gout and chemical peeled ‘appearances’ of an age of innocence.

Left: Elizabeth Peyton, Burkhard Riemschneider (1995), oil on board, 35.6 x 27.9cm

Right: Karen Kilimnik, Snow White (2004), water soluble oil color on canvas, 46 x 35.5cm





Of Girly Paintings and the Art Market, Newspaper Reviews and Phizmongers

HOME             ABOUT               REVIEWS                 VIDEO                PRINT             COMMISSIONS           WORKSHOP         MAKING FAMILIAR       EVA INTERNATIONAL 2014