Roger Williams University
Dis/Appearing: Tentative Figural Practices
The current paper is a survey of how the figure in contemporary art moved through three conceptual stages. These three stages cannot conceivably represent all possible recent figural strategies in art; my only aim in suggesting such a lineage is to suggest how such a potential iterative process may shed light on other practices. The three stages I wish to discuss move from an implied figure with the birth of contemporary art practices in the 1960s, to actual figures in the performance art practices of the 1970s-90s to more recent approaches that construct what I will call a “tentative figure” by complicating representations of the figure through processes of occlusion. These recent “tentative” representational practices seem to acknowledge the complications of contemporary figural practice by using indistinct effects and also by acknowledging the virtual omnipresence of photographic imagery. Thus, even when consciously eliminated or made allusive, the human figure found its way into modern and contemporary art.
Work that seems to deny figuration entirely, such as Minimalist abstraction, is consistently pulled within the orbit of our perceptual and phenomenological experience where we measure experience by the body. The literalization of space and object in Minimalism thereby has a conceptual link to contemporary “participatory” and performance practices, such as relational aesthetics, which actualize the presence of human bodies in aesthetic encounters….or, are such human works aesthetic at all? Participatory figurative art (performance art) stakes a claim to the legacy of avant-garde practice because it is said to critically intervene in social and public space. It does so through its employment of real, live bodies that present new ethical dilemmas to the viewer. Whether participatory practice actually operates effectively in this manner has been subject to some critique (especially by Claire Bishop).
The viability of representational figurative practices (traditionally understood), on the other hand, is measured against the ever-present danger of kitsch. The last portion of this paper is an attempt to grapple with how, by playing with kitsch effects of out-of-focus imagery, some contemporary artists are reviving representational practice on something other than an academic or traditional basis. Artists as varied as Gerhard Richter, Adam Fuss and even architects such as Diller & Scofidio play with the emergence and disappearance of the figure in contemporary experience by teasing figural representation out of the work’s ground just over the line of legibility. Even within an oeuvre, such as that of Thomas Ruff, one can see an oscillation between these polar figural modes, with his portraits employing a highly-detailed documentary mode and his nudes a blurred indistinctness evocative of not only a perceptual but a conceptual confusion. One has only to compare these occluding figural practices to other painters or photographers such as Joan Semmel, Robert Mapplethorpe, Philip Pearlstein, Peter Hujar, or Lucian Freud in order to note how different the “tentative figure” is from their celebration of detail, grain and raw physicality. Compared to these materialist figures, contemporary “tentative figures” seem humble and maybe even distrustful of the artist’s ability to assert human presence. The “tentative” figure’s complicated status as dis/appearing seems a fitting tribute to our contemporary existential crises, expressing our disenfranchisement from the usual channels of human agency.
Randall K. Van Schepen is associate professor of art and architectural History in the School of Architecture, Art and Historic Preservation at Roger Williams University, Rhode Island. Focusing on modern and contemporary art and architecture as well as critical theory, his research ranges chronologically over the 20th and 21st centuries with occasional forays into the philosophical foundations of modernist thought in the 18th and 19th centuries. Conceptual themes that pervade his work include studies of the role of memory in art, the philosophical and spiritual background of modernist criticism, contemporary artists’ approaches to memorializing or addressing tragedy/terror, as well as the ambiguous status of the photograph in contemporary and modern theories of art.