When Willem de Kooning, after proving his ability as a romantic figurative painter, used collage and splatter for his series of Women, a chapter of painting seemed to be coming to a close. Add to that the push-pull dialogues of Hans Hoffman and the explosion that was Jackson Pollack, and the entire book seemed on its way to being rewritten. Figurative painting became increasingly irrelevant, and continues today to seem to exist outside a serious context.
For those who buy into that cursory look at the Abstract Expressionists' effect on painting's trajectory, nothing has come along to really change their minds. This doesn't mean, of course, that there are no serious figurative painters, or that their work does not warrant attention. But the contemporary figurative painters who have deserved the most attention have been those who've struggled to reconcile the figurative with the expressionistic.
One such artist, Patricia H. Neff, passed away earlier this year, and her first posthumous show, which spans most of her career and was curated with the help of her husband, opened at Gallery C on July 18. Her work is, for the most part, straightforward figurative painting, but there is a tension between the figurative and the expressionistic that drives much of it. Neff focuses primarily on the female nude, and takes it seriously. She teeters, never breaking in either direction into a tame realism or a distorted expressionism. Most of the paintings offer indiosyncrasies that help to integrate her body of work through a series of contradictions. In one piece, a foot might bend over the step of a ladder like soft rubber, while the most stunning thing about another painting might be the rigidity of the nose, lips and cheekbones.
For a series of female nudes that isn't shy about examining the texture of a nipple or the detail of a vagina, Neff's work is decidedly apolitical. Without being too cold, Neff nevertheless betrays an indifference to her subjects. She approaches her women with an aesthetic appreciation absent of a desire to shock or exalt: The women exist almost entirely without comment.
This is perhaps why Neff is at her best when her subjects are contextualized the least. She often opts for a neutral background that is not a wall or a skyline, and puts nothing in the foreground or on the same spatial plane with the model. In these pieces, the figure stands before the viewer frankly, more a study than a commentary. The pieces that detail a background or a piece of furniture fail because they don't fit. The way she misses the mark in the latter paintings illustrates what Neff sometimes didn't seem to know about herself: She is not a realistic painter. The intriguing dynamic in those works that gel is supplied by the clash of a seemingly simplistic portraiture meeting a delicate abstraction. Her nudes are too pleasingly angled to sit on embroidered ottomans or to lounge on the beach--these details seem out of place. (Furthermore, her ottomans and beaches are unintentionally crude.)
Neff's paintings really hit their stride when the models exist in a vacuum. Three works, displayed as a triptych at Gallery C, place their subjects against no backdrop at all, freeing Neff to explore the play between textured flesh and the sculptorly qualities of the angles. Neff has plenty in common with her mentor Jacques Fabert, whose primary subject is also the female nude. Fabert's women are the descendents of Egon Schiele's emaciated, snarling subjects with red vaginas. He works from the skeleton out, concentrating on ligaments and buttocks, often likening them to slabs of meat. They're more sinister than Neff's paintings, but are clearly Neff's chief inspiration. The primary difference between Fabert and Neff is the backgrounds and surroundings of the nudes. While Neff's women often exist without environment, Fabert places his subjects against backgrounds of futuristic, almost campy sketches of anthropomorphic plasticized shapes. The strained, dripping flesh of his women plays against these backgrounds, each struggling to displace the other. They're not particularly revelatory works, but they contain an undeniable intensity.
Neither Fabert nor Neff attempts a full-on realism, though Neff comes closest. Neff, at her best, has concentrated this push-pull dialectic of realism and abstraction entirely onto the female form. Her leanings toward classicism provide tension to her work, but ultimately retard it from registering on a level greater than that of the work of a skilled painter who can't quite figure out how to break the mold.