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Survey of Figurative Paintings Shows Us Some Skin

In so much contemporary art, the human form is something of an afterthought, if it’s even contemplated at all.

Not so in the Phillips Collection’s vibrant — and very human — new exhibition “Paint Made Flesh.” In this compelling show, the gallery’s third floor has been turned into an homage to the human form — and its flesh — by the oil paints that bring it to life on canvas.

A survey of figurative paintings since the 1950s, “Paint Made Flesh” consists of more than 40 different works from artists as varied as Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, grandson of the groundbreaking psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.

The art hanging in the expansive exhibition challenges perceptions of the human body, and forces the viewer to ponder the sometimes cruel effects that nature and politics can have on it. Featuring works from Europe and the United States, “Paint Made Flesh” begins with themes reflecting Europe’s angst in the aftermath of World War II. The exhibition concludes with much more contemporary paintings that examine how globalism and technology affect the human race. Some of these paintings evoke feelings of comfort and contentment, others fear and paranoia.

The works in the first gallery take a socio-political view of the human form. “Napalm II,” a massive oil-on-linen work by Chicago-born painter Leon Golub, at first view appears to depict a scene from a football game. A masculine figure, running upright with both arms clasped in front of his chest, looks as if he’s carrying a ball. Another man lies crumpled at his feet, a twisted contortion of kinetic motion, as if he’d just been run over by the ball carrier. But closer inspection reveals angry splotches of red permeating the vanquished man’s arms — hence the violent title of the painting. Staring at the bloody lacerations, you become more conscious of your own flesh.

Freud’s contributions to the exhibition also are uncomfortable to look at, but for different reasons. Freud liked to paint people living on the margins of society, such as the aging party girl and unclothed transvestite depicted here.

In “Standing by the Rags,” Freud uses thickly applied layers of paint to create a living topography that reveals the ravages of time on a female form. The subject of the painting was one of Freud’s friends. Instead of patronizing her and idealizing her frame as she leaned against a stack of untidy painting rags, he created her image as he saw it. The result is unsettling and makes the viewer aware of their own mortality.

“Naked Man, Back View,” also by Freud, portrays Leigh Bowery, a transvestite performance artist in London in the 1920s. Shown backstage, probably after a performance, Freud strips — no pun intended — the mostly naked Bowery down to his essential, schlumpy being. In both of Freud’s works displayed here, the subjects show a little paunch, a little sag. And both reflect the weary realities of life.

In “Hyphen, 1999,” a wall-size painting, artist Jenny Saville seems at first glance to have painted the image of conjoined twins. But reading the wall text we learn that it is actually a portrait of her and her sister — and despite the very youthful appearance, the image actually reflects the two women as adults.

Saville’s talent at portraying the skin in its various shades and textures injects an urgent vitality to the painting, and the extremely close perspective succeeds at blurring the subjects’ age. The painting has an almost primal feel, as areas of raw canvas are splattered with flecks of red and pink, suggesting skin and blood gone awry.

John Currin’s approach to the female form is much more idealized, almost resembling the flawless bodies and faces of the Renaissance era, but with a vaguely modern twist. In “The Hobo,” a beautiful, alabaster-skinned young woman with flowing auburn hair totes a knapsack slung over her back. She carries a hobo stick with the stereotypical cloth bag tied to it. But not very stereotypically, this hobo is clad only in underwear and a sheer shirt, with a bejeweled golden necklace draped across her shapely waist.

German artist Daniel Richter strikes a more sinister theme in “Duisen.” The garish, multicolored oil painting shows dozens of ghost-like, faceless individuals seeming to undulate in a strange, phosphorous light. The image examines how individuals are inseparable from the larger body of society. It also suggests modern-day surveillance, where government-owned infrared cameras can intrude on the flesh in dubious ways.

“Paint Made Flesh” is a provocative, and even somewhat uncomfortable meditation on skin, or flesh — something that even the most disparate among us have in common.

“Paint Made Flesh” through Sept. 13 Phillips Collection 1600 21st St., NW. For more information, please call (202) or visit www.phillipscollection.org.

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 7, 2014