Michael Paglia I January 23rd, 2019 I 7:29AM
“While depiction of the human figure is as old as art itself, it’s also credible subject matter for contemporary artists, as seen in two current exhibits.…
A different approach to contemporary figural painting is displayed in Morphogenesis, the Space show with Denver’s William Stoehrand Julia Sanders, an artist who now lives in Philadelphia. The two artists are both coming out of classic realist traditions that are almost post-impressionist in character. But each crosses the old-fashioned approach with some very expressionist handling of the pigments and the forms, which is more typically associated with abstraction than it is with representational painting.
Stoehr, who has exhibited his work internationally, is self-taught as an artist; he had a career as an engineer before retiring and devoting himself full-time to painting starting in 2004. He’s written that Willem de Kooning was a childhood influence, and the abstract master’s combo of expressionist brushwork and depictions of women is seen in Stoehr’s work.
All of the Stoehrs at Space are straight-on views of a woman’s face, rendered way over life-sized (though small by the artist’s standards) and standing out against a white ground; the women appear to be African-American, given their features and the use of browns and blacks. In the striking “No More Words 8,” a woman covers her mouth with her hands, the nails painted red, the only bright color the artist uses. Stoehr focuses on the psychological state of the sitters; anxiety and fear, along with hope, are among the moods they broadcast.
Filling the enormous main gallery is a selection of painterly figure studies, all of them female nudes, by Sanders. The artist grew up in the Denver area, left for the West Coast to attend the California College of the Arts, then moved to the East Coast to complete her BFA at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. While at the PAFA, she studied chiaroscuro and the depiction of the figure. This is her second outing at Space; she exhibited at the gallery’s old location when she was just sixteen.
Much more than Stoehr’s work, Sanders’s style suggests a kind of historicism; I thought especially about the Ash Can painters of the early twentieth century. She sets her sketchy renditions of nudes in the center of her pictures and envelops them in wide swaths of thick paint. Sanders’s skill in figure studies is remarkable; she uses an economy of strokes to suggest the nudes, blurry figures done in pinks and corals. (Though Stoehr cited de Kooning as an influence, these Sanders paintings seem more closely related to his style.)
Sanders’s paintings in this show, which are very closely interrelated, vary in size from miniatures — displayed in two handsome, wraparound installations — to easel-sized panels, and a couple of large-format paintings. They all have a lyrical subtlety, and probably because of the appeal of her subject, the female nude, they are much more viewer-friendly than Stoehr’s giant psychological portraits.
No matter their style, all three artists in these two shows prove that the figure as an artistic subject is more relevant than ever
Morphogenesis, through February 16, Space Gallery, 400 Santa Fe Drive, 303-993-3321.