Body of Work: New Perspectives on Figure Painting

Posted by: National Museum of Women in the Arts

The following article appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of Women in the Arts

Through the nineteenth century, Western painters were taught that the human figure was the noblest subject they could depict. Abstraction and conceptual art developed in the twentieth century, in part, because artists felt that figure painting alone could not reflect the complexity of the human experience in the modern world. In true postmodern fashion, the artists whose works appear in Body of Work: New Perspectives on Figure Painting do not see figurative art as a lofty pursuit but rather as a wonderfully subjective means of expression and exploration. They freely infuse their images with humor, irreverence, imagination, and empathy.

Body of Work is the second installment in Nation Museum for Women in the Arts’ biennial Women to Watch exhibition series that features emerging or underrepresented artists from the states and countries in which the museum has outreach committees. The eight committees participating in Women to Watch 2010 worked with contemporary art curators in their respective regions to create shortlists of figurative painters from their areas. It was my pleasure to select from this group the eight artists whose art is on view in Body of Work.

Well schooled in art history, some of the artists represented in the exhibition engage with historical figurative works, even if they reject the old-fashioned strictures that defined them. With her distinctive craggy brushstrokes, Rose Wylie (b. 1934; Friends of NMWA, UK) paints off-kilter compositions with brandy-bodied figures that are both comical and remarkably monumental. Wylie draws upon an array of source material, including works by Sandro Botticelli, Andrea del Castagno, and El Greco, but she has also taken inspiration from mannequins in dress shops, Christmas cards, film stars, politicians, computer games, and telephone books. Her work is thoroughly associative, spurred on primarily, she says, by ‘something that I’ve seen that looks good.’

Hannah Barrett (b. 1966; Massachusetts Committee) employs a meticulous painting technique inspired by historical methods, but she is ambivalent about the misogynist subtext of many historical representations of the body. Barrett embraces contemporary theories that perceive sexuality and gender as a broad range of experiences rather than distinct categories – homosexual and heterosexual, male and female. She often paints figures that fuse traditional features of men and women. In her ‘Secret Society’ series, based on Civil War-era photographs, she cannily balances the old-fashioned feel of her black-and-white palette with the edginess of her subject matter.

Old photographs are also the inspiration for pastels on wood panels made by Nikki Hemphill (b. 1985; Arkansas Committee). Hemphill’s works interpret old photographs in family albums passed on to her by her mother. The artist was motivated to create the series by feelings of nostalgia, but her pastels exude a mysterious otherworldly quality. Hemphill renders some elements of her compositions in soft focus and others (texts and patterns on clothing, for example) in sharper detail. This device replicates the sensation we often experience when looking at old photographs: our memories are alternately clear and hazy, and figures appear both familiar and a bit alien.

Jennifer Levonian (b. 1977; Pennsylvania Committee) paints lyrical images of the body, cuts them apart, and reassembles them to create animated films. Body of Work features her film Take Your Picture with a Puma, 2010, and the paintings she used to make it. The film centers on a furtive encounter between a female tourist in Mexico and the male owner of a bakery she visits. Although a touch of rebellion is evident in Levonian’s act of cutting up her paintings, the result is a display of kinship between her elegantly painted hands, feet, and faces and old master drawings and sketches. Both evince an intensity of vision and wonderment at the expressive potential of the human body.

Like portraitists, figure painters sometimes seek to capture the personalities of sitters as well as their physical characteristics. Although artist Kate Longmaid (b. 1690; Vermont Committee) is also a clinical psychologist, she does not paint probing portraits of her models, who are typically her close friends or family members. Each figure’s expression is flat, even detached. Most pronounced in Longmaid’s paintings are her high-keyed color palette, intense light sources, and bravura brushwork. Akin to the styles of figurative artists such as Alice Neel or Elizabeth Peyton, Longmaid’s manner of painting foregrounds her handwork and the subjective point of view she applies when deciding how to paint each figure.

For a number of artist in Body of Work, the surface of a painting presents a pristine space on which to develop ideas about identity. Motivated by the knowledge that gender and race are socially constructed rather than biologically fixed, Mesquitta Ahuja (b. 1976; Texas Committee) has painted an array of evocative self-portraits. She subverts our cultural fixation on skin color and appearance by creating images in which masses of hair enfold her figure, or highly textured and patterned clothing shields her body. In Homecoming, (2009), the figure seems to be materializing out of the hatched brushstrokes that form the background. By scraping away and reapplying layers of paint, Ahuja activates the surfaces of her canvases and draws attention to her creative authority as both the subject and maker of her work.

In her paintings of a young woman surrounded by adorable animals in a natural setting, Ann-Marie Manker (b. 1970; Georgia Committee) issues a sly rejoinder to the mainstream girly-girl brand of femininity. Manker’s images allude to the obsessive affection girls often lavish on toys and pets before developing the emotional attachments of adolescence. Manker creates a luxuriant, girls-only world that appears both sybaritic and isolating. She adds touches of black paint and spacey plant forms to impart a slightly forbidding quality. Manker’s sinuously drawn figures are reminiscent of Japanese animation and manga (graphic novels) in their emphasis on cuteness and feminine strength.

Similarly, the dolls in paintings by Julie Farstad (b. 1974; Greater Kansas City Committee) are like avatars that function as emblems of a few and fiercer girlhood. Dolls and the girls who favor them are commonly conceptualized as lovely and passive. In Farstad’s paintings, dolls are inquisitive and even aggressive, acting as protagonists in narrative scenes gone haywire. They are pecked at by birds, float above blasted tree trunks, or lumber across lunar landscapes. Farstad’s polished photorealist technique parallels the seductive quality of feminine stereotypes, but her eerie subjects upend our ideas about sweetness and docility.

While abstract, conceptual, and technologically based works have long been fundamental to contemporary art, figure painting retains an uncommon attraction. Because we so easily identify with the subjects, we continue to be drawn to the imaginative space they inhabit.

1. Quoted in Giovanni di Paolo and Rose Wylie, ‘Fonetic Drawing,’ in
Rose Wylie: Twink & Ivy, Other Paintings and Small Drawings (Kent, UK: Trinity Theater, 2004), 13.

Kathryn A. Wat is curator of modern and contemporary art at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.


Wat, Kathryn A., ‘Body Work: New Perspectives on Figure Painting,’ Women in the Arts (Summer 2010): 22-25.

1. Jennifer Levonian’s still from Take Your Picture with a Puma Wat., ‘Body Work,’ 22.
2. Mequitta Ahuja’s Homecoming.  ‘Summer 2010 Exhibitions: Prints, Portraits, and Portals,’ National Museum of Women in the Arts’ Broadstrokes blog, published June 10th, 2010, accessed July 28th, 2015,
3. Hannah Barrett’s Admiral Ramsbotham.  Wat., ‘Body Work,’ 23.
4. Ann-Marie Manker’s Koalas.  Wat., ‘Body Work,’ 24.
5. Kate Longmaid’s Silk Scarf.  Wat., ‘Body Work,’ 24.
6. Niki Hemphill’s The Murray Lodge.  Wat., ‘Body Work,’ 24.
7. Rose Wylie’s Lords and Ladies.  Wat., ‘Body Work,’ 25.
8. Julie Farstad’s There’s a Big Hole in the Little Prairie.  Wat., ‘Body Work,’ 25.

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