In: portraiture

At a first glance, Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s current exhibition at Blain|Southern (London) evokes a surprising feeling of nostalgia. The large twisted bronze sculptures remind me of summer evenings spent with my family on holiday in Croatia. My favourite pastime was to wander through markets filled with hand-made goods crafted by the locals. I always found watching the artists sitting at their stalls and contorting thin strands of wire into a menagerie of animals and human figures rather extraordinary and strangely soothing. However, the feeling of nostalgia fades as fast as it emerges, as does the dense blue Adriatic Sea and its warm glow reflecting the summer sun. It is the end of February, it’s freezing cold outside, and I am surrounded by the sterile whiteness of Blain|Southern. The title Sticks with Dicks and Slits could hardly get more literal: the exhibition consists of pairs of gigantic stick figures endowed with humorous genitalia, engaging in actions such as lactating and urinating. This new series of work might seem raw and crude –because, quite frankly, it is—, but it can also be seen as toys with a more playful and whimsical side, its naivety lending a certain charm and innocence to these clumsy figures.

Installation view, Courtesy the artists and Blain|Southern, Photo: Peter Mallet.

The duo met while studying together at Nottingham Trent University and became friends due to their shared love of music. They have been creating together, as a couple, since then, and have challenged the notion of self-portrait and portraiture throughout their series of well-known light and shadow sculptures. Just as their previous works, these double portraits explore the nature of relationships and identity, but they seem to open up a new chapter which allows us to see a different side of the artists.

In comparison to their self-portraits built from trash and waste, these stick figures are surprisingly light-hearted. Earlier works, such as Wild Mood Swings (2009-2010), Masters of the Universe (2000), and Dirty White Trash (1998) scrutinize certain aspects of human relations, from anger and rejection to pleasure and desire. Dicks and Slits focuses on the cheerful, comical side of Noble and Webster. A lovely Pair (Standing) portrays stick-Noble chasing stick-Webster with an erection, while another figure seems to be urinating on the viewer. While sex and bodily fluids are returning elements in the duo’s work, in this case they are paired with the charm of immaturity. The large stick-figures are celebrating our inner child, and act as a reminder of the joy of not taking ourselves too seriously. Childishness is still often considered an undesirable personality trait, and to portray vulnerability and flaws is rare in a world where the artist is still so often seen as an impeccable genius. Noble and Webster, once again, go against the notion of immaculateness to explore natural human attributes so often condemned.

‘A Lovely Pair (Standing)’, 2017, Courtesy the artists and Blain|Southern, Photo: Peter Mallet.

It is refreshing to see the duo stepping away from their usual light/shadow technique to experiment with new materials and methods. The bronze sculptures seem weightless and spontaneous, and it’s interesting to learn that they use the old and difficult method of lost wax casting to create them. Sprezzatura, to conceal the difficulty of production, was considered as an art form in the Renaissance and it was essential to possess it in order to be acknowledged as a great artist. Noble and Webster have been considered the power couple of the art world, but they divorced in 2013, they said, for the sake of their work. As I see it, these sculptures could be the results of an emotionally exhausting period. It might not be wrong to assume that there’s a parallel between the choice of using the troublesome wax casting technique and the hardships experienced in personal life, which are both being concealed by the overall carefree appearance of the figures. This exhibition marks a new period in their relationship, just as in their professional life. Stick with Dicks and Slits portrays two people co-existing in a harmonious and joyful manner, which is a kind of revelation after the intensity and violence that characterizes most of their earlier works.

Installation view, Courtesy the artists and Blain|Southern, Photo: Peter Mallet.

I can’t tell whether this exhibition has left a deeper impression on me than the market artists sculpting their wire pieces or not. It is fun, yet I find it a bit superficial. The figures seem to get lost in the sterile whitewash of Blain|Southern gallery. The antiseptic environment doesn’t do justice to the works’ potential, as the figures seem awkwardly out of place. On the one hand, the repetition of the same motifs, although it serves as a link between this new body of works and Noble and Webster’s oeuvre, it also makes things predictable. On the other hand, this exhibition might be just the start of a progress through which we will be able to see the pair’s work developing into something very different.

Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s Sticks with Dicks and Slits is on view at Blain|Southern, London until 25 March 2017.

Inclusivity vs. exclusivity and talent vs. elitism are some of the core values of The Unit London Gallery, located on the trendy Wardour Street. Continuing with their goal of bringing real talents closer to the public, the gallery is proudly presenting the first major London exhibition of Jake Wood-Evans, a Hastings-based artist whose works evoke faded memories and spectres of a past time, and often depict disintegrating and dissolving entities.

Born in Devon in 1980, Wood-Evans studied Fine Art at Falmouth University and was subsequently awarded a scholarship from the Royal Academy to study at the Prado Museum in Madrid. Previously based in Brighton, he currently lives and works in Hastings. Very attached to the paintings that inspire him, Wood-Evans does consider himself a figurative painter, and I would also call him an educator.

Jake Wood-Evans, ‘Lady Sunderland, after Reynolds’, 2016. Oil on linen, 220x135cm. Image: jakewoodevans.com.

This exhibition, entitled Subjection & Discipline, not only introduces Wood-Evans’ work, but also that of the two painters who inspire it: Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) and Henry Raeburn (1756-1832). Taking inspiration from 18th-century painters, Wood-Evans’ unique, historically ambiguous style produces images that are both unsettling and beautiful. Stressing the complexity of the feelings that his referents arise in him, he adds a new layer of heavier sensations and understanding to those paintings. He blurs the boundaries of figurative painting and drawing, creating a sort of beautiful accident that has a framed purpose.

“Faces are defiled and figures appear as apparitions. Subjects range from a ghostly vision of a society lady to a fading portrait of a once proud general and grotesquely disfigured admiral. Viewed together, the body of work is eerily reminiscent of an art collection of a great estate in the early years of the British Empire, but while the haunting redactions of once-heroic subjects might suggest the correcting gaze of a postcolonial sensibility, Wood-Evans’ interest lies more with the original artists and process than with the specific subject.” (The Unit London)

Jake Wood-Evans, 'Portrait of Sir Duncan Campbell, after Raeburn', 2016. Oil on linen, 147x118cm. Image: jakewoodevans.com.

Jake Wood-Evans, ‘Portrait of Sir Duncan Campbell, after Raeburn’, 2016. Oil on linen, 147x118cm. Image: jakewoodevans.com.

As I slowly walked from the first to the last painting, I felt as if the past had been affected and infected with scratches of present time. The figures in the artworks seem to be fading under the surface, as if paint wanted to hide information from the human gaze. “Eighteenth Century Ship II” and “Eighteenth Century Ship III” are the only non-human figures invaded by a human tool. Perhaps because the sea carries the present and the past, without contradictions, just like art does.

“Portrait of a Woman in Red” almost transcends into reality and exudes the perfume of elegance, flesh, reality and oil paint. The past is alive and tangible in Wood-Evans’s paintings. My favorite was “Lady Bampfylde, after Joshua Reynolds”, but the one that most impressed me was “Lady Skipwith”, after a portrait by the same painter. Romanticism seemed macabre for a moment, and the present was, indeed, nothing but a scribble of the past.

Jake Wood-Evans, 'Eighteenth Century Ship 2', 2016. Oil on linen, 163x122cm. Image: jakewoodevans.com.

Jake Wood-Evans, ‘Eighteenth Century Ship 2’, 2016. Oil on linen, 163x122cm. Image: jakewoodevans.com.

By scrubbing, scratching and erasing certain areas while building up others, Wood-Evans’ paintings are physically pushed and pulled out of the canvas. Thick layers of paint contrast with saturated oil on canvas, often laying the grain bare. His powerful use of light emerges from a loose and instinctive application of paint. Each work bears the marks of his journey and are just as fascinating when viewed up close as they are when viewed in their entirety. Wood-Evans’ haunting works are both reminiscent of the pillaged originals while uncovering a psychological depth which encourages the viewer to look beyond the surface of the canvas and question the records of history.

Jake Wood-Evans. Subjection & Discipline. The Unit London Gallery. 19 August-11 September 2016. Monday-Sunday, from 11am to 7pm.

Usually exhibited in a corner, near a large painting by Francis Bacon, Andrew Wyeth’s My Young Friend (1970) is often overlooked by visitors at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid. Looking a bit too sober among its neighbours, and being the only work by Wyeth in the collection, this austere portrait has always had a certain alien quality. This is perhaps due to the public’s lack of acquaintance with the work of the legendary American artist, a situation that the exhibition Wyeth: Andrew and Jamie in the Studio, organised by the Thyssen-Bornemisza in collaboration with the Denver Art Museum, seeks to end.

Andrew Wyeth, My Young Friend, 1970. Tempera on Masonite, 81.3 x 63.5 cm. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. © Andrew Wyeth, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza.

More than sixty works by Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) and his son Jamie (1946), some never previously exhibited in public, shape this first retrospective of the Wyeths in Europe. It is, therefore, a unique opportunity to discover the multiple points of connection between the lives and work of two of the main representatives of twentieth-century American Realism.

The exhibition was conceived by curator Timothy J. Standring as an intimate artistic conversation around shared subjects and interests, such as friends, neighbours, animals, familiar settings in Pennsylvania and Maine, and the nude figure.

The strength of the display lies precisely in this decision of grouping the works thematically, juxtaposing both artists’ perspectives and thus allowing visitors to question the commonplace notion of Realism being an objective and detached image of reality. The continuous dialogue between father and son highlights not only their joint sensibilities, but also the originality of their individual visions. While Andrew’s images show his interest in everyday themes, Jamie’s gaze seeks the bizarre and the unexpected. They are both deeply engaged with their immediate surroundings, but retain their own personal points of view and approach the blank surface in radically different ways.

Jamie Wyeth, A.W. working on Piss Series, 2007. Acrylic, oil paint, and watercolor on cardboard. 121.9 x 76.2 cm. The Phyllis and Jamie Wyeth Collection. © Jamie Wyeth.

This becomes particularly evident when comparing Andrew’s solid, more naturalistic depictions of his neighbours-turned-models with Jamie’s expressive use of white to create his ghost-like portraits of celebrities such as Rudolf Nureyev and Andy Warhol. The latter is perhaps one of the most beautiful and poignant depictions of the late artist, a haunting image that stays with you long after you leave the museum.

This journey through the Wyeths’ lives, interests and places that inspired them is complemented by The Secret Sits (Wyeth Wonderland), a display of photographs by Joséphine Douet, who followed Andrew Wyeth’s steps in his native city of Chadds Ford (Pennsylvania, USA) and captured her own vision of the artist’s reality.

This comprehensive retrospective, which risks being overlooked like the portrait of Andrew Wyeth’s young friend, is not only a rare chance to see the works of these two artists in Europe, but also an unmissable event for those who regularly visit the Thyssen. By contextualising this delicate female portrait, the Spanish museum has successfully illuminated an obscure corner of its collection, enabling future visitors to evoke the whole universe that the Wyeths wanted to express through their art when they see the painting.

Wyeth: Andrew and Jamie in the Studio and The Secret Sits (Wyeth Wonderland) run until 19 June at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, Spain.

Harlem-based artist Jordan Casteel is one of the three current artists in-residence at The Studio Museum in Harlem. Her patiently detailed, large-scale figurative paintings instantly demand one’s attention with their dynamic and vibrant swaths of color. Born in Denver, Colorado she received her MFA from Yale School of Art in New Haven, Connecticut in 2014. Just a few months after graduating, Casteel launched herself into the New York City art scene with her first solo exhibition, Visible Man, at Sargent’s Daughters. Just a year later, in 2015, her second solo show, Brothers, opened in the same space.


© Jordan Casteel, Courtesy of the Artist and Sargent's Daughters.

© Jordan Casteel, Courtesy of the Artist and Sargent’s Daughters.

I got the wonderful opportunity to visit her studio in Harlem and see her enchantingly monumental works in person while discussing her motivations behind making art that is at once personal and intimate as well as approachable, speaking to a broad audience.

  1. The Studio Museum in Harlem describes your work as “black masculinity in a domestic space.” Can you explain what drove you to pursue this theme?

I remember having this very specific reaction to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in Trayvon Martin’s trial: I need to start becoming more proactive in making work that directly relates to a conversation I care about and that directly relates to my family members such as my twin, my father, my older brother—the people in my life closest to me. I felt I needed to make a body of work that dealt with the humanity of men in my life, black men specifically, and that would show the vulnerable, sensitive side of them that I would encounter when at home or in intimate personal spaces.

  1. Your first solo show in New York City at Sargent’s Daughters, Visible Man, speaks to this theme. Did it achieve what you wanted it to?

I was super excited to be given this opportunity and equally as excited to see how well-received it was. I felt like people were having the conversations I wanted them to have around those bodies, in that they were talking about humanity as it related to these black men at a time when Michael Brown had just been killed a few days before that show opened. I had been showing these bodies outside of a greater media dialogue and trying to recontextualize them into a more sensitive conversation. People were able to think about it more critically, so yes, I’d say that show went really well.

  1. Why did you choose to paint the men as nude?

The nudes happened initially in an effort to counteract what clothing can do in detracting from understanding the essence of somebody. There can be insignias or stereotypes that people want to project based off of what someone is wearing, which I feel blocks people from understanding who these people are. I was watching a lifetime of men being misunderstood and seen as villains and hyper-sexualized.

  1. And then it seems that not too long after Visible Man you were back at Sargent’s Daughters having your second show Brothers. Can you say what you were looking at differently with this show?

I was really focused on expanding the conversation on black men to becoming one about their relationships with each other. I was thinking about multiple figures—fathers, sons, brothers, and cousins. What does it look like when the space is shared intergenerationally?

  1. Were both of these bodies of work very personal to you?

Definitely. Most of these guys are my friends, family and people I know from Denver. I decided to explore some of the men who had been directly influencing this practice for me in my personal life, and representing them felt important in this time and space. My inspiration almost always directly relates to what I’m around and who I’m around and engaging with.

For me it’s about capturing an essence of people, their souls. One of the first things I paint in every work is the eyes because I do feel that is a very significant and telling part of the person.

© Jordan Casteel, Courtesy of the Artist and Sargent's Daughters.

© Jordan Casteel, Courtesy of the Artist and Sargent’s Daughters.

  1. What does your work process look like?

I am very regimented in the way that I work. I am a 10-6 workday sort of person and oftentimes include weekends in my schedule. The way I make paintings is first I photograph my subjects. After, I come into the studio and create my own palate using color aids, then I begin sketching on the canvas, and slowly fill the rest in. A way for me to keep a sense of immediacy in these paintings, without having a live model, is to allow myself to instantly react to what I see and just let my hand go. There’s a wonkiness to these paintings, in that, I’m not hyper obsessed with fixing minute details or having everything completely anatomically correct. This is also the space where I allow myself to let go. There are moments where painting becomes meditative for me and then other moments when there is more of a freedom and looseness. All of the different elements of the painting manifest where I am mentally and emotionally in certain times and spaces as I make the piece. My commitment is just to see the paintings everyday that I can, to be actively in their presence within this space. They become a direct community for me, especially when they start to pop up and have conversations with each other.

  1. I love your rich color palate; it’s what instantly drew me to your paintings. Is there a specific reason why you work with such vibrant colors, especially in the depiction of your subject’s bodies?

I’m interested in having a conversation about color and how it relates to black skin. I am thinking about blackness as being multifaceted and how it is often times attributed to different tones and hues. I am interested in what we project onto bodies as it relates to color before we even truly see the person. Color is a fun way for me to have that conversation, and besides I just love color. My mother told me that when I was little girl, I was obsessed with rainbows.

  1. What is this new project you’re working on?

There is an essence of Harlem that I’m trying to capture. It’s a huge shift for me. Prior to this body of work, all my work has been inside the domestic space and this work is moving to exteriors. It’s going back to individuals and so it’s very important for me to try and make connections.  Community is such an integral part of my work, so I’m trying to work on a new set of relations, here, in my community in Harlem. I am shaking people’s hands, I am introducing myself, and taking a moment to get to know who these people are.

  1. Has it been hard finding people to paint and then approaching them?

A lot of these people I’m running into on my walk from the studio to home. It’s taken practice but its not always easy for me. I think there is a certain element, as women in New York, to sort of look down and engage with men in a really particular way—there’s a shutting down that I have embodied somewhat since moving here, which I have to consciously counteract when doing this work. It’s hard but it’s also amazing to see how as soon as you cross that threshold with people just how much they can give back.

  1. Do you have an overarching aim for your work?

As many people that I can touch with these paintings, the better. I want these paintings to be a slow read of somebody. I want them to be carefully understood, respected, valued, and seen. How do you make somebody seen in a world where, in many aspects, they have been invisible for centuries? And as a woman, what does my lens add to that conversation? As a sister, as a daughter, as a friend—how do I begin to show everyone else what I see and have experienced as a black woman to my black brothers? The hope is that these works can cross boundary lines of many facets—the broader an audience the more I will feel that I have achieved a goal.

Casteel’s newest work will be shown at The Studio Museum in Harlem during their Artists-in-Residence exhibition, opening July 14th.

Can’t wait until July to see her work? The museum will be having open studios on April 17th from 1-4pm.

Scale can make all the difference in a serious collection of figurative portraits or studies, a scale that mimics life size gives figures a type of solid monumentality that invites them into the viewer’s space. For centuries this life size figurative scale was reserved for portraits of kings, gods and mythic personages, here at Sargent’s Daughters on 179 East Broadway in New York, Jordan Casteel uses it as a tactic for humanization. In her exhibition of large scale oil paintings, most around 5 by 6 feet, titled Brothers, Casteel brings before the viewer the faces and forms of African American men, inhabiting the unique environments, really interior spaces, to which they belong. Walking through the gallery, you could see that the diverse crowd present at the opening, faced each painting as if it was an encounter with a familiar friend or new acquaintance. The textured application of paint in works like Crockett Brothers and Ashamole Brothers, renders the surfaces and interiors with an impasto that makes them tangible and felt. Within Three Lions this becomes evident as intimate scene links with figural interrelation, expression and gesture.

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Considering each piece, one must step back and meet the gaze of the figures portrayed, take the time to consider them first as individuals then as intricately linked, as family, as brothers, overall part of a community. The figures are portrayed with key objects that represent their passions and interests: the young Crockett brother dexterously grips his saxophone and the Ashamole brothers balance a basketball between them. First by intuition, then by reflection it becomes clear that Casteel is deploying crucial and timely tactics of humanization, we are allowed into these intimate spaces in order to point up a positive type of visibility that complicates black male subjective. For Casteel concerns herself directly with a contemporary post-Ferguson reality, wherein civil rights struggle is back at the fore and black males have become highly visible within media and news, reduced to being antagonists or victims. When social progress comes under fire, it is art’s job to intervene and create a space for reflection: this exhibit, these paintings, are Casteel’s intervention…

A most necessary one.