San Francisco

“The Impolite Figure”

Bannam Place Exhibition Space and Southern Exposure Gallery

“The Impolite Figure” is a provocative exhibition title which suggests both a brashly expressive figural style and the adversative stance of the vanguard. In fact, this large group show was the first direct acknowledgment of the prevalence of figurative subject matter among many younger or emerging local artists. With one or two works by each of 28 painters on view at these two alternative-type spaces, the show was an ambitious attempt to survey current approaches to the human figure. Ad hoc curators Rolando Castellon and Mark Van Proyen not only offered exposure to a number of artists who have seldom exhibited; admirably, they also provided a rare overview of new expressive painting for an area of the country in which museum and gallery exhibitions have hardly acknowledged the existence of recent European and New York versions of figural expressionism, not to mention that by local artists.

Nevertheless, in a desire for comprehensiveness—or perhaps in an eagerness to demonstrate by sheer numbers the current importance of figuration—the curators were indiscriminate in the inclusion of disparate artists and techniques. Many images offer less the audacity implied by the “impolite figure” of the title than the minor irritation of derivative or immature work. Yet about a third of the artists explore thought-provoking ideas and display technical finesse to match. Most striking is Robert Yarber, with hisnighttime visions of urban social situations. The blue darkness in Teen Violence, 1977, allows the huddling gang roughly sketched in black to act out hostile impulses; it also accentuates a play of eerie yellow neon light across the shadowy scene. In Double Suicide, 1982, the night is like the ground of the unconscious, or a dream. An embracing couple falls headfirst past the broad windows of a highrise bedroom wherein another entwined couple sleeps. The exterior duo literally falls, but also may be falling in love, head over heels; their “double suicide” is doubled by their interior counterparts, tightly together under the covers. The sardonic perspective on romance as a form of “suicide” is again enhanced by the sophisticated rendering of vivid light against velvety night.

Susan Parker’s collage of crumpled paper, an empty paint tube, a glove, etc., all painted over, shows a distorted figure with extended, curling fingers and a neck straining upward. The work exudes the gripping authenticity of a tortured scream. A similarly obsessive but more iconic power is evident in Squeak Carnwath’s superimposition of nude male and female bodies. With their sexual parts meshing to become one being, the image suggests both sexual union and the integration of a single personality. The Water Veil of the title evokes embryonic fluid, and with fire hurling from the neck and a sun and crescent moon, it also connotes investigation of primal mysteries. Other intriguing explorations of personalized iconography include Armando Rascón’s diptych juxtaposing dogs jumping through a hoop comprised of razor blades and a tumbling acrobat who has been cleanly sliced in half. In M. Louise Stanley’s acerbic satires of romance, the figures are as subtly painted as they are insightfully observed. Also notable are the emotional urgency of Elaine Wander’s scenes of humanoid creations, and Shari Lamanet’s vertiginous whirlwinds of furniture, textural patterns, and mysterious objects, saved from complete chaos by pristine draftsmanship in Statue of Liberty.

Unfortunately, the heap of weak painting here almost overwhelmed the strong. The curators were evidently unable to distinguish immature painting from merely unknown or youthful painters. Despite these rather serious flaws, “The Impolite Figure” and its illustrated catalogue remain important contributions to the growth and continuing assessment of Bay Area art.

Suzaan Boettger