New York

Genieve Figgis, Olympia (after Édouard Manet), 2018, acrylic on canvas, 31 × 39".

Genieve Figgis, Olympia (after Édouard Manet), 2018, acrylic on canvas, 31 × 39".

Genieve Figgis

Genieve Figgis, Olympia (after Édouard Manet), 2018, acrylic on canvas, 31 × 39".

No one else coaxes paint to do the delicious, devilish things that Genieve Figgis does. The Irish artist tends to work quickly, in wet-on-wet acrylic, to tease ghoulish aristocrats, disfigured nymphs, and molten gods out of spindly trickles, ecstatic blurs, and swollen pools of pigment. She encourages the medium’s capricious whims and outright rebellions, wrangling these unwieldy effects into legible scenes. One imagines her skimming the contents of a witch’s cauldron and laying the swirling, sinister visions down on canvas. 

Figgis has primarily shown two bodies of work since she rocketed to international fame four years ago, following a serendipitous Twitter exchange with the American artist Richard Prince: riffs on historic paintings, particularly those of Rococo frill masters François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and spooky depictions of the Edwardian aristocracy, in which misshapen gentlemen and ladies of leisure gallivant about the rooms and grounds of soupy, sagging manors. Examples of both comprised this show, Figgis’s second solo exhibition at Half Gallery.  

Of the historical adaptations, Olympia (after Édouard Manet) (all works cited, 2018) was among the most arresting. In Figgis’s version, the lovely, defiant face of Manet’s supine courtesan becomes a horrifying mask with lidless eyes, lips drawn back to reveal yellow teeth, and raw flesh mottled with forking veins of orange and red. When it publicly debuted in 1865, Manet’s painting scandalized (predominantly male) audiences accustomed to gazing at passive female bodies, and scholars have since made much of the way the brazen nude returns our stares. In what feels like a searing rejoinder to current events, Figgis paints Olympia as though she has been flayed alive by our voyeurism, scrutiny, and judgment. Still, she stares back. 

Figgis, however, is at her best when she is conjuring her own worlds instead of covering art history’s greatest hits. Four of the show’s paintings served as windows into the artist’s trademark hallucinatory realm of Anglo-Irish gentry in which the rooms themselves seem mercury poisoned and all their occupants mad as hatters. In Friends, nine elegant women pose for a group portrait. They appear giddy and exuberant, even as their décolletages drip into their gowns and their faces wilt and whorl. Limbs tend to be attenuated tendrils; one woman with no eyes in her large empty sockets smiles blithely, politely clasping little tentacle arms in front of her white dress. The women all seem immensely pleased with themselves. The effect is at once amusing and disturbing, and one begins to wonder whether we don’t all look as grotesque when we’re vamping for photos. Figgis reminds us of the impossibility of seeing one’s self, of the relativity of both beauty and monstrosity.

An evening toast depicts a lone woman in a gilded mint-green drawing room raising a champagne flute to no one. Her skirts are the same colors as the walls, and there is no firm boundary between where she ends and the room begins. All of the characters in Figgis’s gentry paintings seem like growths, symptoms of an aristocratic cancer. Lest we try to reassure ourselves that these ghoulish figures are only half-baked phantoms occupying some spirit realm with no bearing on our own reality, Figgis makes them feel all too relevant. The very plastic nature of the paint is at odds with the era she depicts—its ickiness is an ickiness specific to the present day. Her windows begin to read like mirrors, images of an imperial era when the rich lived decadently and didn’t apologize. Looking at these works today, against a backdrop of rampant consumption and neocolonialism, one realizes that these ghosts aren’t still with us. They are us.