New York

Genieve Figgis, Queens, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 61 × 76 1⁄4".

Genieve Figgis, Queens, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 61 × 76 1⁄4".

Genieve Figgis

Flanked by attendants bearing platters of grapes in a grand tepidarium, a naked baigneuse voluptuates on a velvet ottoman, proffering for our delectation her stippled pubes, spiraling breasts, and tight sphincter of a mouth. The setting—Matisse’s Morocco by way of Caesar’s Palace—is superintended by two porcine, friezelike visages placed into decorative roundels. In Roman lady with two servants (all works cited, 2021), Genieve Figgis serves up the Caligulan extravagance of the ancient baths with her signature painterly finesse and deflationary humor, right on time for our own age of imperial decline. The Irish artist’s star rose, rather spontaneously, on social media, independent of the value-conferring apparatus of museums and galleries. A Twitter follow from Richard Prince jump-started her career in 2013, and Figgis achieved popular and commercial success for her “cover versions” of eighteenth-century paintings, twisting the aristocratic confections of François Boucher and Thomas Gainsborough into comic grotesque squibs turned out in saucy acrylics.

Some of the works in “Immortal Reflection,” her exhibition here, pulled not from the canon of European history and art, but from pop-cultural re-creations thereof. In Emma, Figgis borrows from the 2020 film adaptation of the Jane Austen book of the same name, transfiguring the titular nubile yenta into a wizened dowager hunched over a teacup in a celadon drawing room. A picture of nude cavorting water nymphs hangs on a wall trimmed in white millwork, expressed here with thick, meringue-like striations of paint that drool down into an arrangement of pink cabbage roses. Seated on a woozy moiré-patterned settee, our heroine—a touch of dotage, perhaps, behind her dilated pupils—primly raises the porcelain vessel to her lips as the whole interior deliquesces, courtesy of Figgis’s virtuoso wet-on-wet effects, like a cake left out in the rain.

Critics have tended to read Figgis’s images of debauched gentility as blistering indictments of class society. There’s certainly light satire to be found in the cacodemonic pageantry of Orange family room (with its distant echoes of Francisco Goya’s La familia de Carlos IV [The Family of Carlos IV], 1800); in the dissolute petit-bourgeois lifeworld of Couple in lockdown, its subjects resembling pickled Kennedys; and more still in the Orientalist adventure of Trip to Egypt, with its company of mounted Edwardians posing in front of the Sphinx of Giza. Yet Billy Anania, reviewing this show for Hyperallergic, questioned the grander political claims made on behalf of Figgis’s work, noting that the artist, while “most effective when depicting the corrosive decay of wealthy historical figures,” seems “rather comfortable operating within existing political hierarchies.”

True enough. Figgis’s googly-eyed monsters are too lovably buffoonish—and her settings, for the most part, too temporally remote_—_to be genuinely convincing as allegories for today’s rapidly refeudalizing socioeconomic order. But whether Figgis is or isn’t interested in revolution hardly seems at issue here. Take, for example, Queens, which presents a lavender-wigged monarch attended by a retinue of ridiculously mangled and maquillaged courtiers—their faces carved into piranha- and beaver-toothed rictuses—clutching lapdogs in their forklike hands. An online image search confirmed the scene to be a psilocybin-laced riff on Shonda Rhimes’s record-smashing Regency-era Netflix romance, Bridgerton (2020–). The painting’s theme thus wouldn’t appear to be monarchy per se, but the mediated consumption of its laundered image through bingeable, female-targeted comfort content. (In an Ouroboric coincidence, Bridgerton’s costume designer has acknowledged Figgis’s work as a crucial inspiration for the show’s aesthetic).

But there’s yet another wrinkle. Unlike in her earlier pasquinades of canonical paintings, whose titles bear the phrases “after Fragonard,” for example, or “after Nicolas Poussin,” Figgis here leaves her influences thinly veiled yet undisclosed. Whereas citing a publicity still from the TV series as the source material of Queens would have coded it as an appropriation—with whatever critical distance that might still suggest—Figgis instead swallows her reference whole and digests it with yellow bile. The product is less a comment on the hell of political domination or the purgatory of cultural distraction than an object lesson on the image flows that permeate the thinning membrane between the technomaterial world and our psychic interiors, streaming back and forth in a continuous feedback loop.