Like news of Mark Twain’s demise, reports of the death of painting have, it seems, been greatly exaggerated. People have been proclaiming its extinction for almost two centuries: upon seeing a daguerreotype for the first time, the French painter Paul Delaroche supposedly declared, “From today, painting is dead!”
And how can it possibly compete in the 21st century, when – according to the curator of a new show of contemporary painting at the Whitechapel Gallery in the East End of London – more than 1.8 billion images are uploaded every day? Well, emphatically, it can, as a recent spate of shows, such as the Hayward’s current touring exhibition, Slow Painting, insists.
The Whitechapel may claim that figurative painting is having its first significant “moment” since the Royal Academy’s landmark New Spirit in Painting show of 1981, which is simultaneously being examined at the gallery, in a fascinating micro-exhibition of archival documents (as well as a handful of paintings by big-hitters such as the German Georg Baselitz); the ding-dong between critic William Feaver and the RA’s curator Norman Rosenthal, who got a lot of flak for the show, in part because he didn’t include a single woman, is worth revisiting.
But the truth is that painters achieved international prominence throughout the Nineties and Noughties (Peter Doig, Marlene Dumas). Despite the advent of photography and cinema, installation and conceptual art, smartphones and social media, painting has never really gone away.
Still, don’t let marketing hype deter you from Radical Figures: Painting in the New Millennium, because visiting proves to be a thoroughly intoxicating experience. Inevitably, the selection feels a little scattershot, in that another curator, on another day, could have picked an entirely different line-up of 10 contemporary painters to attest the medium’s rude health.
Moreover, it’s hard to divine what, if anything, unites everyone here. Like the huddle of monstrous figures beneath a striped sunshade on a beach in Dana Schutz’s Suspicious Minds (2019), which appears upstairs, these artists may be grouped together under the “figurative” umbrella – but, as terms go, that’s pretty broad.
Besides, the show begins, perversely, with a group of powerful yet seemingly abstract canvases by the British painter Cecily Brown (b. 1969) – peer hard enough, though, at her explosive flicks of paint, and body parts (eyes, limbs, entire figures) eventually materialise.
Are these painters even a generation? Yes and no: half were born in the Eighties, but there are several older, more established names, too, including Daniel Richter and Nicole Eisenman, as well as Brown. But enough carping: there is easily enough strong, memorable work here to get the juices flowing.
Where the Whitechapel may have a point is that many of these artists twist and distort the human figure (or, in Brown’s case, almost obliterate it altogether). Schutz’s Imagine You and Me (2018) is like a surrealistic reworking of The Owl and the Pussycat, with doe-eyed Easter Island statues for protagonists, afloat on a pea-green sea.
But see also the grubby, potbellied, balding men who populate Iranian-born Tala Madani’s casually scabrous, cartoon-like tiny oil paintings (they’re brilliant), or the elastic bodily forms in Christina Quarles’s acrylics, stretched and squished into impossible acrobatics.
By comparison, Kenyan-born Michael Armitage, an artist I admire, whose paintings, on coarse East African bark cloth, are obviously inspired by late-19th-century art, is made to look earnest and conventional. Yes, artists have been doing similar things for decades (Picasso, Bacon, Guston), but, somehow, in our narcissistic, airbrushed era of Photoshop and picture-perfect selfies, this latest wave of Neo-Expressionism has added force.
Besides, what does it matter if these artists are indebted to the past? Painters have always engaged in dialogue with their predecessors, and so it proves here. Eisenman’s Brooklyn Biergarten II (2008) is hipster New York’s answer to Manet’s Music in the Tuileries (1862).
Richter’s fabulous, and prescient Tarifa (2001), in which anxious migrants, picked out in psychedelic colours, drift in an inflatable orange raft upon a dark and ominous sea, is a homage to great 19th-century European shipwreck paintings by Delacroix and Gericault.
Schutz is obsessed with Goya’s son-munching Saturn. Armitage directly quotes Velázquez. Ryan Mosley – whose “Cave Inn” (2011), with its moody midnight palette of purple, indigo, and bottle-green, is another highlight – once even worked as a guard at the National Gallery; a recreation, here, of his studio wall covered with his favourite postcards reveals superb taste.
Spotting all the allusions, engaging in these artists’ sophisticated games, is part of the fun. Not every work is a success, by any stretch: I was, frankly, disappointed by the partly sewn pieces by Tschabalala Self (b. 1990), which end the show. But if you have even half an interest in contemporary painting, Radical Figures should transport you to a very happy place.
Until May 10. Details: 020 7522 7888; whitechapelgallery.org