Abstract vs. Figurative

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Among the most well known and commercially successful American artists today are Kehinde Wiley and John Currin, both figurative painters of amazing skill, and both drawing inspiration from the art of Old Masters. Last weekend, LA art lovers had the chance to encounter them both. Kehinde Wiley had an opening of an exhibition for his new paintings in Culver City at Roberts & Tilton gallery, and John Currin was interviewed by James Cuno, President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust.

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A decade ago, when I encountered Kehinde Wiley’s art for the first time, I was impressed and intrigued by his large-scale portraits of young African American men striking dramatic poses borrowed from official portraits of European aristocracy of the bygone era. Since then, the artist produced hundreds of portraits of young men living in Brazil, in India, in Israel — all of them presented with his signature style backgrounds of elaborate, floral designs. And all of them painted with the help of a small army of young assistants. Impressive as they are, his portraits from these last few years have started to come across as slightly predictable and somewhat formulaic. Therefore, it was a welcome surprise to see Wiley’s new body of work at Roberts & Tilton, featuring a series of female portraits done during his trip to Haiti. In comparison with his early male portraits, with their projection of certain attitudes, Kehinde Wiley’s female portraits tell viewers a much more personal and intimate story about these young women.

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At their conversation on the stage of The Getty Center Auditorium, James Cuno and John Currin were both dwarfed by gigantic projections of Currin’s paintings with his favorite subjects: dressed, but mostly undressed, females with gigantic bosoms, and equally impressive behinds. Currin talked about his great love for the art of Rembrandt, Goya, Manet. And he talked about their art and about himself with a good sense of humor, which is also a key aspect of his own art. It was refreshing to hear him acknowledge that the inspiration of many of his paintings comes from pornography and fashion magazines. Funny and titillating, his paintings are hugely popular among today’s wealthy collectors. I wonder if Currin will ever move beyond the narrow subject of salacious, cartoonish female figures. What would happen to the thriving market for his art if he, like his beloved Old Masters, had the courage to address complex, dramatic issues of today’s life and politics?

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The exhibition of abstract paintings by Pia Fries opened last week in Santa Monica atChristopher Grimes Gallery. This Dusseldorf-based Swiss artist has a unique way of combining in her work wild swirls of oil paint with silkscreen prints. Her improvisational technique is borne of a rare combination of drama and restraint. I’ve been following Pia Fries’ work for close to a decade now, and always find her abstract paintings to be challenging and full of surprises.

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At the end, let me say a few words about two amazing new places for us Angelenos to view art. David Kordansky Gallery moved to a new location on La Brea Avenue just south of Olympic Boulevard. The gallery space, filled with plenty of daylight, was designed by Kulapat Yantrasast of wHY architecture, with his trademark sense of delightful elegance.

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Based in Rome, the Italian nonprofit, Depart Foundation, opened an ambitious space on Sunset Boulevard near Doheny with an exhibition by Gabriele de Santis, an Italian mixed media artist who manages the impossible –combining the glamour and glory of Ancient Rome with the high adrenaline of skateboarding in Venice, California. How does he do it? Well, go and see for your self…

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