People have been drawing people for at least the past 17,000 years. That is approximately when the first known image of a human, a crude stick figure with a bird head/mask, was chalked onto a wall deep in Lascaux cave in southwestern France. Older drawings, like those found to the east in Chauvet cave date back 30,000 years and depict animals, the focus and mainstay of prehistoric life. As man slowly gained power over the world around him and developed a sense of self, he began to depict his own image, and there was no going back.
Today we are inundated with images of family, friends, celebrities, models and political figures as well as images of unknown, ordinary people that evoke everything from rapt fascination to abject pity.
The vast majority of these images are delivered to us through the medium of photography. After photography was introduced in the mid-19th century, its ability to accurately and objectively record appearance took over many of the functions of artists. But photography, digital and otherwise, has moved beyond a technological novelty to become a tool to create fine art images of people.
Within the contexts of modern and contemporary art, the painted and drawn figure has, with infrequent but notable exceptions, become quaint and passé. It has been lumped in with outmoded genre painting like "still life," subject matter best suited for student exercises in introductory studio classes. But fashionability be damned, people continued to draw people. If "The Company We Keep" at Inman Gallery is any kind of bellwether, then portraits and figures may be becoming hip again, or at least hip to show.
The works in the show are for the most part straightforwardly representational, albeit slightly skewed. There is a conspicuous absence of backgrounds. The majority of the figures are not rendered in environments, or placed in contexts; they float in white space, as dislocated objects.
In When People Like Us Meet People Like You #24 & #9 (1998), Monya Flannigan gives us a diptych of dweeby hipsters with solemn stares, square glasses and trendy high-waters. But Flannigan renders them with improbably awkward anatomies resting on quasi-clubfeet, an illusion created by the artist's purposefully ham-fisted foreshortening. The pair stands stiffly, marooned in expanses of white space, radiating the insecurity of the self-consciously hip.
Heyd Fontenot's figures have their own awkwardness, but Fontenot makes it somehow friendly and chummy. Here the white space is matter-of-fact rather than isolating. Fontenot's quasi-cartoon figures, with their large heads and small bodies, seem to have a couple of those little "big-eyed kids" from thrift store paintings somewhere in their family tree. But these people are adults standing naked, their bodies stumpy and dwarfed by the size of their heads. It looks like an exaggeration of the toddler head-to-body ratio. The nude figures feel genially awkward and childlike rather than sexual, as they stand unself-consciously in front of the viewer.
"Unself-consciously orally fixated" could describe Joey Fauerso's portrait subjects. Half-length paintings of two men and a woman depict them sucking on their fingers as they stare boldly at the viewer -- these aren't "blankey"-clutching, thumb-sucking regressives. Unknown (2003) features a young blond man with disconcertingly pale blue eyes rimmed with red. He looks like some stoned vampire extra from The Lost Boys. Here again the figures are set against a stark background of white paper. Each figure wears black, and Fauerso has painted their clothed torsos as flat silhouettes but with flesh emerging from necklines and sleeve cuffs. Fauerso's portraits are a stark blend of the sexy and the ominous.
In other works, figures are a means to present quirky personal visions. Takehito Koganezawa uses colored pencil to create offhand and oddball line drawings on paper. The head of an old man is drawn in fuchsia with blue, Brezhnev-style glasses, while the stitching on the brim of his hat is rendered with attentive detail. A nearby drawing depicts a weird hooded figure/snowsuit with a carefully drawn belt. The random images feel like refugees from some other artwork.
Robyn O'Neil presents more of her wonderfully strange pencil drawings. These depict cheesy-looking guys in dark sweatsuits as they recline in and crawl through snowy expanses. The works beg the question, Who are these guys and why the hell are they lying in the snow next to delicately drawn pine trees? But you don't really want an answer. It is better to admire O'Neil's Spartan landscapes and richly drawn, cloudy skies and devise your own narratives around these figures, which look like the police artist's sketch of the Unabomber.
With their own Unabomber-esque brand of American individuality, David Rathman's three cowboys are shown in near-silhouette, drawn in watery dark brown ink with a vintage feeling. Hand-written text across the top says, "Kill anybody you want. It's a free country." Rathman uses his iconic figures to satirize the old, as well as the new west.
Meanwhile, Chris Hammerlein extracts images from the psychosexual broom closets of his subconscious and sticks them on the page. A weird hermaphroditic figure stands spread-legged and pees on the head of Chewbacca. (And here I thought Chewbacca was the least annoying member of the Star Wars cast.) In another drawing, a kneeling skeleton performs fellatio. In yet another, a man wearing a pink and an orange sock stands with both hands stuffed in the crotch of his jockey shorts (protectively?) while a winged sphinx/ housecat looks on. Where is Freud when you need him? Or perhaps the scenes are a tongue-in-cheek game of Stump the Psychoanalyst.
People draw people for all kinds of reasons. Maybe my college textbook was right, and that ancient image in Lascaux depicts a shaman figure. Or maybe it was somebody cracking himself up by drawing his friend Og with a bird head. Who knows?
Elsewhere Around Town
Devin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery features "Weights and Measures," prints by Richard Serra, the artist best known for his massive, macho, minimalist sculptures. Here, dense aquatints are printed on sections of heavy handmade paper. Serra manages to create a strong sense of physicality on a two-dimensional surface -- the printed paper approaches the texture and surface of deep black asphalt.
In "As Noted" in the front gallery, Chad Sager makes precious objects out of notebook paper doodles. Sager mimics the pale blue and pink ruling lines of crappy notebook pages on outsize sheets of thick, expensive paper. Spiraling scrawls over a margin suddenly seem to have great import, as does a simulated letter whose heading, return address, salutation, body, closing and signature have all been obsessively scribbled out. Both shows through August 7 at Devin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery, 4520 Blossom, 713-863-7097.
At Mackey Gallery, Christopher Olivier presents lush digital photographs in saturated hues that look like electric watercolors. The manipulated digital layers of colors puddle up in abstract forms. Olivier then prints them on satin, giving them an added luminosity. Through August 23 at Mackey Gallery, 5111 Center, 713-850-8527.
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