Art Seen: Chicago

EXPANDING NARRATIVES: THE FIGURE AND THE GROUND // SMART MUSEUM OF ART

By Christina Nafziger

In this intimate review of Expanding Narratives: The Figure and the Ground at the Smart Museum of Art, we will walk as ‘figure’ throughout the exhibition, ‘ground,’ exploring these two terms in not only the most literal sense—meaning through portraits and landscapes—but also through their evolution conceptually. In the first two sections entitled, “The Figure” and “The Ground” the two terms are visible in their most traditional and recognizable form. These words then transcend their representational forms and become purely their basic function, meaning, a concept of relations, e.g. subject and environment, or object and background. This dichotomy is altered and shaped through an extremely contrasting collection of works that range from Neoclassicism, to Minimalism, to performance. As the exhibition statement reads, the works included can, “shift and expand the collection’s narrative possibilities.”1  I was surprised to discover upon reading further that the exhibition described itself as chronologically arranged. Although viewing artworks chronologically can be beneficial for many exhibitions, this method can also create a linear trajectory that often reiterates the art historical canon in its traditional form, limiting the dialogue between the chosen works to one that is within the historical narrative already in place. I wondered how new narratives were to be formed from what I assumed would be a traditional curatorial method. However, I was pleasantly surprised at the way in which the exhibition led me through not a linear timeline, but instead the growth and expansion of the use of the ‘figure’ and the ‘ground’ within art. Like the exhibitions namesake, the works included display an ‘expansion’ of a concept throughout time.

Expanding Narratives: The Figure and the Ground (gallery view), Smart Museum of Art

In order to illustrate and investigate this expansion, we begin at its roots. As I mentioned before, the exhibition first proposes the sections “The Figure” and “The Ground,” which establish the representational presence and role these two terms have within the art historical canon and the ways in which they have been challenged, abstracted, and altered aesthetically. The section “The Figure” immediately confronts the viewer as they enter the exhibition with Kerry James Marshall’s Slow Dance (1992-93), which offers an example of the figure in a more traditional, representational style, while also representing African-Americans, a group that has historically been left outside the canon of figurative art. Another monumental painting here is The Turkish Bath (1973) by Sylvia Sleigh, which reverses the male gaze so often present in figurative works by painting a scene of six lounging, nude men. These works challenge who is being represented within traditional canons and how they are being represented, expanding the voices present within one of the oldest subjects in art history. The section titled “The Ground,” offers a similar transformation of a classical subject, the ground here being the landscape. Landscape is shown in the most traditional sense as well as through the lens of modern technology via photography. Just as the figurative portrait was in “The Figure” section, the landscape is broken down beyond recognition into simplified shapes in Boris Fedorovich Rybchenkov’s Untitled (c. 1920). Together, these two sections lay the groundwork for a space in which to launch the two terms and their place in art history before deconstructing them and investigating the ways in which they have and can be used conceptually.

Kerry James Marshall, Slow Dance, 1992-93, acrylic on unstretched canvas, 75.25 × 75.25 in

The rest of the collection on display is grouped by the ways in which the figure and the ground are used as a concept within the work, not necessarily entirely chronologically. However, by nature, the groups gravitate towards a stylistic or conceptual movement, which stakes a claim in history. So perhaps in this way the arrangement becomes chronological organically in a way that was not so much forced within a linear frame, but gently connected with other works being created during close moments in history. These sections—which include “Allover Abstraction,” “Material Abstraction,” “Identity Politics and the Performative Body,” and “Light and Monochrome”—are arranged openly, with pieces trickling in and out of conversation with the next, forming a thought-provoking rhizome of concepts that feed into each other, easily allowing the viewer to move back and forth between sections, finding connections of his or her own.

The three sections “Allover Abstraction,” “Material Abstraction,” and “Light and Monochrome” all offer dynamic works that experiment with the materiality of a piece, altering and challenging the way it interacts with its viewer and environment. In these sections, a painting stops being a window into another world, becoming instead an object within itself, the world becoming the background—the ground in which it stands. The first of these sections, “Allover Abstraction,” groups together works that are mainly in line with Abstract Expressionism, such as Lee Krasner and Joan Mitchell. Here, it would appear there is no figure or ground—just pure abstraction. However, as the wall didactic suggests, perhaps the material or the painting itself is the figure, and the ground is what lay behind it: the canvas or gallery wall. The total abstraction present here is a refreshing jolt into the conceptual, steering us away from the previous, more representational sections. The clear absence of what the words ‘figure’ and ‘ground’ may initially bring to mind shatters our image of them, forcing us to rethink their meaning.

The next section, “Material Abstraction”, goes hand in hand with the former, exploring materiality as subject—or figure—with the space in which it inhabits as the ground. Unlike the previous section though, the materiality of the piece becomes a stand in for identity and/or body, such as in the work The Most Important Body of Water is Yours (Sport the Game) (2010) by Pamela Rosenkranz. In this piece, Rosenkranz uses acrylic paint and spandex to create a painting where a “sense of the human figure through its flesh-colored paint and the scale and stretch of the spandex material.” By forming an “abstract portrait of the human body,” the figure as figurative is brought back to the surface. Works from this section seep into the next as it connects the surface of the canvas with the surface of the body, bringing forth the notion of identity. The next section, “Identity Politics and the Performative Body,” merges well with these concepts as it presents us with works representing once again a literal figure; physical bodies. The surface of the body, meaning the physical appearance of a person—or, identity—is what is being investigated and confronted here through the work of such artists as Cindy Sherman, Kehinde Wiley, and Kara Walker. Such as in the work of Sherman, the body is the medium, performing and constructing an identity the artist intends to portray to the viewer. Identity becomes the still life, the subject, the “figure.” 2 The human body becomes the surface in which to work upon—meaning the ground—with identity as the figure. Together, the works here investigate identity’s contingency with physical appearance; they challenge concepts of gender and race. By drawing attention to the ways in which identity is perceived through an image, photo, or a painting, the section allows the viewer to step back and consider the authenticity of representation in art history as well in their own culture.

Jeppe Hein, Why Are You Here And Not Somewhere Else, 2004, neon

The themes emphasized in “Identity Politics and the Performative Body,” as well as the aesthetics, contrasted with the surrounding sections that pinned the concepts of the figure and the ground to materiality and environment. As the said section displayed a radical shift back to work depicting the figurative body, I would have liked to have seen this grouping towards the end of the exhibition, so as to bookend the show with figurative works. This way, the viewer would begin with the classical representation of the human body as figure, and end with the figurative human body as material as one moved through an exploration of concepts and movements that experiment with materiality—constantly shifting the relationship of figure and ground throughout. However, I could not help but adore the placement of the piece in the last section, “Light and Monochrome;” a neon piece entitled the same as it reads, Why Are You Here and Not Somewhere Else (2004) by Jeppe Hein. What powerful words to read as you exit the exhibition, positioning the viewer as the final ‘figure’ in the ‘ground’ of the gallery. Leaving the exhibition, I was left struck by the amount of diverse works included in the space that still were able to construct a cohesive flow—giving me the necessary space to gather the many styles and concepts offered.


Expanding Narratives: The Figure and the Ground runs at the Smart Museum of Art until December 30, 2018.

1 Wall text, Expanding Narrative: The Figure and the Ground, Smart Museum of Art, Chicago, IL.

2 Spector, Nancy, Jennifer Blessing, Carole-Anne Tyler, Sarah Wilson, Judith Halberstam, and Lyle Ashton Harris. Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose: Gender Performance in Photography. New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2006, 122.

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