The human figure, in all its beauty, at Prographica
The exhibit "The Human Figure and Parts Thereof," up through Jan. 21 at Prographica, is full of rich works that explore the many ways the human figure can be represented.
Special to The Seattle Times
Ever since our most distant ancestors started making images, recording the appearances of the human figure has been central to what we now call art.
So when Seattle's Prographica gallery stages a show called "The Human Figure and Parts Thereof," it offers not only the chance to enjoy a range of mostly recent pictures by mostly local artists but also an opportunity to consider the various ways in which they relate to the most fundamental of artistic traditions.
While there are some beautiful photographs here by Marsha Burns, an outrageous mural-scale tempera painting by Sean McElroy, and even a dark 1917 etching by the legendary expressionist Kathe Kollwitz, they are all peripheral to what lies at the core of this show. This is to be found in pieces like Linda Thomas' two "Figure Studies," Steven Schultz's untitled drawing of a woman in an armchair and Phillip Levine's "Chaired Woman." These are all observational studies that use the human figure less for any narrative reasons than as a subject against which the artists can test their representational skills.
Clearly this isn't always a straightforward task: it has taken Levine a couple of attempts to get his model's head in the right place, and something very peculiar is happening in the region of her left hip. But rather than marring the picture, these inaccuracies simply reflect the process of the picture's making, which was the dialogue that existed between Levine's seeing and drawing during the hour or so it took him to make the picture. This is even more explicit in Jordan Wolfson's "Woman Sitting 10.7.11," not only because the picture's title tells us the very day on which the observational dialogue took place, but also because the form of Wolfson's seated model emerges from a bird's nest of pencil scratches more through the erasure of his preliminary attempts to draw it than because he has left a number of key lines in place.
Juliette Aristide's pictures, like the exquisite "Yma," are perhaps the most accurate results of this kind of process, though they lack the priceless drama of Levine's and Wolfson's attempts to match drawing to seeing. You'll find the same drama in Thomas' watercolors and in pieces like Anne Petty's "Lost Marbles II," where every little dab of transparent paint is a provisional attempt to fix the complex form of the crouching figure on to the flat surface of the paper. The fact that they accumulate to render it in plausible three dimensions is a genuine delight.
These pictures all derive from the Western tradition of "life drawing": the disciplined study of the human figure as a means of sharpening artists' representational skills. It is a tradition that relates back directly to those very earliest representations that have come down to us from prehistory. The evidence that it continues to furnish contemporary artists with such a range of fascinating possibilities is at the heart of this exhibit's success.