- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 21, 2009

From the fat contestants on “The Biggest Loser” to the successful dieters in People magazine, personal stories of weight gain and loss are popular these days as more Americans struggle with obesity.

Capitalizing on this obsession with body image is “Paint Made Flesh” at the Phillips Collection. Bloated and gaunt nudes, girlie pin-ups, bloody corpses and disfigured portraits fascinate and repulse in this exhibition of paintings by 34 artists, mostly Americans and Europeans.

Chief curator Mark Scala of Nashville’s Frist Center for the Visual Arts organized the traveling show to prove that figurative painting is very much alive within the art world. Such a concentration of handmade pictures of the human body, many of them skillfully executed, is a refreshing change from all the contemporary art shows devoted to photography, videos and installations.

“Paint can express the body as no other medium can do,” says Mr. Scala, who explains the show title “Paint Made Flesh” is a play on the biblical description of Christ as “the word made flesh.”

The exhibit doesn’t rail against abstraction but acknowledges its absorption into figurative painting since the 1950s. As a result, the show’s argument for realism gets watered down in places where the artists are more interested in exploring color and shape than commenting on the human condition.

Opening the show is a late work by Pablo Picasso, “The Artist and His Model,” to remind us that this cubist innovator never gave up examining male-female relationships.

More germane to the exhibit’s message are two portrayals of women by abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning. Intertwining recognizable images and smeared-on color, Mr. de Kooning conveys the squishy vitality of the body.

“Flesh was the reason why oil painting was invented,” the artist said in 1950, a view expanded by Mr. Scala in this show.

For Mr. de Kooning and his brethren, layering wet, sticky oils on canvas allowed them to describe humanity in a way that closely approximates the body’s gelatinous make-up.

Mr. Scala chose most of the 43 works based on such painterly qualities so the hand of the artist is clearly discernable.

Oils are caked on so thick in Joan Brown’s “Girl in Chair,” they look like they might slide off the painting. Heavy slashes of red and black paint coat the figure in Leon Golub’s “Napalm II” to resemble the burns inflicted by the chemical agent. Ruby lines and blotches fill Tony Bevan’s bare-chested self-portrait to suggest blood or psychic wounds.

Following the Phillips’ tradition of intimate picture-hanging, works by artists of similar sensibilities are shown in close proximity to allow for visual comparisons.

In a gallery devoted to post-World War II American art, the marvelous small painting, “Male Nudes at the Water,” by San Francisco artist David Park hangs across from “Woman by a Window” by his colleague Richard Diebenkorn. Both paintings juxtapose abstracted figures against splashed-on patchworks of colors.

The next section devoted to neo-expressionist paintings of the 1970s and 1980s centers on a striking trio of paintings by Dutchman Karel Appel and German artists George Baselitz and A.R. Penck. Though seemingly disparate in their approach to the figure, the three share an interest in strong color contrasts and vigorous brushwork.

Across the gallery, Susan Rothenberg’s “Crying” captures the redness of rubbing your eyes after a tearful breakdown. Julian Schnabel, who has proven to be a better filmmaker than a painter (his 2007 movie, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” was nominated for four Oscars), is also represented, but not by his best work. His depiction of a woman in a landscape full of broken plates appears clumsy and rote.

The most coherent stretch of the exhibit is devoted to paintings by British artists, whose interest in the human body has remained steadfast over the past five decades. Francis Bacon’s contorted figures and portraits from the 1950s and ‘60s suggest the rawness of muscle and bone under the skin. The best of these, “Three Studies for the Portrait of Henrietta Moraes,” delivers the subject’s misshapen face with the punch of a boxer.

Across the gallery, profuse paint meets profuse flesh in “Naked Man, Back View” by Lucian Freud, grandson of Sigmund Freud. In this riveting painting, Mr. Freud depicts the corpulent body of performance artist Leigh Bowery as a topography marked by fat rolls, scars and blemishes.

Paintings by younger British artists follow to magnify the same corporeal interests as their predecessors. The most impressive of these, Jenny Saville’s “Hyphen,” suggests a two-headed woman in its double portrait of the baby-faced artist and her sister.

Combining glimpses of raw canvas, splattered color and layer upon layer of paint, the big canvas simulates human musculature, blood and skin to perfectly reflect the show’s theme. Indeed, Ms. Saville has called paint “tins of liquid flesh” that she spreads onto a canvas.

From British realism, the exhibit progresses into recent American paintings of human frailty, narcissism and stereotypical beauty. The weirdest of these, “The Hobo,” pictures a pin-up girl as a tramp. Artist John Currin combines calendar kitsch with the old-master style of a German Renaissance painting. The overall effect is sleazy yet compelling in its polished realism.

The show ends on a weak note in its attempt to reach beyond the individual to the larger body of society. Here, the most striking work is by German artist Daniel Richter who paints a street mob in garish colors to recall the visual effect of thermal imaging. The wall text suggests the spectral figures represent immigrants from the Middle East but the scene comes off as a silly youth rave.

Nearby, “The Goal Kick,” an abstract painting by Albert Oehlen, for whom Mr. Richter once worked as a studio assistant, seems completely unrelated to the exhibit’s figural theme.

A more effective way to conclude the show would have been to remind the viewer of human mortality. Hung earlier in the exhibit is such a moving tribute to old age: Eric Fischl’s haunting painting of an elderly man in a hallway. Based on the artist’s father, this stooped figure symbolizes the way of all flesh, as the body sags and diminishes with time.

WHAT: “Paint Made Flesh”

WHERE: The Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, until 8:30 p.m. Thursday; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, through Sept. 13

ADMISSION: $12 for adults; $10 for students and seniors

PHONE: 202/387-2151

WEB SITE: www.phillipscollection.org

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