We’ve been here before, but it wasn’t quite the same. The frequently sun-struck paintings in the engaging exhibition, Continuity and Change: The Return to Figurative Painting, now at Cincinnati Art Galleries, are the work of seven area artists — Emil Robinson, Rob Anderson, Linda E. Anderson, Aidan Schapera, Brian Burt, Tim Kennedy and Eve Mansdorf — many of whom have looked long and hard at 17th century Dutch paintings, French Impressionist paintings and American artists who have done the same. And having looked long and hard, with a glance at the 20th century as well, each is now proceeding in his/her individual manner. Their work is far from abstraction, but if abstraction hadn’t happened they wouldn’t paint the way they do.
Brushwork, an artist’s signature stroke, is a distinguishing feature throughout. This suggests an enjoyment of painting for painting’s sake and, when well done, invites the viewer into similar pleasures.
Emil Robinson uses broad sweeps of color, more complex on second glance than on first, that suggest interiors. He often doesn’t show the faces of his human subjects but suggests quiet and contemplation, and now and then puts in something surprising like a flowered curtain to see if you’re paying attention. His work here falls into two groups: one relatively large format and the other with dimensions in inches rather than feet. He calls these small works “Nocturnes.” One of them, a shadowy arrangement of browns and grays, has a dim figure at right holding the only bright note of the painting, perhaps an illuminated cell phone? Its down-home domesticity is reflected in the title: “Waiting for the Bathroom.”
Rob Anderson’s people are also shown in interiors, always windowed and filled with light, although introspection seems to rule.
While Robinson is caught in the interaction of shapes in his interiors, Anderson’s paintings are all about the subjects. The shapes interacting there are, for instance, the varying placement of the legs of the woman, the man and the dog in “Family Portrait.” In another mood, Anderson has made two groups of very small paintings, one showing only the backs of individual’s heads (neat, shaggy, sometimes pony-tailed) and the other, titled “People I’ve Come to Know,” is made up of three-quarter views of the face. His subjects are affectionately portrayed but not prettified.
The paintings of Linda E. Anderson (no relation) are an exciting jumble of interiors — tilted, almost overlaid, like memories intermingling. She imposes artistic order on these disparate elements and allows you to make what you will of them, although in her artist’s statement she says her paintings “linger in [a] transitory state, after the collapse or on the brink of epiphany.”
A little group of paintings, unlike anything else in the show in their muted color, is the work of a young South African-born artist, Aidan Schapera, friend of some of the other artists on view here, who died unexpectedly of a heart condition when plans for this exhibition were already underway. His artist’s statement was finished; he writes that these small works use “only black and white paint tinted slightly with weak blue or sienna pigment to tint the tones warmer or cooler.” As portraits, they carry a sense of figures emerging from his imagination; they are “a skeptical examination of the aftermath of a fable,” he writes. Rough surfaces further a sense of the figures being torn from some other dimension.
Brian Burt, on the other hand, comes from the long line of painters whose subjects are at home on the beach, who wade in the ocean, who luxuriate in sand and sky and water. They are sharply presented, a thoroughly modern take, and are accompanied by a couple of the artist’s amusing self-portraits. In the one I liked best, “A Portrait A Painter A Palette,” the viewer has suddenly become his subject; he leans around his easel and looks directly out of the canvas at you.
The final two artists, Tim Kennedy and Eve Mansdorf, share the generous corner gallery. They are husband and wife, both inspired by their shared household — he does the interiors, she does the backyard. His colors are quieter, sometimes suggesting evening; hers are sun-lit and strong. These are works that could easily fall into sentiment but sidestep that mistake and instead suggest that ordinary life has both pleasures and thoughtful moments.
There’s much to like in this exhibition, including the thought that figurative painting returns with a new string or two to its bow.
CONTINUITY AND CHANGE is on view at Cincinnati Art Galleries (225 E. Sixth St., Downtown) through June 8. More info: cincinnatiartgalleries.com.