“Flesh was the reason oil painting was invented,” said Willem de Kooning. The quote is a nod to the Dutch masters, who developed the medium to accurately evoke the semi-translucent glow of human skin in the crisp light of 17th century Delft.
By the mid-1900s, de Kooning was using the same medium to very different ends. His nudes unraveled across the canvas, their mottled flesh mimicking the dark tones of a bruised peach or the sickly hues of a jaundiced child.
The abstract expressionist encoded in painted skin the darkest sexual desires and terrors of the modern world, but he wasn’t blind to the way the inherent qualities of oil linked him to a much different time and place.
Our new exhibition FOCUS ON THE FIGURE, running December 2 to 9, holds a similar philosophy at its heart. The use of figures in art stretches back to prehistory, and new explorations into the subject have always looked to the past in one way or another.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s (1841-1919) etching Odalisque refers to Turkish concubines, but that wasn’t necessarily the artist’s intended title. Renoir submitted a painting of a nude called Diana to the Paris Salon in 1867. The erotic depiction of the Roman goddess offended the judges and the painting was rejected.
Three years later the artist used the same model for a painting called Odalisque and made sure she was fully clothed. The second work, stripped of its mythological significance and given an exotic twist, was accepted to the Salon.
In this etching with the same title Renoir refuses to hold back. The nude Odalisque is so tenderly rendered her skin looks as soft as butter. “When I’ve painted a woman’s bottom so that I want to touch it, then [the painting] is finished,” the artist said.
Harold Frank (1917-1995) was born in England and grew up in New York, where he drew inspiration from American modernism and abstract expressionism. His take on the female figure in Blue Nude features quick, expressive brushwork that was no doubt inspired by de Kooning.
Both artists incorporated drips and splatters of paint into their compositions to create spacial ambiguities in the picture plane. Is Frank’s nude standing in a corner or floating in a color field? The answer seems to change with every glance.
Jamie Chase immerses a figure in a vibrant yellow atmosphere in Turning Point. It brings to mind both Mark Rothko and Nathan Oliveira, but Chase’s influences stretch farther back in art history.
Chase grew up in San Francisco and attended art school there for a short time before dropping out to travel Europe. He lived in various cities and educated himself on the masters before returning to San Francisco in the early 1970s. There he painted murals for a bookstore, drawing inspiration from ancient Egyptian art, European cave paintings and Native American art.