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The Figure, Another Side of Modernism

at the Newhouse arbor in Staten Island Center at Snug Harbor by Roger McClanahan

Painting by Alfred Leslie
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Painting of Linda Cross
by Alfred Leslie
Currently the Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art located at Snug Harbor Cultural Center on Staten Island is showing a very exciting exhibition entitled The Figure, Another Side of Modernism. On until January of next year, Lily Wei curated this project with the purpose of examining the role of representational art in the twentieth century. It includes over 130 works by almost that many artists ranging from such well-known figures as Wilem de Kooning to Andy Warhol and covering most of the major artists working in the representational mode. I would like to focus on three works in the show as examples of what the viewer can expect from this exhibit. Alfred Leslie has a larger-than-life picture of Linda Cross who died about a year ago. This is one of his great figurative works, which marked his transition from abstraction to painting the figure.

While huge and gray in coloration, Alfred's portrait sends out a massive dose of sexuality while remaining somehow cool and distant. The painting looms above the viewer and no one looking at the work can dismiss the genitalia, which has an almost 3-D effect. Richard Bellamy who was Alfred's dealer for many years always liked to display this work with the most markedly minimal paintings in a show. Indeed Al Leslie has abstracted the human figure, moved it to a new level where it speaks to us not in terms of a woman but in terms of all women and all nudity and all sexuality.

Leslie refers to this work as the turning point in his development of conceptual figuration and indeed it can be seen as the harbinger of later work such as Chuck Close's famous self-portraits- one of which hangs only down the corridor from Leslie's work in this show. This is a stunning and totally marvelous work of art. It shows how one artist moved decisively to redirect his career from abstraction to explore the figure.

Antonio and I
Painting by Joan Semel

Joan Semmel is represented in the show by Antonio and I, a work painted in 1974. Ms Semmel's painting has a timeless sexuality but also a very abstract quality. Two nude bodies are next to each other; their hands reach out almost touching. The male seems to be coyly shielding his penis with his right arm and hand. The woman is vulnerable, her hands almost cupped around her genital area. The abstraction comes with the fact that only the lower parts of their bodies are shown. We see no faces. There are no expressions here. I have always enjoyed Joan Semmel's technique.

I feel I have been invited to share a special moment and somehow there is always a woman's perspective in her work. I have probably said too much about this work and feel a little silly. Just let me say that Joan Semmel makes an important contribution to figurative painting in the last several decades. I still remember a tremendous series she did featuring women who worked out in the Big Apple Gym bordering Soho. Of course she knows how to paint but she also knows how to provide the viewer with her special insight into women's sexuality.

With several hundred art works in this show ranging from a delightful work by Red Grooms to one of Jim Dine's Suit paintings it is hard to choose a final work. I picked simple portrait by David Smith. Last week I was at Storm King where David Smith's famous sculptures abound on the grassy knolls.

Here we see a world famous artist who we have come to think of almost entirely in terms of his metal sculptures; especially the bright silver ones. He is taking a shot at the human figure. It is robust, it is simply wonderful. In a show which offers so many visual pleasures don't miss it.

A word about getting to the Newhouse Gallery- just take the Staten Island Ferry, then hop onto the S40 bus and you will be there in abut ten minutes from the ferry. Hours are Wednesday-Sunday 12-5PM. While visiting Snug Harbor wander the spectacular grounds, look at the Greek revival buildings, check out the Chinese Scholar's Garden. A visit to Snug Harbor is always a treat but The Figure offers art aficionados a special treat indeed.

Reviewed by Roger McClanahan

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