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It must have been a shocker when Clement Greenberg, apparently inspired by the art of Horacio Torres, announced in the early '70s that he had gotten it wrong, that figurative painting (nudes!) was the better, truer modernism. More a rhetorical flourish than a genuine testament of reversed faith, the remark serves as a reminder that no matter how definitively it seems to disappear (or be disappeared) from the discourse at certain moments, the figure in painting refuses to go away. Perhaps because the "contemporary" cannot be second-guessed; perhaps because the conundrum of the body persists, because the body will not be figured out or figured.

Of course, I don't exactly jump out of bed when I hear the words "contemporary figurative painting," because I don't really go in for caricature--which, of late, rules in almost all figurative painting, and I'm not just thinking about distortion of the figure but also pastiche. Things have gotten to be pretty wan and cynical (caricature as painting) about whatever it is painting might do. Such is the case with both the best (John Currin) and worst (Lisa Yuskavage or Kurt Kauper, take your pick). But it doesn't have to be: Even figurative painting that looks like caricature at first might actually be deploying it as a trope, in order to achieve something at once more sincere and stranger.

Take the work of Brian Calvin. As much as it picks up the narrative of the figure in painting, this artist's weird, quietly disconcerting, mischievously witty paintings are a meditation on that tradition. He specializes in young, sometimes androgynous bohemians; skinnies in groups, smoking, drinking, waiting for who knows what; friends and/or couples at a turning point. They almost all have bloodshot eyes, long, lippy mouths, and wardrobes mixing the utterly chic and the acutely thrifted (to which Calvin pays Alex Katz-like attention). After earning an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1994 and cutting his aesthetic teeth playing in a band on the crucial Drag City label, Calvin returned to his native California in 1999; the moodiness and bluntness of Chicago, not to mention the simultaneous goofiness and rigor of indie rock, accompanied him to sometimes too sunny LA.

In Courtesy of the Artist(all works 2000), a painter in a studio (Calvin himself?) directs someone unseen on how to position a large canvas (brushy, to signify "painting") or maybe how to maneuver it out the door. The title phrase suggests the temporary loan of works that the artist can't bear to sell as well as those that haven't found a buyer, a nod to Calvin's ongoing consideration of his own participation in the art world. On the floor are more paintings (Calvin-esque facial close-ups and a landscape) ready to be shipped. With the artist in his SoCal casual Hawaiian shirt and corduroys, palms and succulents outside the studio windows, the scene is an homage to David Hockney--but as much to the dandy master's formalism and glamorous use of the color blue as to his content. Courtesy's grand size establishes its space with the viewer's own, so that it is as if he or she could step into the painting--just as the back-turned, bejeaned figure in the canvas to be moved seems to have stepped out of the studio in to the painting, itself moving out into the world beyond its frame.

The relationship between the guys in Nowhere Boogie is undetermined. It's possible to read the painting allegorically: Plainly painted puppet-boy peering out the window stands for caricature in contemporary figure painting; he's on the lookout, worried, in contrast with the calm, typically Calvin-esque, guitar-playing dude, bright satanic calligraphy emblazoning his black T-shirt, bloodshot blue eyes, baked. Musician may groove and toke in order to "escape," but the flat, no-nonsense, nonillusionistic way he's painted signifies he's stuck struggling with the real. Nothing in caricature-as-painting has this problem. While it's easy to see a story here (nervous puppet-boy could be watching for the arrival of their double dates, for instance), the implied narrative is rarely central in these paintings. Things and bodies matter--the musician's hair, falling below his shoulders to flow into the calligraphy; the cut-rate white Artemide reading lamp; the balding pillow--but especially as they signal the limits of th e body and the thing.

The main event is Calvin's introduction, contemplation, and confrontation of extremely dynamic edges: the strip of wall with a landscape painting on the far left of Nowhere Boogie; the canvas being directed out of the studio in Courtesy; especially the right arm of the artist in the same work, which runs the risk of oblivion, since the two panels that make up the painting meet just along the sleeve's outer edge. In Don't Be Denied, a figure holds up a canvas that completely blocks his or her body--except for the hands at the edge of the painting and, at the bottom, the waistband of the holder's jeans. Hijacking Barthes, I'd say that Calvin's work traffics generally in such midriff pleasures: "the intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing ... between two edges ... it is this flash itself which seduces, or rather: the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance." Calvin's paintings oddly come to be about the figure as the appearance of the nonfigurative, narrative as the appearance of the no n-narrative, canvas as not-wall, paint as not-body. Consider again Nowhere Boogie: Both puppet-boy pushing back the curtain's edge at the window demarcating the outside and musician playing guitar, high, falling in and out of the world, are just paint, in the way that Pinocchio is a puppet and then a boy and never really just either. Something like this conundrum, the violence of this edge--representation/nonrepresentation--seemed to, late, awake Greenberg, who knew it all along. Despite living in the postmodern now, the people in Calvin's paintings test their limits, as any body does, still encountering the other--whatever it (object, body) is and is not.

Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor of Artforum.
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Title Annotation:art exhibition
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2001
Previous Article:DIRECT TO FILM.

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