Faces and Figures

June 21st, 2013  |  Published in *, June 2013  |  1 Comment

Faces and Figures
Artisan Enterprise Center Covington, KY
June 7–July 12

By Kevin Muente

As an artist who draws and paints from the figure regularly, I was eager to see the current show Figures and Faces at the Artisan Enterprise Center in Covington curated by Daniel Brown. The work in this exhibition varies greatly giving the viewer an array of visual experiences. Sketches to finished paintings are on view and allow for various types of reading. Artists include Linda Anderson, Sheldon Tapley, Emil Robinson, Rob Anderson, Reed Govert, Marlene Steele, Dan Newman, Kenn Day, Tyler Wilkinson, James Pendery, Katia Zhetskova, David DeVaul, and Cynthia Kukla.

Brown picked thirteen artists for this recent exhibition. Their ages and artistic sensibilities run the spectrum. I’ve actually worked alongside six of them. I’ve also painted many of the same models (about ten). In a few cases I was there in the studio when these pieces were created, often painting or drawing in the artists’ presence. This exhibition contains a variety of work ranging from tightly refined realism to work that is more expressionistic, and both are equally represented. This review will only focus on the former.

One of my favorite gems in this exhibition is Emil Robinson’s small Female Figure. The painting is an intense investigation of the play of light on the female torso. The background is an olive green with the upper left hand corner still showing the unaddressed surface beneath. Even though this painting is tiny, about 9 x 6 inches the figure has a monumentality. She poses with one arm behind her back. The artist chisels out the structure of her face but all details are suppressed so that we can focus on the light and play of shadow on the breasts and lower abdomen. The shadows are masterfully done, with just the right amount of information in the mid tones (the area between the shadow and the light) to create strong believable forms. The light rakes across her chest and we notice the triangular sliver of softer light as it sneaks onto her shoulder.

As I mentioned earlier I was present in the studio while some of the works in this show were made. When Robinson painted this female torso I was almost directly behind him. What I witnessed was a painter making new truths. As real as some of his paintings seem they are beautiful fictions. As Robinson says, “All paintings are fictions, but some fictions are more truthful than others.”

Another young artist in the show is a friend of Emil Robinson and fellow alum of Centre College, Tyler Wilkinson. Their work is similar in nature especially when they handle pastels. Bold gestural lines hug the figure and brilliant color choices always seem right. When dealing with paint both slow down and make more patient decisions. In Ian we see a male nude who stands centered in the middle of the canvas on a model stand. He leans back while both hands hold a support rail that doesn’t attach to the stand but dissolves into thin air. Wilkinson controls the focus of the painting so effectively that the suggestion of the rail will suffice. The composition of this work is filled with rectangles and helps secure the figure in the space.

Wilkinson gives us a soft gentle light created through fuzzy edges. These soft qualities are enhanced by a few nondescript marks made by the palette knife across the face. This section, as well as seeing remnants of the unpainted surface underneath on the peripheral edges of the painting create an honest experience with the work. Some areas aren’t painted which actually creates a fleeting sense of time. These paintings retain the unique sense of seeing in the moment, an honesty that resides in the work’s transient qualities. Perfection and tidy reworking would be disloyal to the actual experience of how these works were created. When looking at his work I feel the freshness of a Constable plein air study. We lose ourselves in the moment and come to grips with the ethereal nature of our lives.

Wilkinson’s and Robinson’s mentor Sheldon Tapley offers an array of work for the viewer to contemplate, from a highly finished oil painting of his wife Ann caught in mid smile, with a blue and yellow flower patterned background that allows for the artist to play with the nature of oil paint itself. What are perhaps undertones of sienna beneath the flesh give the shadows a warm glow. Tapley takes on the Dutch masters and gives them a run for their money. As if to announce his challenge he frames the painting in a solid black frame, the style that often adorns paintings from the Dutch golden age. Ann is wearing a type of head scarf, mouth slightly open as to speak, and wears a pearl earring. The pose pays homage to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, including the tilt of the face. The thin shadow cast on the neck from the scarf is well seen and contains the same type of energy found in passages of early Rembrandt. Instead of handling the background in a series of brown saucy and sometimes stand-offish glazes, Tapley painstakingly paints an impressionistically beautiful and cheery flower pattern that might be found behind the sitter of a portrait by another Dutch master, Van Gogh.

Tapley is not new to paying homage or taking on elements of artists that he admires and synthesizing their work into his own. When I spoke with him, he mentioned that his work Solitaire is the most intense and complex work of his career so far and combines landscape, still life, and figuration. This ambiguous narrative of the composition sets up a series of questions that engage the viewer’s interest.

Solitaire depicts a lean, young, barefooted woman slumped over a table dangling a roll of tape. Beside her is a tower of cards taped in place. One card teeters on the edge while others lay strewn upon the floor. A vice clamp is also on the floor—is this a random tool that’s been mislaid or does it have some other purpose? The right-hand side of the drawing shows drapery hanging from the table and a gourd that we see in a foreshortened view. Its stem reminds me of a wick on a stick of dynamite. The gourd, like the card, is precariously perched at the edge of the table, not such a good thing when dealing with round objects. The girl’s eyes and gesture plead with us, and she seems bored. Is that why she’s been playing solitaire or building a house of cards? The potential for things to go from this state to one much worse seems inevitable. Underneath the table we have a black cat that seems very curious. Does the girl know the cat is there? Is she about to start some sort of game with the cat because whatever game she was playing clearly isn’t holding her interest. Is she aware there is a large print of Fredrick Church’s Cotopaxi depicting a volcano’s spectacular eruption behind her? Tapley states, “There is nothing quite like a volcano to add some action to the quiet art of still life, concerned, as it usually is, with dull things like cabbages on a table.” We are on the cusp of change in this painting. The writing, or should I say the exploding volcano, is on the wall. This still life will not remain still for much longer; how could it? The latent energy in this drawing is palpable, yet since it is a drawing Tapley freezes us in anticipation. We will always be just as curious as the cat or the girl in regards to what happens next.

The model for Tapley’s Solitaire also pops up in Rob Anderson’s paintings Seated Nude and Untitled. In the latter she is unclothed and wraps her arms around her knees, head bowed in contemplation. Anderson’s paint is thickly applied, his structured, blocky brushwork sculpts form. Every object is chiseled and strong. In several paintings the models’ facial expressions are hidden as Anderson paints them from behind. Perhaps this helps direct our attention to how the paint is handled as opposed to sympathizing with the gaze and identity of the model. He examines form through an organization of planar shifts similar to Cezanne. Geometric forms are at his command, interlocking to achieve a mosaic-like paint surface.

Linda Anderson (no relation to Rob) is like Picasso to Cezanne. There are similarities that the Andersons’ work share. The work of both artists is figurative and painted in structural relationships in regards to an understanding of the planes of the human form. Both artists are interested in direct observation and the element of time. In Linda Anderson’s painting Axis she paints a female model who is de- or re-materializing in the center of the room. The model stand, a metal folding chair, and two windows in the background also seem to be in a state of flux. Her view of the figure in space is a nice blend of multiple perspectives and pixilated brush work. The distortions resemble the broken color bands one sees when your digital feed is on the fritz. Are we seeing ghost images or the visual residue of time, movement, and color? Is there a fracture in the time/space continuum? Is this a new more user-friendly version of Cubism?

Shifting to the work of Marlene Steele, we see that she’s drawn and painted several different versions of Cincinnati model Brian Baxter (five in all). She’s been working with Baxter for several years and he prides himself on his work as a model. Steele painted two versions of Baxter in a reclining position on a couch. The painting Afternoon Sunlight is a dynamic combination of strong figure drawing, understanding of light, and abstract/representational painterliness. Steele offers many areas to delight over in regards to the elements of painting. A triangular band of light runs along the model’s back and onto the couch which has a wonderful vibrant design. We continue to move through the painting and at some point we discover the perfect amalgamation of the natural characteristics of paint and its illusionistic properties.

In Brown’s curatorial statement he explains that many artists think dealing with the human figure is one of the hardest subjects to handle. These artists have mastered it in their own ways, and I feel lucky enough to have been there on a couple of occasions.


  1. Ralph Rosenfield says:

    July 31st, 2013at 12:11 pm(#)

    I have always been an admirer of the figure. And have been a model and a dancer myself. I very much enjoyed the review of this show and the detail of discription. I really want to see it now. I may have to make a trip down there.