Exploring the Figure, Inside and Out

March 27th, 2021  |  Published in March 2021

The development of an artist is a mysterious thing. The yoking of hand and mind, style and subject matter, conscious and subconscious — all can happen in any way, at any speed, with an infinite number of potential outcomes. But we can begin to discern and track these evolutions, in a way that was mostly impractical before the age of the Internet, on artist websites like the exemplary one by the Kentucky painter Christine Huskisson.

Not only does Huskisson provide us with a generous sampling of work from her still-young art practice (she came to it just over three years ago as a tributary of her substantial and ongoing career as an arts administrator, writer, editor, and publisher), she does so in chronological order. We can see in this illuminating sequence where she began, what ground she’s explored so far and where she might be headed. A good deal of movement has occurred already. There’s an accelerating ambition, even a restlessness, in Huskisson’s engagement with her primary subject, the human figure.

Its foundation consists of her renderings of nude bodies posed in many of the ways that have captivated artists since the Renaissance. They’re striking for a number of reasons. Since the beginning of the series in 2018, they eschew naturalism in favor of robust expressionism; pastels are applied to paper with freedom and boldness. Expanses of skin and the underlying muscles are indicated in a roughed-out, essentially notional way that’s as much about the motion of the artist’s hand as it is about the ostensible subject. These early works might best be appreciated, in fact, as a collective self-portrait of an artist avid for line and color, reveling in her power to conjure vivid, tumultuous life on a surface.

“Vertical Gaze”, 2018, pastel on Rives BFK paper, 30 x 44 inches. Photo credit: Mary Rezny.

This isn’t to say that the figures here lack psychological weight. Yes, they’re introspective and a bit withholding; they mostly avoid our gaze, and when not, their expressions are opaque. But this seeming coolness is often belied — in works like “Interiors,” “Left Not Right,” “Vertical Gaze” and “Clenching Escher” — by their intensely colored, largely abstract backgrounds, which feel less like Vuillard’s plush decorative spaces and more like projections of the figures’ (and Huskisson’s) rich, roiling inner lives.

“Beyond Reason”, 2019, pastel on Rives BFK paper, 30 x 44 inches. Photo credit: Mary Rezny.

 

“Flake White Forming”, 2019, pastel on Rives BFK paper, 30 x 44 inches. Photo credit: Mary Rezny.

Works from the following year find the artist ramping up their psychological complexity on multiple fronts. The colors are darker, denser, more saturated, more electric. More important, the wafting clouds of pigment on which the figures float begin to take on aspects of a dreamscape, which is full of night fevers and terrors. While the fairly naturalistic folds of the coverlet and the contours of the pillow on which the woman reclines in “Beyond Reason” recall the sumptuous world of Velázquez, the painting’s true guiding spirit is his great successor, Francisco Goya. Some of the same nightmarish owls and bats from Goya’s famous aquatint, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” (1797-99), swoop through Huskisson’s figure’s headspace; perhaps significantly, her figure — a woman, rather than Goya’s man — appears to be awake. In the even more fantastical and sinister “Left View,” a sleeping figure seems clasped by a spectral pair of skeletal hands; underneath her, a second, smaller, more shadowy figure seems to be trying to claw its way up into the picture from some other dimension. In “Flake White Forming” and “Weighted Gesture,” young women might be communing with spirit guides, ghosts, relatives, ancestors, lovers, or their own dissociated selves. (In “Fields of Pulitzer,” one of those hovering dream-faces is clearly male.)

“Becoming Phthalo”, 2019, pastel on Rives BFK paper, 30 x 44 inches.

 

“St. Martha’s Dark Night”, 2019, pastel on Rives BFK paper, 30 x 44 inches.

The year’s output also includes what strike me as Huskisson’s most frankly erotic images: “Becoming Phthalo” and “Triangulated Leaf,” both brooding, virile male nudes, and “St. Martha’s Dark Night,” which refers to Lazarus’s fearless sister, who according to legend went into a forest in search of a dragon that had been terrorizing the French countryside; she later emerged with the tamed dragon in tow. (The artist learned this story during a studio visit with Lexington artist Robert Morgan, and later connected it to an image begun as part of a drawing class led by another Central Kentucky painter, Martin Beck.) In Huskisson’s finished work, Martha is naked and alert, gripping a sword draped down the center of her lower body. Is this ambiguous scene a primal bed waiting to happen or a prelude to violence, perhaps of a sexual kind? Does the sword symbolize either or both of these possibilities? Either way, it’s charged with drama and suspense that I associate with Baroque painting, and is without obvious parallel in Huskisson’s work to date.

“Jonah’s Amaranth”, 2020, pastel on Rives BFK paper, 30 x 44 inches.

The year 2020, buffeted by political and public-health storms, finds the artist sheltering in her studio busier than ever, burrowing into the work with an ever-deepening focus on layered color, a sharpened line, and a brand-new element: apparently decorative hieroglyph- or rune-like script in the backgrounds of three paintings. In “Jonah’s Amaranth,” “Hall of Two Sisters” and “One Inch Journey,” this mysterious overlay (which in conversation Huskisson revealed as referring to parts of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco) reinforces my overall sense that her unfolding body of work is being created in fruitful conversation with other major figures in art history. These include not only Velázquez and Goya, both mentioned above, but Paul Gauguin’s voluptuousness, Odilon Redon’s skill with pastels (in particular his simultaneously earthy and luminous quality), and the creepingly abstract figuration of Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon.

“Whataboutisms”, 2020, pastel on Rives BFK paper, 30 x 44 inches.

Elsewhere in last year’s oeuvre, including “Whataboutisms (Erasure),” “Tertiary Blurs” and “Amethyst Field,” Huskisson’s female bodies seem to be fraying at the edges, fading into the air, into the landscape, into nothing at all — a metaphor, perhaps, for the fractured self in a world that besets, dwarfs, erases and consumes it, now as ever.

“Color of Negative Space”, 2021, pastel and marker on Rives BFK paper, 44 x 30 inches.

The current year has begun with the artist approaching what feels like a turning point in her work, with two new directions taking her into uncharted territory. One of these, seen in “The Color of Negative Space” and other works in progress, involves the use of handwriting to define and fill in areas of the figure. The texts themselves are at various stages of legibility at this early point in time, but they are eloquent in their promise of works to come in which Huskisson, writer and visual artist, will combine these modes of expression in a single piece.

“Strategies of Evasion”, 2021, Oil on canvas, 40 x 40 inches

The prospect is thrilling, as is the other significant development in her art practice: a close-up interest in that most expressive part of the human body, the face, and, by extension, all that it alone can convey. In the perhaps ironically titled “Strategies of Evasion” — an arresting oil-on-canvas portrait of a woman addressing the viewer with utter directness and what I take to be a kind of tragic candor — Huskisson has painted her first masterpiece. As I look at it, I have the ineffable yet inescapable feeling of staring into the eyes of a real living human being of fathomless depth, power, fearlessness and sorrow, and it shakes me. This is one of the greatest things an artist can accomplish, and I’m confident that there’s more where that came from in the burgeoning career of Christine Huskisson.

–Kevin Nance

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