Go Figure at the Smart Museum of Art
Nick Cave, Sylvia Sleigh, Leon Golub and six other artists explore the human figure.
For a shocking painting, Sylvia Sleigh’s (1916–2010) The Turkish Bath (pictured) has plenty of precedents. Sleigh was inspired by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s 1862 depiction of a Turkish Bath, and she adapted the pose of the reclining nude (her husband, critic Lawrence Alloway) from Titian’s 16th-century painting Venus and the Lute Player. Sleigh just chose nudes who are male. “[I wanted] to stress the importance of equality,” the artist explains in a video in “Go Figure.”
Sleigh makes the subjects of The Turkish Bath and the nearby Nancy Spero, Leon Golub, and Sons Stephen, Philip and Paul look like real people, with emotions and relationships that transcend the canvas. Her paintings are among my favorite pieces in this unusually strong exhibition, in which curator Jessica Moss brings together nine artists’ explorations of the human figure.
That open-ended theme enables the show to encompass several decades, continents and media. Though “Go Figure” feels unfocused as a result, its scope yields fruitful oppositions between, for example, Indian artist Ravinder Reddy’s Girija (2000), a gilded sculpture of a young woman’s head, rendered grotesque by its enormous scale, and Golub’s huge, earth-toned painting Colossal Heads I (1958–59), which the artist stripped until its two monstrous faces appear eroded by acid. Clad in suggestive outfits and sprouting phallic growths, the headless, handless figures in Christina Ramberg’s amazing 1970s paintings seem less human than her fellow Chicago artist Nick Cave’s flamboyant Soundsuits, presented here like sculptures.
Moss intends “Go Figure” to highlight the Smart’s collection, so the show doesn’t provide a broad analysis of contemporary figuration. But video interviews with Clare Rojas, Kerry James Marshall and a few other artists (viewable through the museum’s website) add invaluable context.