‘Figuratively Speaking’ Pushes Bounds of the Human Body

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"Floral Sheets" by Ben Fenske.

The human figure is, has been and will forever be a subject that fascinates artists — whether it tells a story, captures a likeness or creates universal glorification of organic beauty.

It is eternally a relatable subject, one of solace, and the inspiration behind the newest group show at Grenning Gallery, “Figuratively Speaking,” now on view through February 10.

“At Grenning Gallery, we are interested in the artists that are delving into a humanist tradition that looks at the human figure with awe and curiosity, creating their works with a deep respect for the sanctity of the human subject,” a press release said. “And although our painters do maintain their individual styles, all of our artists’ figurative work shares one main theme: Beauty.”

In 1908, archaeologists uncovered an 11.1-centimeter figurine carved from limestone, known today as “The Venus of Willendorf.” It dates back to the Old Stone Age, more than 30,000 years ago, and is perhaps the first representational human form ever made.

Since then, anthropomorphic iconography has remained a popular focus for artisans and academicians alike, evolving over time — from stick figures on the wall of a cave to canvas, then realist representation to modernist tradition, then abstraction to pop art to a debate between art and pornography, and finally to present day.

Except it’s changing again.

“So where does that leave our figurative painters today? Has the world seen enough figurative paintings? We don’t think so,” a press release said. “We believe that after 100 years of modernism, abstraction, and conceptualism, it is time to return to reality.”

Artist Ben Fenske stands out for his loose and expressionist brushwork, though his classical training is evident, according to the gallery. His painting “Floral Sheets” hints at the influence of Lucian Freud, but with one major difference: Fenske is presenting beauty, a woman reclined in a state of relaxation, surrounding by fabrics filled with color and playful prints.

“Lucian Freud has presented to us ugliness; a distorted body painted thickly with pale oranges and sickly-green undertones,” the release said. “She is wide awake, her face bright red. Freud has also placed her in a plain and sterile environment; a white blanket, or perhaps a rug, a single beige pillow flushed left and unused.”

Stephen Bauman claims that “people are not familiar of drawing as a fine-art form,” so he began exploring painting techniques through drawing. The same way painters use impasto or a palette knife, Bauman uses drawing materials like charcoal and graphite to an expressive end — modulating the heaviness of markings, createing depth through layers, and accentuating highlights via an eraser. The medium’s capabilities are infinite.

“On one level, his work makes a big impression across the room, and on another level, up close, reveals abstract markings, which convey an intense observation of the details found in nature,” the release said, adding, “These drawings are clear depictions of beauty, yet unlike a typical ‘cover girl picture, there is emotional content within her. What that emotion is, is again up to the viewer’s interpretation. The strong, glaring eye contact the subject forces onto the viewer is mesmerizing and thought-provoking.”

Director of the advanced painting program at The Florence Academy of Art, Ramiro is known for his romantic and academic approach to depicting the human body — creating an anatomically correct figure often with underlying symbolism.

“‘Allegory of Chopin (Nocturne)’ is as simple and pure as it sounds,” the release said. “Ramiro has used the subject of a rapturous beautiful young women to convey the emotions he feels when listening to the Chopin nocturnes, which are classically inspired but very experimental and unresolved. Again, he finds a way to paint his soul’s reaction to beauty.”

One of the most prolific painters to come out of the New York Academy of Art in the last decade is Alyssa Monks, the gallery said, whose work began to garner attention with a series of large-scale paintings of herself in the shower.

Gallery owner Laura Grenning described the work as “Cindy Sherman meets classical painting.”

“With ‘Tonic,’ Alyssa Monks has created a thing of beauty, while pushing the boundaries on what most classical realists are doing,” the release said. “The viewer is intrigued by the artistic effect of wet skin and hair immersed in water. Monks says, ‘My intention is to transfer the intimacy and vulnerability of my human experience into a painted surface. I like mine to be as intimate as possible, each brush stroke like a fossil, recording every gesture and decision.’”

Participating artists also include Marc Dalessio, Kelly Carmody, Anthony Ackrill, Maryann Lucas, John Morfis, Carl Bretzke and Nelson H. White.

Grenning Gallery is located at 26 Main Street in Sag Harbor. For more information, call (631) 725-8469 or visit grenninggallery.com.

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