The Whitechapel Gallery was one of several museums and galleries which announced its closure for an indefinite time on Tuesday night so sadly, there is no opportunity for visitors to see the excellent series of exhibitions through the different gallery spaces until the current crisis has resolved itself. It seems a great shame, albeit understandable, that these great institutions will not be open when schools are closed. What will all these children do with themselves?
I was fortunate to visit the Whitechapel on Tuesday afternoon, and I can see why the Gallery closed – at the time, there were only a handful of visitors to the exhibitions (including myself) and the café only had one person in it. The economics alone would suggest remaining open was not viable at the moment.
Over the years, the Whitechapel has championed painting in art, a medium which comes in and out of fashion; it is possibly out at the moment when there a strong focus on the unusual, on digital, on video and on the interactive. In some ways the exhibition ‘Radical Figures’ started in the gallery space outside the library with an archive display on the controversial 1981 exhibition ‘A New Spirit in Painting’ at the Royal Academy, which was followed by a series of solo exhibitions at the Whitechapel Gallery by artists such as Georg Baselitz, Frank Auerbach, Mimmo Paladino, Bruce McLean and Julian Schnabel, works from whom are included in the archive display.
With ‘Radical Figures’, the Whitechapel is perhaps trying to re-stimulate the discussion about painting in the modern artworld, it having been pronounced dead in the 1980′s with its selection of ten artists that show that painting is not dead, it has found new meaning as these artists weave stories about many difficult themes in the modern world, such as persecution, power, culture, gender, sexuality and religion.
The exhibition starts with the powerful works of German artist Gerhard Richter embracing current political and social events. Turning to the other artists, British artist Cecily Brown bridges realism and abstract, Russian artist Sanya Kantarovsky paints imaginary characters often in staged embarrassing situations, American artist Christina Quarles explores issues of female, black and gay identity with contorted bodies often created with the help of computer software, British Artist Michael Armitage features subjects from East African folklore, American artist Dana Schutz creates absurd, mad and grotesque figures engaged in dubious activities, British artist Ryan Mosely is inspired by Renaissance art but brings it crashing into the 21st century, French artist Nicole Eisenman’s huge and immensely-detailed paintings contain a whole series of narratives about contemporary social issues that could keep you busy all day, Iranian artist Tala Madani uses sad, balding middle-aged men as cartoon characters as she explores issues of male authority, and American artist Tschabalala Self shows black figures, generally female, often created using sewn fabrics in her paintings.
All of which shows that painting is not dead, it has been reinventing itself for the 21st century…..