The human figure has had an on-again, off-again relationship with 20th century art, alternately passe and fashionable by the dictates of art world thinking. At the moment, the figure is again fair game for contemporary artists, granted an artist has something new or personal to say.
At least that's the tacit curatorial premise of "Human Presence," the aptly named exhibition now at Sylmar's Century Gallery. Here, five distinctly different artists present their own ideas about the human form, living and dead. If falling short of revelation or thematic integration, the exhibition succeeds in provoking thought and showcasing some substantial work.
The art that most immediately jumps off the walls--by intention--is by Rip Cronk, whose background as a muralist and street artist is plain to see in these large paintings. Walls, in fact, are a part of the fabric of this work, in that some of the paintings appear to be painted on tiles or bricks.
He deliberately mixes the sacred and the profane. "Jackrabbit Woman" is a maze of markings in which a rabbit with a nude woman's features evokes the salaciousness of anthropomorphic soft porn found in the underground comic "Felix the Cat." "Neojesus" is an irreverent take on the theme of the crucifixion, with an ambisexual figure on the cross. "Myth Fragmenting from Acceleration" depicts a Venus on roller blades, aswim in vibrating lines, indicating a body in motion.
Cronk slyly crosses the line between street, comix and fine art concepts, with an active, quick-sketch style of drawing--as if done on the run--and crossover imagery.
Sara Wylie Walsh's intriguing "portraits" of skulls presents the idea of art as momento mori, a suggestion of life beyond death. Her depiction of human presence is a posthumous one, but her rough-hewn style of painting seems to infuse these skulls with emotional life, as if they're howling or grinning.
In her statement, Walsh points out the sting of irony embedded in this series of paintings: In this state, her flesh-free subjects are finally freed of the defining distinctions of culture, race and gender. Of course, such liberation comes a bit too late.
Ostensibly, the most nonrepresentational artist in the show, Janice Lloyd Govaerts, shows dense paintings that, on first impression, seem cut from the abstract Expressionist cloth. But hints of nude figures are at the center of each composition, however cleverly disguised.
That figurative presence almost instinctively seizes our eye and builds up energy and empathy that transcend the abstract element. Such is the power of a discernible "human presence" in art. The act of "reading" figures in paintings becomes a part of the art's message.
A different kind of abstracting process takes place in the watercolor and mixed media pieces by Leslie Crofford. Figures and faces are viewed in either surreal or metaphorical settings, often as part of composite, multiple image pieces.
In the triptych called "The Needle That Pricks," a woman with eyes closed is seen next to an image of a prickly cactus and a hand, an allegory of real and imagined pain. "Man Sees the Universe but Overlooks the Obvious," with a squinting man juxtaposed with the simple beauty of a single flower, could be viewed as a plea for awareness of the everyday.
If the other artists interpret and otherwise alter the figure in their art, photographer Angelique Antoniou is, comparatively, the literalist of the bunch. She confronts humanity directly, with the kind of photojournalistic eye that extends curiosity and compassion to her human subjects. Generally, the people who pique her interest are those on the extremes of life and society: minorities, children awash in innocence, and the elderly, still with defiant, dignified comportment.
Antoniou has an eye for composition and telling visual details, as with the arrangement of diagonal lines in "The Empty Chair," with an older man sitting outside an ice cream joint, opposite an empty chair. In "Waiting 3," an older woman sits, slumped deep in a comfy chair in a boutique, oblivious to the Martian-like mannequin standing next to her.
Antoniou's work seems a bit out of place in this exhibition, which is largely concerned with the way the figurative impulse leads artists into personalized invention, but it conveys a pleasing quality in its own little corner of the show. Her pictures are, by turns, funny and sad, but always about human presence.
"Human Presence," through April 3 at Century Gallery, 13000 Sayre St. in Sylmar. Gallery hours: Monday-Friday, 1-5 p.m.; Saturday, noon-4 p.m. (818) 362-3220.