Form, shape, line, color, value, light and shadow, volume, composition, proportion, anatomy . . . and the human condition. (That last one is a doozy!) All of these are elements of visual art. Depending on their chosen genre, some artists are only required to deal with a few of those elements, while dismissing the others and the challenges that come with them. Still life artists and landscape painters, for example, need not concern themselves with human anatomy. Light, color, and composition yes. Sculptors deal intensively with volume, form, and human anatomy, but not color and values. Abstract expressionists are pros at composition and color, but have no issues with light and shadow. Installation artists? Well, I don’t really know what to say about them except that even I can crumple up pieces of aluminum foil and stack them five feet high in a gallery corner Yes, I actually saw that once.
Only figurative artists – specifically, representational figurative painters – have to tackle ALL of the elements listed above, as each one is a crucial aspect of their work. No exceptions. These artists are expected to meet the most difficult demands, and they know it. And I know from firsthand experience that they do not take lightly their chosen subject, the most complex and compelling of all - humanity.
I work and move among figurative artists, for they are the ones who employ and depend on life models. From everything I’ve seen, I can state unequivocally that they toil and agonize over their work. In the face of countless frustrations, they bravely solider on, driven to express the beauty, flaws, strengths, weaknesses, pain and joy, fears and failures, triumphs and successes, isolation, community, yearnings and impulses of their fellow human beings. They seek to explore what connects us to each other, the common bonds we share, and portray their life subjects with authenticity, empathy, and respect. It’s a tall order, but a worthy one.
Representational figurative artists are many things. Storytellers, philosophers, psychologists, poets, dreamers and cynics, idealists and intellectuals, diarists and narrators. They confront the human condition, in all its existential angst and insecurity. They grapple with both the physical and the metaphysical, the tangible and the intangible, the outside and the inside.
He has been called the “foremost figurative artist of his generation”. He is Steven Assael, and he has risen, deservedly so, to the top of the heap in New York’s figurative art scene. He currently has a show at Forum Gallery (see Events and News page), and I’ll be checking it out this week. In this wonderfully thoughtful and intimate video, Steven discusses his work, his inspiration, and communicates the mission of figurative art far better than me. Beyond his obviously gifted technical skills, Assael’s work achieves astonishing depth and sensitivity – a palpable emotional undercurrent – all of which perfectly illustrate the figurative art aspiration. Just look into the eyes of his model subjects. The vulnerability, restlessness, and mortality of their existence will prompt stirring in your soul.
One of the great voices of contemporary figurative art, this is Steven Assael, offering insights and personal reflections. I enjoyed this video a lot, and I think you will too.
Message to Steven, in the remote chance that he sees this post: I, too, grew up in New York, and we didn’t have video games either! Ah, we city kids didn’t need them. My mother also took me to the Met and the Modern. So I’d say your childhood in our city’s great museums, and drawing at every opportunity with pencil in hand, was time much better spent. Clearly it worked out well for you! And not too bad for me either