Between My Head and My Hand, There Is Always the Face of Death, The Oregonian
"Between My Head and My Hand, There Is Always the Face of Death" at PNCA, Portland, OR
Originally published in The Oregonian

It's telling of our times that a show of figurative painting should feel so deliberately contrarian, so culturally out of sync. Yes, figuration has been under attack since abstraction emerged at the end of the 19th century and, for the last 50 years, critics have announced the death of painting about once a decade. 

But the enduring legacy of figurative painting isn't what's out of step here; it's us. In an era of virtual experience, in which life's dramas increasingly play out in the depthless theatre of monitors, so much of existence seems confined to our heads, entirely divorced from the body. 

In that sense, "Between My Head and My Hand, There Is Always the Face of Death," a group show of seven contemporary figurative painters curated by Kristan Kennedy of the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, is like a dream-ending pinch waking us to the fact that, outpaced by technology or not, we are still physical beings. 

Throughout the exhibition at Pacific Northwest College of Art's Feldman Gallery, we encounter the familiar terrain of bodies, from Londoner Kaye Donachie's diaphanous, nearly academic nudes to the fleshy pink foot of a sunbather in German painter Norbert Schwontkowski's "Schirm," 2006. But the presence of the body in these paintings is just as apparent as a residue of the artists' physical labor. 

Looking at the dynamic brushwork in Amy Bessone's paintings of women -- the confidence of her lines so redolent of Matisse -- it is impossible to avoid interpreting the marks as the product of motion and gesture, to read the elegance of each sweeping line as a record of the artist's arm sweeping over the canvas. In "Untitled (Sensuous Study)," 2010, Bessone, who lives and works in Los Angeles, sketches out a reclining nude in dark purple paint, over a ground of soft lavender. Her loose, visceral handling of materials charges the painting, as suggested in its title, with pulsing sensuousness. 

Fittingly, she anoints the woman's mouth with a thick kiss of impasto. Across the gallery, another Bessone painting, "Untitled (Nude With Ochre)," 2009, further asserts the artist's unseen presence as maker. In this work, a figure kneels while hoisting something above his or her head. It's hard to make out, exactly, because it's buried beneath layers of lines. It seems Bessone traced and retraced the basic form until it barely registered as a figure at all. 

This move toward "dis-figuration" underlines the show in several works, pointedly suggesting that, in the shrinking world of globalism, the body's inability to be everywhere-at-once makes it antiquated and limiting, like so much dead weight. Here, painted bodies endure grotesque mutations, fragmentation, even erasure. Seattle painter Grant Barhart's figures are an uneasy mix of funny and frightening. 

The head in "Without Tiers," 2009, sits like an object, disconnected from a body, all mottled flesh and bug eyes, unceremoniously mixed in with the detritus of the artist's studio. In Russian-born artist Elena Pankova's untitled installation, a potted plant hanging on the wall is flanked by salon-style groupings of small paintings. On those canvases, she has painted eyes, noses, mouths and ears as layered shapes on blank, black backgrounds. Initially, I thought Pankova was simply deploying the features of the face as geometric ready-mades, source material for formal experimentation. 

But over time, the portraits accrued palpable depth, like pitch-black reflecting pools mirroring my own long looks. The plant, I presume, was meant to heighten the funereal quality by pointing out that, unlike the faces in the paintings, it's actually alive. 

Two videos by Tala Madani, who divides her time between Brooklyn and Amsterdam, occupy the gallery's adjacent project space; they slyly subvert the grand history of painting by using its materials to produce the comparatively low-brow form of stop-motion animation. "The Dancer," 2009, features a small, crudely rendered man against a prepared background, recognizable as the canvas of a painter. 

As he dances jerkily across the frame, he is gradually erased and redrawn, each iteration of the continuous painting photographed as a cell in the animation. He twists and steps joyously, betraying no awareness of the drastic changes that permit his frantic dance. There's a giddy childishness to its brief and minor conceit, but it packs some grown-up wisdom, too: Whether we notice it or not, we're changing all the time.