Future Perfect

Historically, figurative painting has always been the pursuit of introspection. 

Four emerging figurative artists to watch

Historically, figurative painting has always been the pursuit of introspection. Museums are filled with the commanding, inquisitive gazes of majestic religious iconography, regal royal portraits and the honest and candid scenes of working class life. Figurative paintings have allowed us to better understand ourselves and our society. They tell stories of humanity, religious and historical fables and show us our perceived icons.

But do these paintings still have the same power of exchange if the subjects depicted never actually resemble us? 

For centuries, figurative art has been seen through the inquiring eyes and brushstrokes of mainly white, middle class, male artists. Whilst white, middle class female artists were in fact still making paintings throughout the nineteenth century, it is inescapable that the skewing of the lens has leant heavily only to reflect the history of mainly one gender and one ethnicity.

Here we look at four up-and-coming black artists expanding representation and identity within figurative art. Importantly, they are adding to the richness and diversity of the history of art, with fresh, canny and astute figure painting.

1. Joy Labinjo

Joy Labinjo’s paintings are contemporary scenes depicting everyday, family and domestic life. She fuses together photographs from family albums and images of friends, together with stark interiors.

“I describe the way my figures look with the clean lines and the obvious change in skin tone as instinctive.” Her brushstrokes aren’t visible because she’s, “more interested in using paint to create interesting images rather than using the materiality of paint as the interesting thing.” Labinjo’s first solo exhibition was at Gateshead’s BALTIC and her work was featured in the 2019 Focus section at Frieze London art fair.

2. ARCMANORO NILES

Arcmanoro Niles’s paintings are electric. His figures are backlit by vibrant hues, like luminous oranges, reds, and blues. In Another Stranger (2019), he douses a woman’s eyes in fluorescent pink. She looks at us inquisitively, her head cocked to the side, as she lies down on what looks like a brightly patterned red carpet. She implicates us—like many of the other characters in his paintings do, too.

Niles’s exhilarating figures—which are often based on friends, family members, or himself, and draw on historical portraiture—have not gone unnoticed. His 2019 show “My Heart is Like Paper: Let the Old Ways Die,” at Rachel Uffner Gallery received press from publications including the New York Times and Cultured magazine. Many of the works in that show deal with themes of loss and disappointment; some paintings feature people in somber interactions. And Niles isn’t slowing down. This month, he opens a solo show at Los Angeles’s UTA Artist's space.

3. RON HICKS

"IDENTITY IS ABOUT SEEING AND JUDGING. THIS SERIES IS CLOSELY RELATED TO MY PERSONAL PAST, THINGS I’VE BURIED. WHEN I STARTED THIS BODY OF WORK AND LOOKED AT HOW THINGS AFFECTED ME, MY MIND JUMPED TO HOW OTHER GROUPS ARE AFFECTED BY THE RULES OF SOCIETIES, LIKE NOT BEING ABLE TO VOTE OR BE IN CONTROL OF YOUR OWN BODY. AS SOON AS I LET MY EXPERIENCES OPEN THE DOOR, OTHER IDEAS BLOSSOMED. WITH THESE PAINTING, IT’S LIKE THERE’S A PART OF ME TRYING TO GET OUT AND DEAL WITH MY OWN PAST. I’M NOT TRYING TO CREATE ANSWERS, I’M OPENING A DIALOGUE."