Painting Isn't Dead And There's Proof In A Political Exhibition At Whitechapel Gallery

Radical Figures, Whitechapel Gallery ★★★☆☆

Painting Isn't Dead And There's Proof In A Political Exhibition At Whitechapel Gallery Radical Figures, Whitechapel Gallery 3
Michael Armitage's painting is based on the story of a woman who was stripped and assaulted for wearing a miniskirt. © Michael Armitage. Photo © White Cube

Painting is dead, right? Art today is all grainy abstract videos on 35mm film that are so conceptual you have to scratch your chin for half an hour before you pretend to understand it?

'Fuck that'* say the ten painters in Radical Figures at Whitechapel Gallery, an exhibition that's dedicated to painting the human figure.

Daniel Richter's huge painting shows a huddled mass of refugees afloat on an inky black sea, they are ablaze in colour as if seen through night vision goggles. It captures the sad plight of refugees trying to cross the water on tiny crafts and the inhuman way they are often portrayed in the media.

Daniel Richter's image of refugees is the most powerful work in the show. © Daniel Richter / DACS, London 2019 Courtesy of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac

Nearby Richter shows the silhouette of a Taliban fighter lighting the cigarette of a cowboy outside a cave. I'd never drawn parallels between the two but it's clear they are both results of a destructive masculine ideal, even if their portrayal in Western society is demoniac and heroic respectively. Richter's works are some of the strongest in this politically charged exhibition that shows us figurative painting has lost none of its potency.

Michael Armitage gives us a reclining nude on the floor in the style of Velazquez's Rokeby Venus. Yet the feet of several men at the top of a painting reveal the dark truth of the image, that it's based on the horrific story of a woman who was stripped and assaulted for wearing a miniskirt. He references Old Master painters once again as executions squads can be seen above two men kissing — referencing Uganda's laws that in 2014 made homosexuality punishable by death.

Nicole Eisenman bustling paintings aren't disturbing enough. Photo: David Parry /PA Wire. Courtesy Whitechapel Gallery

It's not all political heft as Tala Madani's caricature-esque paintings of middle aged bald men sitting on the floor or around a fire are rather sweet. Middle aged men may still rule the world, but they're reduced to comical quirky figures in Madani's hands.

Not all of the painters were to my palette palate as Nicole Eisenman's Bosch-like Arctic scene isn't nearly as disturbing or intriguing as the Garden of Earthly Delights, Cecily Brown's abstract works are beautiful but lack a coherent narrative and Ryan Mosley's distorted figures just aren't grotesque enough.

This diverse array of painters, who all take inspiration from the centuries of painters that came before them, prove that painting is still alive and kicking — some just kick harder than others.

Radical Figures: Painting in the New Millennium is on at Whitechapel Gallery until 10 May.

*Not an actual quote from any of the painters in this exhibition.

Last Updated 09 February 2020