'Paint Made Flesh' at the Phillips Collection

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 26, 2009

"Paint Made Flesh" is probably not what Duncan Phillips had in mind when he started amassing the paintings that form the core of the Phillips Collection. For one thing, there's a lot more naked skin than I imagine the collector would ever have been comfortable with in this 43-picture survey of figurative painting since the 1950s. A far more Phillipsian show was the recently closed "Morandi: Master of Modern Still Life," which focused, for the most part, on pretty arrangements of bottles and bowls. Even the cards the museum printed up to advertise the current show are a lusty, almost naughty shade of pink (or the hue, halfway between salmon and peach, that Crayola used to call "flesh").

Right there is a problem with the show.

Where are all the non-white bodies? With few exceptions (e.g., Arnaldo Roche-Rabell's "We Have to Eat" and Wangechi Mutu's "Squiggly Wiggly Demon Hair"), this roundup seems to be about a single color in the crayon box. One yearns for something like painter Byron Kim's work of the 1990s, which depicted a subtle rainbow of skin tones, in a series of hundreds of monochrome, almost paint-chip-size "portraits."

But "Flesh" doesn't pretend to be about racial identity. Or even, somewhat surprisingly, about skin.

Rather, it's about what lies beneath the skin. Not just muscle, sinew and bone, as it turns out, but psyche, the consciousness, or soul. While its ostensible subject is what some might call our "meat suits" (the physical bodies our spirits inhabit while here on this earth), it ultimately digs much deeper. For the subtle but unmistakable message of "Paint" is this: The flesh is weak.

That message is there in Eric Fischl's 1996 "Frailty Is a Moment of Self-Reflection," in which a naked old man totters down a ghastly green hallway. A memento mori of sorts, the picture was painted the year after the artist's father died and suggests the artist staring down his own mortality. It's also there in Julian Schnabel's 1984 "Corine Near Armenia," which shows a young woman whose body is quite literally broken, having been painted -- in the artist's signature style -- against a field of cracked pottery. And it's there in Ivan Albright's "Self-Portrait in Georgia," from 1967-68. Known for his blistered, hyper-detailed treatment of skin, Albright holds up a mirror to his own face here, showing himself to be, even in life, in an advanced state of decay.

What's in short supply here is the more traditional depiction of the body as a piece of work to be unequivocally admired. In its place: the body torn apart and reconfigured, questioned.

Sometimes that disfigurement is metaphorical. See Pablo Picasso's "The Artist and His Model" (1964), a somewhat misogynistic reduction of a woman to her constituent body parts. See also Francis Bacon's "Three Studies for the Portrait of Henrietta Moraes" (1963), which takes a kind of X-ray view into the soul of a woman whose obituary described her both as "foul-mouthed, amoral, a thief, a violent drunkard and a drug addict" and "witty, wonderfully warm and lovable." It's closer to a picture of a personality than of a face. Even Cecily Brown's "Figures in a Landscape 2" (2002) doesn't seem to know what to do with the body. Like much of Brown's work, the colors in that nearly abstract painting exude a kind of vibrant, blood-rich sensuality, but if there are bodies in there, they've been blown apart by an artistic hand grenade.

Sometimes, the disfigurement is more literal. The English painter Jenny Saville is known for her fascination with female plastic surgery patients and their efforts to remake their bodies. Here, the artist's 1999 "Hyphen" features a giant close-up of the artist and her sister. While it doesn't show cosmetic surgery, look closely at its surface -- at its painted skin, if you will. On inspection, the paint itself appears to be spattered with flecks of blood and other tissue. To have been peeled and scraped away in sections, revealing the raw canvas -- a metaphor for insecurity? -- underneath.

As Saville's countrywoman Brown has noted, oil paint is ideal, with its supple wetness, for rendering "bodily fluids and flesh." But whether sickly green, gray with age or in the pink of health, "Paint Made Flesh" demonstrates another quality of the medium. It can be equally suggestive of something far less solid.

Paint Made Flesh Through Sept. 13 at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW (Metro: Dupont Circle) Contact: 202-387-2151. http://www.phillipscollection.org. Hours: Open Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Thursdays until 8:30 p.m.), Sundays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission: $12; $10 for students and seniors, free for age 18 and younger. Program: On July 16 at 6 p.m., painter Eric Fischl discusses "The Death of Painting?" $15.

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