We're plastic men, the lot of us, the conquering computer has turned us into numbers. We all have heard these warnings. We speed about in cold machines, divorced from the green earth. We've lost the human touch. The creatures who inhabit "SPECTRUM: The Generic Figure" at the Corcoran Gallery of Art reflect our metal age.
Robots grin their mirthless grins. Men who have no flesh, whose limbs are but black sticks, run and strut and stagger. Jonathan Borofsky's briefcase-bearing businessman, translucent as a ghost, has no face at all.
This telling little survey, with its aura of the soulless, the stamped-out, the dehumanized, ought to be a nightmare. It is instead a treat.
Its figures, though anonymous, are irrepressibly alive, and frequently endearing. Those by Britain's Tony Cragg are made of bits of plastic trash -- used-up lighters, watchbands, pens and combs and bottle caps -- yet neck like adolescents. Joel Shapiro's blockhead, balanced on one blocky leg, is as amusing as a vaudeville drunk and graceful as a dancer. The unlucky little figure painted by Keith Haring is being torn apart -- "Oh Noooo!" -- but his fate is no more chilling than that of Mr. Bill.
Perhaps the nicest pieces in this happy, upbeat show are those forged by New York's Tom Otterness. One is Adam, one is Eve, they are examining a birdy in their fire-fangled Eden. Fear not the wind-up robots that will spring from their bronze loins. Innocent and clunky, and the opposite of scary, they will make you laugh aloud.
Washington's museums long have been in need of a curatorial art scout bold enough to cut a path through pluralism's thickets. At last we may have found one. He is the Corcoran's Ned Rifkin, the curator responsible for these "SPECTRUM" exhibitions. His first, "SPECTRUM: Natural Settings," dealt with images of landscape; the one he is now planning, "SPECTRUM: In Other Words," will deal with art and language. Most contemporary surveys merely add to our confusion -- Rifkin's shows make sense.
This one, while it speaks to defects and achievementssw,-2 sk,2 ld,10 of contemporary art, is rooted in the past. The figurines produced 4,000 years ago in the Cyclades off Greece were generic figures, too. Those in this exhibit also are descended from the flat folks seen on traffic signs and public bathroom doors, from the stick figures of Hangman (and Paul Klee's and Picasso's), from Giacometti's skinny men, and from memories of toys. The dozen artists represented are among the hundreds now returning figuration to an arena cleansed by wholly abstract art.
Nongeneric figuration -- portraiture in other words -- is difficult, let's face it. The portraitists of olden days labored for their likenesses: they drew from dusty plaster casts, and spent long years exploring the subtleties of shading, anatomy, perspective. These artists do not have those skills. But they possess others. They are used to innovation, and to nontraditional materials (plexiglass, aluminum, fiberglass and lead); they understand the power of African and folk art. Minimalism's moved them too, as have primitive cartoons. Though few of them can draw as the traditionalists once did, none of them is willing to exclude people from his art.
Unlike those figurative painters, recently in vogue, who smear their paint and scrawl, those Rifkin has selected are distrustful of the messy. Expressionist they're not.
Gregg Morris makes his figures with triangles and T-squares, but his "Man With a Heavy Step" has a light and jaunty step, and his hard-edged "Corrupt Priest" is hungry as a wolf. The geometric warriors in a 16-foot-wide painting here made by Roger Boyce have blocky, hewn-out heads and torsos, and blocky arms and legs, but their motives aren't mechanical. They use their knees and choke-holds (Boyce was once a wrestler), they pound each other's bellies, they stomp each other's heads. Some of them are gray, some of them are green. His battle scene recalls those painted in the Renaissance. His greenies are outnumbered 23 to 30, but they hold their own.
James Hill has looked at folk art. The black doll with hinged limbs that he has included in his "Lightin' Hopkins and Uhuru" (1984) has a slightly scary spirit; he's a puppet who can curse. John Buck of Montana has looked at folk art, too, and also at his dreams. The life-size figure at the center of his "Father and Son," a 1985 woodcut, has a face dense as a fingerprint. Visions hover round him -- a spotted horse is calmed, a nude Salome dances with the head of John the Baptist, a crescent moon is balanced on a mountain peak. A.R. Penck has studied the dark and mural-sized abstractions of the postwar New York School, but his art is not abstract, at least not entirely. His "Future of Immigrants" (1983) is crowded with stick figures. Some, those armed with arrows, seem as old as those discovered on the cave walls at Lascaux.
Britain's Antony Gormley must once have paid attention to those strangely small stone warriors who sleep, with sword on chest, in the funerary carvings of so many English churches. His sleeping figure here is made of lead, not marble, but his posture and his calm suggest some old crusade.
The most impressive pieces here are those that speak of ages prior to our own. The Haring, although bold, is just a big cartoon. And Ries Niemi's cut-out figures are not much more weighty than those that we see daily performing on TV. The one he calls "The Winner" holds his hands aloft in triumph; "Time Out" makes the "T" sign; "Salute," of course, salutes.
sw,-3 sk,3 Though its quality is mixed, Rifkin's survey is pleasingly coherent. And oddly reassuring. These mute, generic figures, though to some degree dehumanized, remain filled with life. The modern alienation they appear to acknowledge is everywhere subverted by twinklings and dancings, memories and myths, and by the liveliness that energizes heartfelt works of art. Rifkin's show is just the right size, and handsomely installed. It closes April 20.