Much has been written about the state of figurative painting today—that much of it has come to a standstill, forming a style of its own, “zombie figuration,” as ARTnews termed it in 2020. Generally speaking, it’s hard to argue with that sentiment, especially when it comes to the kind of figurative painting that continues to dominate most art fairs, where it proves especially salable. And so, ahead of the opening of the Zona Maco art fair, I was pleasantly surprised to see two exceptional shows of figurative sculpture on Tuesday night in Mexico City.
The first, by Clotilde Jiménez, is located at Mariane Ibrahim’s new outpost in the city. For “La Memoria del Agua,” Jiménez presents new paintings and ceramics that all revolve around our connection to water, both as a life source and as a potentially destructive force.
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“Water occupies a separate space from the monotonous and wearisome life on land. When you swim and you submerge yourself under a body of water, time changes, your heart rate adjusts, light and sound waves travel differently, a kind of escape to submerge oneself, creating a momentary distance from whatever is occurring on land,” Jiménez says in an artist statement.
In these works, groupings of people (whose bodies are formed through collage and paint) stand against various blue backgrounds. There’s a certain serenity to these refreshing paintings.
But it’s Jiménez’s ceramics that are the stars here. In one room is an installation of various plates, showing pared-down white doves in motion. Like the figures in his paintings, these animals are also set against a flat blue background. Their arrangement at various heights gives the effect of the birds in flight. Elsewhere are over-two-feet-tall vessels that extend the water metaphor. Incised in their surfaces are people and birds; these images are complemented by wave-like stamps and a white and pastel glaze, lending the vases a certain fragility that speaks to the nature of life itself.
Fragility is also one of the themes that Nairy Baghramian touches on in her solo show at Kurimanzutto, one of Mexico City’s premier galleries. Titled “Modèle Vivant,” after the French term for the centuries-old practice of having a life model pose in an artist’s studio, the show contains works that abstract the figure into various poses.
Art history is rife with images of reclining figures, and Baghramian takes up the odalisque as well here. But whereas many male painters represented their odalisques as nude women, Baghramian’s are much more abstract: they’re merely slabs of sleek yet textured cast aluminum. Some lean on a set of freestanding light-pink partitions, which themselves appear to precariously lean on one central wall. In places, Baghramian has added globs of yellowish silicon that stand in for arms.
But the exhibition’s tour de force is Se levant (mauve), from 2022, a nearly-six-foot sculpture mimicking a standing model. This abstracted figure stands within an armature, a nod to how artists would create structures for models to lean on as they posed standing for hours at a time. There’s a sense of reclamation here—Baghramian appears to subvert the male gaze that has long dominated art history.
The majority of these works were included in Baghramian’s exhibition last year at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, on the occasion of having won the institution’s Nasher Prize. For her presentation at Kurimanzutto, however, Baghramian has added figurative sculptures by Geles Cabrera, a major 20th-century Mexican artist now in her 90s, and one piece by Elizabeth Catlett, who first visited Mexico in the ’40s and ultimately had to renounce her American citizenship after being denied re-entry to her home country and being labeled an “undesirable alien.”
Catlett’s piece, Triangular Woman (1979), acts as a bridge between the other two artists, as her figures’ limbs meld into each other. These works seamlessly meld in Baghramian’s exhibition, providing an interesting way into conversations around abstraction, figuration, and the dialogues they can provide each other.