Today, with a few notable exceptions, the craft and scope of figuration have been overrun by other kinds of art: conceptual work, high-tech videos, photo-based images. The humanist concerns typically addressed through realism have also been pushed aside, if not rejected outright. In a postmodern world that celebrates speed and intellectualized insight, there is little room for something so slow—and so emotionally compelling—as the human form. True, figuration is hardly dead as a style: it has been practiced for centuries, to the point where we can ask whether it still holds its traditional gravitas and ability to communicate collective values. Ever since the poet Ezra Pound’s avant-garde command to “make it new,” Western art has struggled to realize the ever-increasing burden of originality. In consequence, Modernist work turned away from realism: painting and sculpture became profoundly involved with the investigation of their own paradigms, so that both content and form were abstracted. Modernist abstraction tended to crowd out traditional concerns with the figure, although the exceptions are important: an artist like Henry Moore stayed more or less true to representation. His poetic forms unfortunately look dated today and might even be called sentimental in their adherence to a tradition distanced from contemporary concerns.
Yet the desire to portray reality realistically—as opposed to abstractly or conceptually—can be found in some of our strongest contemporary sculptors. Antony Gormley comes quickly to mind. For more than two decades, he has been concerned with spirituality and the human form. Interested in Buddhism, he seeks and finds the language necessary to relate an ongoing search for an openness born of self-negation. The self hardly persists as a theme in his art, not because it is being rejected but because it is quite simply irrelevant to his goal. In this way, he proposes a different kind of humanism, in which a negative path determines the boundaries of his creativity. The consequences are immensely exciting, for they imply that new art can continue to hold representation as a means and measure of the imaginative impulse. As Modernism becomes more and more a movement of the past, subject to scholarly investigation, it may be that recognizable form has a place in the ongoing forum of contemporary art. Despite being shunted to the margins, figuration is capable of offering the pleasures of recognition—of ourselves and of the history we have created. When I praise the achievements of representation, I am by no means demanding a return to the past. Art must continue to develop according to its own impulses. That does not mean, however, that we must reject figurative language as inherently dated. In contemporary art, figuration exists on a level playing field, where any and all styles prove acceptable if they attain high quality.
Steinunn Thorarinsdottir rejects any notion of the figure as a purely historicist vehicle; she is not creating according to a scholarly imagination. Instead, her figures denote the lyric isolation that all of us bear—in both art and life. Their presence is symbolic, even allegorical in the sense that they radiate a melancholy originating in a clear-eyed view of the human condition. What better way is there than figurative realism to express the innate awkwardness of people, their preference for folly and self-deception? At the same time, however, by asserting the essential dignity of the human form, Thorarinsdottir conveys a deep concern for human nature, no matter how troubled its energies may be in contemporary life. Words cannot fully explain the gap between our imagination and the reality it negotiates, but that is exactly where figuration steps in: its imagery may embody, literally and figuratively, some of the pathos of which we are inevitably a part.
Aluminum and basalt, 2-part memorial installed in Vik, Iceland, and Hull, England, 620 x 50 x 50 and 580 x 50 x 50 cm.