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© Lisa Brice (2021). Courtesy the artist; Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and Salon 94, New York. Photo: Mark Blower
© Lisa Brice (2021). Courtesy the artist; Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and Salon 94, New York. Photo: Mark Blower

The return of figurative painting

A new wave of artists is mining the history of painting to push boundaries and expand ideas in a way that could only happen in 2021

Written by
Eddy Frankel
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Painting has always happened. Other art trends might come and go – big conceptual installations, video, performance art, ceramics – but figurative painting always ticks along in the background, bobbing in and out of fashion across the years. And right now, it’s big. The Hayward Gallery’s major autumn exhibition, ‘Mixing it Up: Painting Today’, proves it: this sprawling exhibition of contemporary painters working in the UK isn't all big names and art megastars, instead, most of the wall space is given over to young, relatively-undiscovered artists from across the country. It’s a celebration of painting’s enduring staying power, and it’s brilliant.

Painting has been around for so long that anyone working in the medium today has to acknowledge its past 

Those younger artists are the most exciting bit of the show, and they are just the tip of the figurative painting iceberg. Gareth Cadwallader, Issy Wood, Somaya Critchlow and Lydia Blakeley are just some of the London artists on display. Then over at GCCA in New Cross there’s a brilliant show of Olivia Sterling’s beautiful, humorous, political canvases, and down in Brixton, you’ll find Dale Lewis’s big paintings of gory everyday life at Block 336.

Olivia Sterling
Olivia Sterling

Those are just the artists with big shows, we haven’t even spoken about artists like Luke Burton, Shadi Al Atallah, Marcus Nelson, etc. etc. etc. The list is seriously long.

All these artists mine the history of painting - it’s impossible not to, painting has been around for so long that anyone working in the medium today has to acknowledge its past - but push its boundaries, expand its ideas and forms to create work that, at its best, could only be made today.

This is the slightly icky side of the art world, but figurative painting is easy to shift

There are lots of reasons for figurative painting being in fashion right now. But probably prime amongst them is economic. This is the slightly icky side of the art world, but figurative painting is easy to shift. Galleries have had a hard time over the past two years, with the pandemic destroying everyone’s business models, so they need to sell some art to survive, and nothing sells quite like figuration.

Dale Lewis
Dale Lewis

That doesn’t mean that figuration has popped up to fill an economic void. Figurative painting has always happened, and always been interesting, it just means that right now, there’s a real thirst for it. And when that thirst is quenched, and people move on to the next art trend, figuration will do what it's always done, and bubble away regardless.

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