The Figure in Contemporary Art: Brooklyn Museum.

Fred Wilson, Grey Area (Brown Version), 1993. (Photographs taken by Ben Valentine at the Brooklyn Museum last December.)

Recently, while browsing an art history book, I began thinking about how much the portrayal of the human figure has evolved since the Paleolithic era (think Venus of Willendorf), through the Renaissance (Michelangelo’s David), to today — when contemporary artists seem to portray humans conceptually and aesthetically in radically different manners. This has inspired me to begin collecting contemporary representations of the human form. I thought I’d begin the series at the Brooklyn Museum, which features a wide range of artists and aesthetics (all walking distance from my apartment). Hopefully this photo series will begin to give us an idea of the many facets of identity today. It could help us see how far we have come, or simply show how psychotic we all happen to be…

Kehinde Wiley, Passing/Posing, (Female Prophet Deborah), 2003. Works by Fred Wilson (at top) and Kehinde Wiley (above) grapple with issues of repression by reconsidering the imagery of African and African Americans throughout history. Wilson re-contextualized and painted a common depiction of Nefertiti, to create an entirely contemporary work from art history. Nearby Wilson’s work were Wiley’s extremely well-executed paintings of young African-Americans in classical poses.  These paintings posses the rare ability to be simultaneously insightful and comical.

Mickalene Thomas, A Little Taste Outside Love, 2007. By using a classical pose and gaze with a non-traditional subject and décor, Thomas is subverting figures seen in paintings like Manet’s Olympia.

Nina Chanel Abney, Forbidden Fruit, 2009. The Brooklyn Museum’s website says Abney’s work is referencing Alice in Wonderland, Henri Matisse’s Dance, Sea Monkeys, and I would add the Bible. But this zoomorphic scene seems like a hipster Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to me.

Fred Tomaselli’s Portrait of Sean, 1995. (Image from Christie’s website). Part of a recent solo exhibition devoted to the artist, this painting is an unusual portrait: instead of painting a physical likeness of his subject, Tomaselli renders his friend astrologically and pharmacologically. This reduction of identity to only birth date and narcotic consumption seems impersonal, like an astrophysicist trying to paint a friend. But it opens up another way of thinking about how we concretely interact with the cosmos. (It could also represent the precursor to the portrait of Miles that Nao made in Season 1 of Work of Art.)



  1. Art Aficionado

    yo really insightful analysis - particularly loved the overarching theme of identity and the pieces were well chosen to play out a broad range of approached to depicting that elusive concept - that Cour d’Alene writer Sherman Alexie has called “Face.”

  2. ArtGirl2

    The evolution of the depiction of the human form is an interesting subject. It seems contemporary artists are able to branch out more than their predecessors and view the human body in much more creative ways.

  3. jamey

    This is the beginning of a very interesting project. It really points out how contemporary art is still part of a discipline (you always need at least two contexts to recontextualize something.) I’m happy to see that classical art is still a valid one.
    Also, Fred Tomaselli’s portrain of Sean strikes a chord with me. It references identity in terms of the stars (as the zodiac does) but also a feeling of wonder. The kind that you get from looking at stars, but also while using some of those substances. I think it is very successful in its simplicity. I’m not ussually one to appreciate extremely reductive artistic endeavors.

  4. Jessica Adams

    Awesome article, Ben! I’m glad that you focused on this sector of art, which is often overlooked by the contemporary art world. Your writing was very insightful and articulately written.