Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes

Ran August 5-28 at Gross McCleaf, curated by Evan Fugazzi

by Jenna Buckingham



In defining the heart of this exhibition, curator Evan Fugazzi was inspired by “H.S.K.T.” by Sylvan Esso. It quotes the old children’s sing-a-long and contains multiple repetitions of each line, presenting a lighthearted facade of an individual’s relationship with their body and their contemporary possessions that bring them comfort and stability: “I’ve got a phone that beeps it makes me know I’m not alone / wherever I end up I sleep like a stone,” the female vocalist repeats in a sultry monotone to a fast, steady beat. The lyrics and the sound imply an anxious and desperate technologically-validated existence, which resonates with the sense of disconnect between the physical body and the psyche in the paintings throughout the exhibition.


Arranged classically along the walls of Gross McCleaf Gallery, the paintings in Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes create private interactions between neighbors while collectively being part of a larger conversation. All of the artists in this exhibition are colleagues, and all but one graduated from programs at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The show is entirely made up of figurative paintings, but the reality of the selection of work is something altogether different. Here, the figure is approached from a psychological, emotional, and material perspective. In studying the figure through live observation during art school, students learn to observe a body objectively and represent it in a visually accurate way through careful measurement. A student learns to draw or paint the figure in the same way that she learns to draw or paint a still life. Although this exhibition features bodies, the subject of this body of work is actually personhood. Because these artists are part of one community, Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes seems to articulate a specific moment in figure painting: a moment of communal existence where artists are aware that everything they create has a relationship with other artists and with the world. These works can be seen as parts of a larger whole and the artists may be trying to fit themselves in to their specific place within it.


Gross McCleaf Gallery typically provides a consistent venue for the state of established styles of painting in Philadelphia. With this month’s exhibit, Fugazzi, an emerging artist himself, is able to bring his own unique perspective on painting in Philadelphia in this current moment. Rather than finding a healthy medium in painting with established aesthetic and values, Fugazzi chooses to request fresh work from new artists, some of which he did not even see before the exhibit was installed.


The first work selected for the exhibit, The Necklet, by Alyssa DeVille offers several incarnations of heads, shoulders, knees, and toes, located strategically across the surface in a structurally pleasing system. It depicts a fantastical situation between a humanoid female figure seated atop a lone rock in the moonlight, intertwined with a lion-like creature and a many-headed sandpiper. The work’s surrealism, symbolism, and fantasy create an unrecognizable pastiche, causing the viewer to gaze inward at the same time as they are observing the work in front of them. Instead of figurative observation, this painting – alongside the others in this exhibition — takes its origin from the subconscious: a disembodied self within the earthly body, isolated and disconnected within its world.


Next to The Necklet, Jesse Friedman’s work, Some Fucked Up Noodley Arms creates another sort of design of body parts across the field of a painting. The figure in this work is a long, winding arm with hands at either end, emerging in thick, juicy paint layers from a neutral background. These arms look more sensual and familiar in material and gesture than the subtly rendered arms and legs of The Necklet, though the color palette is a similar monochromatic grayscale. Both works place the sense of the body parts within the realm of memory and emotion rather than observation.


Anchoring the exhibition in the medium of painting focuses it on subtle relationships rather than assertive statements about the state of the figure in contemporary art practice. The works are overwhelmingly personal and specific, and some of them are so mundane and intimate that the viewer experiences the artist too closely for comfort. Mariel Herring’s Mommy Guilt is tender, creating a secret sympathy with the viewer. The painting shows a figure brushing their teeth above a sink in which there is a puddle of toothpaste spit. There is a plant beside the sink, and on the other side of the counter the back half of a dog (tail poised as if to wag) is visible. Herring details the objects and architecture of the bathroom enough to be recognizable to the viewer, and yet not general enough to be universal. The fern, the yellow color of the counter top, and the particular shape of the ceiling light are clearly unique to the architecture of the subject’s own bathroom, recognizably personal.


Grouping the paintings together points to subtle differences in sensibility, the handling of paint, and approach to figuration. Mommy Guilt and Amanda Bush’s A Pine Song for Lovers articulate a face and a background, and use a similar palette. At first glance seem to share similar contemporary-abstract landscape qualities found common in many of the artists shown at Gross McCleaf. However, once paired, these works immediately begin to move away from each other. A Pine Song For Lovers appears abstract with a somewhat pastoral look, with natural objects and colors pervading the canvas. Disembodied faces and other human parts emerge in unnatural colors, and as shapes and variations in texture become evident the work offers a fleshy presence that is not quite articulated in a being. Bush’s textures and objects undulate this way in each of her paintings in this exhibit, with more or less “flesh” invading the works. The extreme differences in concept and execution, and the personal nature of the work, distinguish Herring and Bush from one another, no matter the similarities in their backgrounds or training.


In its focus on the figure, this show also implicitly questions the validity of a complete departure from painting people in contemporary painting practice. Adam Lovitz’s work presents perhaps the most ambiguous relationships in the show. Layers of paint and color appear to compete with each other for importance on the surface, and sometimes faces or creatures emerge. In Sisters Sunning and Smoking on Coal Field, light flesh tones form amorphous blobs that appear to have breasts and seem to sit in profile, one atop the other, with long limbs stretching out from one side of the canvas to the other. The flesh tone appears to disintegrate into a dark void-like, many-layered background. At some point in the creative process, an unprecedented interaction takes place from which the painting seems to get its title, often poetically juxtaposed fragments of speech or inklings of something related. The works mix personal intuition and sense memory with the cosmos and alien life. In Sci Fi Wet Dream strange figures (human or machine) bend and creak in a sulfurous landscape. Both of these works suggest being and inhabitance, even if they are not overtly presenting a portrait or landscape. Both paintings also contain some ironic elements, whether in muddy effect or playful title, but their small size makes them intimate and the handling of the paint is so sensitive that the viewer is caused to look and consider, rather than consume. Lovitz’s work challenges, or at least presents an alternative for, the usefulness of irony in this moment in contemporary art.


In conversation with Lovitz, Aissulu Kadyrzhanova’s much larger paintings also present a fearless act of intuition where layers are created, covered, and rearranged until a being emerges. The figures are often disproportionate and gestural, in ambiguous postures and other-worldly colors. Larger-than-life, they are hardy and smooth, wrought vigorously from the paint and the artist’s subconscious. In looking at the work, sometimes bodies appear even where they are not anticipated – in keeping with the human tendency to look for recognizable forms and faces in their surroundings. The physical process of making these works is extremely evident, and creates a strong feeling of connection in the viewer.


Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes exhibits paintings with sensitivity and awareness, empathy and relational elements. The artists understand bodies as more than the assembly of parts, and the exhibit understands artists as more than discrete individuals. As Fugazzi puts it, the show is “populated:” a gathering of conversing and interacting works, involved with each other. They struggle to know each other as they bring out particular qualities in one another. The artists represented are concerned with a sincere investigation into their practice, aware of the lineage of their medium and their locale, and act out of curiosity rather than rebellion. The exhibit is subtle, with nuanced relationships between the works, making it a solid investigation into the depths of possibility in figurative painting in this moment in Philadelphia.


Jenna Buckingham is a visual artist and independent curator. She graduated from Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Graduate program in 2013.