Dean Kissick

The rise of bad figurative painting

The art market is awash with paintings that look like they've been designed by algorithm. Dean Kissick on how zombie figuration became a global phenomenon

The first-ever portrait of a broomstick experiencing saudade: Emily Mae Smith’s ‘Alien Shores’, 2018, which sold for £277,200 at Phillips last autumn. Credit: Image courtesy of Phillips

Bad figurative painting is today’s hottest trend. Last autumn Artnet listed the top ten ‘ultra-contemporary’ artists (meaning those born after 1974) with the highest total auction sales so far that year. Counting down: Lucas Arruda, Jia Aili, Ayako Rokkaku, Dana Schutz, Amoako Boafo, Nicolas Party, Matthew Wong, Jonas Wood, Eddie Martinez, Adrian Ghenie. None are household names. All are figurative painters, though some play with bad abstraction as well. None are particularly exciting. Many, many others are climbing after them.

Since the list was published, Dana Schutz’s ‘Elevator’ (2017) sold for nearly £4.8 million at Christie’s Hong Kong, a new record price for the artist. The work is a poor impression of cubism. A century after Duchamp’s ‘Nude Descending the Staircase, No. 2’ (1912), Schutz paints people in clothes fighting in an elevator. She’s also painted ‘Trump Descending an Escalator’ (2017) in the style of early-20th century German expressionism, which went for £688,000 at Phillips last year.

It’s been clear for a while that art’s running out of ideas. Back in 2014, the critic Walter Robinson coined the term ‘zombie formalism’ to describe a trend for market-friendly abstract painting that took the dead formalist aesthetics of mid-century abstract expressionists and brought them halfway back to life. It was soulless, going through the motions, and had nothing new to say. ‘In our postmodernist age,’ wrote Robinson, ‘“real” originality can be found only in the past, so we have today only its echo.’ Young, ambitious painters looked for original ways of making copies, such as Jacob Kassay and his electroplating process, or Lucien Smith and his fire extinguisher filled with paint. For a brief moment their prices went up like an inferno, before falling away more slowly like ashes. It’s taken only a few years for a zombie figuration movement to rise up from the graveyard of art history and take their place.

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