In 2017, Rob Colvin wrote in these pages about the phenomenon of “Like Art” – an emerging genre of very engaging painting that promotes “easy acceptance by serving the culture of the touch screen”. Colvin highlights the popularity of the Irish artist Genie Figgis, whose rise to technicolor stardom began on Instagram and Twitter. While the ability to “like” certainly plays a role in Figgis’ popularity, the artist’s melted Neo-Rococo style has become a recognizable mark of macabre kitsch in its own right. His reflections on bourgeois decadence seem particularly astute in a time of widespread inequality.
Figgis paints macabre portraits of aristocratic families, portraying high society as a spectacle of humor and horror. In her latest exhibit, at Almine Rech’s outpost on the Upper East Side, she continues with themes of ramshackle splendor. Immortal reflection presents his large-scale drip paintings, as well as more detailed figurative works that approach realism. The two styles of painting on display here appear to be in contrast, but they retain the somber playfulness his audiences have come to expect. The gallery marketed this exhibit as “subversive” and “resistant to establishment structures,” so I felt compelled to unearth the particular critique Figgis offers viewers this time around.
At first glance, the artist’s irreverence seems charming and innocuous. She satirizes the pomp and circumstance of the British and Irish upper classes in vivid shades of pink and yellow, alluding to a superficial softness in the gaudy dress and decor of her subjects. The women wear colorful wigs and sport clownish smiles made from thick globes of white, red and black acrylic. The lizard-like features of the ladies in “Fashion Shoot” (2021), for example, might put Ralph steadman to shame. Figgis achieves this by applying the amount of blush and eye shadow from a funeral to each face.
Contradictions come to weigh on these works, with a few sleight of hand. In “Reflection” (2021), Figgis paints two mirror images of noble women in white robes, turned upside down to resemble a Rorschach test. Their faces vary in color, from bold shades of purple and yellow to orange and red, and their speckled profiles stand out against lighter pastels in the background. While the two images seem to match across the horizontal axis, subtle differences are revealed. A window appears out of place, a body wobbles in a different direction. The overall composition has a cerebral effect, materializing through the vertical canvas like a hazy dream and its abstract memory.
Throughout the exhibition, haunted subjects scrutinizing Figgis’s paintings make direct eye contact with the viewer. Some of them appear as colorful beasts or appearances, such as in “Halloween group” (2020) and “Mauve room” (2021). The spectral figures in these works allude to impermanence, replacing once powerful people with the monsters and ghosts we might call today. “Victorian people” (2020) also brings together a crowd of elegantly dressed men and women, leaving the background blank so their bodies seem to float in place.
Figgis adheres to the tenets of third wave feminism, with royal women overpowering bland-clad patriarchs and diversity built into existing power structures. This is clear in “Family outdoor” (2021), which places young girls in colorful dresses directly in front of ordinary men in black jackets. Another painting shows a muscular Roman woman flexing naked, flanked by two imperial guards clad in gold armor. Figgis reverses the masculine gaze and places all the power in the model’s hands – or the biceps, in this case.
Other works are more ambiguous about race. In “Queens” (2021), Figgis features five women with varying shades of white, brown and black skin dressed in wigs and dresses. On its own, the painting is an astonishing recalibration of who becomes royalty. In juxtaposition with the other works, however, she questions what Figgis implies with her color choices. Should we assume that the faces painted in blue, red and orange – as they appear in “Reflection” and “Family Outdoors” – are also racially coded? If so, what does this say about the artist’s perception of whiteness? It is not yet clear whether Figgis is deliberately masking these details or if he is simply including people of color in their specific skin tones.
When I think of subversion in 18th century France, a protest event comes to mind. But Figgis doesn’t seem interested in revolution – his paintings are most effective when they depict the corrosive decay of wealthy historical figures. His mockery of aristocratic degeneration will make viewers laugh, as they did for me. Nonetheless, Figgis seems comfortable enough to operate within existing political hierarchies, as evidenced by his unusually realistic portraits of Queen Elizabeth II and Catherine the Great. For this reason, his work remains aesthetically appealing but thematically disorganized. That they eat cake?
Genieve Figgis: Immortal Reflection continues at the Almine Rech Gallery (39 East 78th Street, 2nd Floor, Upper East Side, Manhattan) until December 11.
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