6 Figurative Artworks Defining Contemporary Culture

6 Figurative Artworks Defining Contemporary Culture

T he demand for contemporary figurative art, particularly painting, has been gathering tremendous momentum, a trend exemplified in sales such as Louise Bonnet’s The Ice Skater, 2016, which realised more than 20 times its estimate when sold for HK$5.7 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong earlier this year. 

Recent institutional group exhibitions such as A Place for Me: Figurative Painting Now at ICA Boston, and solo shows such as Lubaina Himid at Tate Modern further reflect a desire to see ourselves reflected in the art of our time. 

Today, we see the world mediated through the likes of social media platforms such as Instagram, dominated by the human figure, interiors, and landscapes. Meanwhile, issues that have come to define 21st century discourse, such as race, gender and identity, are intrinsically linked to how we portray our bodies and our communities. It is perhaps therefore no surprise that many of these themes form a thread through some of the most sought-after art of the last decade. 

Here we pick out six works featuring in this autumn’s Hong Kong Contemporary Evening Auction by in-demand artists who have redefined figurative painting and sculpture: from the painterly dreamscapes of Hernan Bas and Dana Schutz, to the darkly comic sculpture of Maurizio Cattelan.

Pakistan-born Salman Toor is one of today’s most exciting figurative painters. His first solo museum show opened at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art in November 2020 and he was listed among TIME magazine’s 2021 list of 100 emerging leaders. Constructed from memory and fantasy, Man with Tote Bag and Laptop, hints at the anxieties which surround changing ideas about race and immigration. The still life in the foreground of this solitary, melancholic scene showcases Toor's deft handling of oil paint.

Salman Toor, Man with Tote Bag and Laptop , Estimate: 2,000,000 – 2,800,000 HKD

In 2019, Toronto-born self-taught painter Matthew Wong took his own life, aged just 35. The New York Times art critic Roberta Smith described him as “one of the most talented painters of his generation”, and his evocative landscapes and interiors have sparked comparisons with Vincent van Gogh and Édouard Vuillard. In this early oil on canvas work, Wong’s interest in interiors and landscapes coalesce; a bold, Fauvist-like application of colour carries the viewer's gaze through the scene and its narrative.

Matthew Wong, The Smoke , Estimate: 7,500,000 – 9,500,000 HKD

Since his inclusion in the 2004 Whitney Biennial, Bas has received widespread acclaim for his paintings which mix history and fantasy. Bas’s magical landscapes draw on a vast range of references, from 19th century poetry to paranormal television. In The Ash Tree (At Once a Voice Arose Among the Bleak Twigs Overhead), fantastical overgrowth threatens to engulf a solitary figure – creating an image at once intoxicating, beautiful, and threatening.

Hernan Bas, The Ash Tree (At Once a Voice Arose Among the Bleak Twigs Overhead) , Estimate: 3,200,000 – 4,800,000 HKD

Working in charcoal, pastel and paper, Nigerian-American artist Toyin Ojih Odutola creates beautifully-rendered works based upon fictional narratives. Distinguished Relation at Ejogu Gardens (Amara Palace) was exhibited as part of the solo show When Legends Die at Jack Shainman Gallery in 2018. This exhibition was based around the concept that all works had come from the private collection of fictional dynastic upper-class Nigerian couple Temitope Omodele and his husband TH Lord Jideofor Emeka. “This whole saga,” Ojih Odutola told W magazine in 2018, “answers the question: ‘What would it look like to have wealth embodied by historically oppressed figures?’”

Toyin Ojih Odutola, Distinguished Relation at Ejogu Gardens (Amara Palace) , Estimate: 4,800,000 – 6,200,000 HKD

American painter Dana Schutz shot to fame in the early 2000s, exhibiting at the 2003 Venice Biennale just a year after her debut show. She is renowned for her colourful, wildly imaginative canvases that fuse figuration with abstraction. Speech depicts some kind of a group gathering, foreshadowing an event yet to take place. At first glance, the palette is bright and inviting; warm shades of violet and orange draw the eye under the warm evening sun. On closer inspection, however, this rural idyll may not be what it seems.

Dana Schutz, Speech , Estimate: 4,000,000 – 5,500,000 HKD

Maurizio Cattelan is now perhaps best known as the artist who duct-taped a banana to his gallery’s booth wall at Art Basel Miami Beach and sold it (titled Comedian, 2019) for US$120,000. Subversive humour is at the heart of his practice, which he uses to explore the paradoxes and absurdities of contemporary culture. In Daddy Daddy, Pinocchio lies face-down in a pool of water. The viewer is left to speculate on what led to this tragedy. Was it an accident or foul play? The work first appeared in a pool at the foot of Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral staircase in New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, bringing a darkly comic playfulness to an esteemed cultural institution.

Maurizio Cattelan, Daddy Daddy , Estimate: 6,500,000 – 9,500,000 HKD

Contemporary Art

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