Figures, Fables, and Fiction: The Human Body on Display at COCA

    By Christina Chastain

    The variety of approaches to figurative art is enormous and almost as diverse as the history of art itself. In painting, figuration ranges from photorealism at one end of the spectrum to nearly abstract at the other.

    With the most recent exhibit, “Figures, Fables, and Fiction” at COCA, the viewer can see the full spectrum of figurative art on display in the Millstone Gallery, now until Nov. 4.

    “It’s all about, how when you see figurative art, there’s always a story there,” said Nancy Newman Rice, guest curator. “And the story can be very obvious, or it could be very, very subtle. Or it can be something that is left up to the viewer.”

    One artist, Victor Wang, purposefully makes his story vague in order to leave the viewers the autonomy to interpret the work on their own.

    “I’m interested in humans – the human expression, the body language, the human condition,” said Wang. “I look at people and try to figure out how people are thinking. And I try to make my story more ambiguous, like a narrative mystery. I invite the viewer to bring their interpretation to it.”

    Although Wang likes to keep his story ambiguous, his story is a powerful one.

    “I always use sunflowers in my work,” said Wang. “The sunflower has special meaning to my life. When I was young, my family had a sunflower field in our backyard, so my brother and I would always play in the sunflower field. And we would wear big sunflower hats as helmets, and we would fight each other like soldiers.”

    Wang goes on to say later, during the Cultural Revolution, the sunflower became a political symbol, because sunflowers in nature always follow the sun, facing east in the morning and facing west during sunset. The sunflower was used to symbolize people, people following the sun, and the sun symbolized Leader Mao [Zedong].

    “So now, I use sunflowers to as a symbol in paintings, every painting, kind of like my signature.”

    Other artists showing at the Millstone Gallery are a bit more granular in their work, such as Nicole Cooper, who creates a body of work called “Body in Bloom.” She uses energetic brushwork and vivid colors to explore the human body as this living, growing force.

    “I consider life on a lot of different scales,” said Cooper. “It started where I was looking inside the body. I started looking at the systems and how they kind of all work together in this microcosm to sustain the life of an individual. And even beyond that, looking at how, we as humans are connected to this vast network of humans. So, it’s this scaling of life through time.”

    Whether looking at a body of work that is more photorealistic, one that is obvious to the viewer, or a body that happens to be less intrusive in its meaning, all the works share one common element: the location.

    “The current exhibition we have is special for us because it’s right adjacent to our dancing studio,” said Yvonne Osei, curator in residence. “To see that performance in relation to what happening in the gallery, the figure drawings, the figure paintings, is quite incredible.”

    “Figures, Fables, and Fiction” is an exhibit unlike many others in St. Louis and must be seen to be appreciated fully.

    “St. Louis doesn’t see enough figurative art. I just wanted people to see the incredibly good figurative painters here in St. Louis,” said Newman Rice. “And this is just a handful.”

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