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Eight figurative painters explore friends, family and self in ‘A Place for Me’ at ICA

Susan Saccoccia

A recipient of NEA Arts Journalism fellowships in dance, theater and music, Susan reviews visual and performing arts in the U.S. and overseas.

Eight figurative painters explore friends, family and self in ‘A Place for Me’ at ICA
David Antonio Cruz, “canyoustaywithmetonight_causeyouarehere,youarehere,andweareherewithyou,” 2021. Oil and latex on wood panels, Courtesy the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago. © David Antonio Cruz

“A Place for Me: Figurative Painting Now,” on view through September 5 at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, presents 40 works by eight contemporary artists, four men and four women. Most are individuals of color or self-described as queer. 

Organized by Ruth Erickson, ICA curator, with Anni Pullagura, curatorial assistant, the exhibition shows portraiture as a potent and revealing medium of self-affirmation. Rendering themselves and loved ones as subjects, these artists create works that make their daily lives worthy subjects of fine art.

The painting that opens the exhibition has a parrot-rich palette and, like many on view, an expressive title. “canyoustaywithmetonightcauseyouarehere,youarehere,andweareherewithyou”  (2021), is a portrait of nine friends by David Antonio Cruz, 48, a Boston based painter and a professor of painting and drawing at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. His painting spreads over two panels, as if to ward off self containment and extend its congenial tangle of humanity to include the viewer. Each friend is rendered with vivid individuality, and each gazes directly at the viewer.

Louis Fratino, “My Meal,” 2019 Oil on canvas, 43 × 47 inches (109.2 × 119.4 cm). Collection of Deborah and James Kern. Image courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. © Louis Fratino

The youngest artist in the group, Brooklyn-based Louis Fratino, 29, describes his interest in rendering “something as simple as doing the dishes, or being in love with someone, or feeling close to your family.” His “My Meal” (2019) is a self-portrait through objects of daily life strewn around his table. Its exuberant mate, “Large Flowers” (2021) renders a bouquet bursting with the pleasures of floral colors, shapes, and textures. The artist shows his nose pressed into a flower.

Doron Langberg, 37, from Israel, and Ambera Wellmann, 40, from Nova Scotia, are both based in New York, and here they fill a gallery with their semi-abstract, occasionally turbulent, red-streaked paintings. Aubrey Levinthal, 36, of Philadelphia, presents several delicate, introspective self portraits.

Detroit-based Gisela McDaniel, 37, describes herself as a “diasporic, Indigenous” trauma survivor. Her wall-size assemblage portrays a friend in a red dress posing with utter self possession on a divan, surrounded by flowers and plants that seem to bloom for her. McDaniel adorns the painting with objects formerly owned by her friend, a deejay and musician, including glittering beads and a broken cello. A recorded conversation plays from a bouquet of shells and glass flowers.

Arcmanoro Niles, “I Look Just Like My Mama With My Father’s Eyes (Can Time Heal The Guilty),” 2021. Oil, acrylic, and glitter on canvas, Promised gift of Fotene
Demoulas and Tom Coté. Image courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London. © Arcmanoro Niles. PHOTO: ELISABETH BERNSTEIN

A cooler mood prevails in the lyrical, humorous works of RISD graduate Celeste Rapone, 37, who teaches at the School of the Arts Institute of Chicago. With an illustrative style that favors sculpted curves and lines, she renders each painting with a dominant hue, such as lavender or rose, and populates these highly structured images with elongated female figures accented with autobiographical and pop culture cues.

New York-based Arcmanoro Niles, 33, is an old soul. He strives to depict “Little moments that give us a glimpse into what life feels like.” His ample layers of glitter do not detract from the gravitas of his portraits but instead endow his subjects with translucence. “I Look Just Like My Mama With My Father’s Eyes (Can Time Heal The Guilty)” (2021) is a life-size portrait of himself in his kitchen. Rendered in the same red tones is a tender 2020 closeup of a mature woman, perhaps his mother, with the title, “The Hardest Part Was Leaving Love Behind.”