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Body Art

The Phillips Collection highlights the last 50 years of figurative painting.

12:00 AM, Sep 3, 2009 • By KATHERINE EASTLAND
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There are other British artists represented in the show, including Saville's contemporary Cecily Brown and the older heavyweights Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon. Their works in "Paint Made Flesh" constitute the strongest, most coherent part of the show--partly because altogether they span the whole half-century that's surveyed here--but also because flesh plays a leading role in their art. Their works in "Paint Made Flesh," like "Hyphen," seem to be chosen not to propel us into sensory overload, even when they are made by artists (like Saville) famous for doing just that.

Prominently featured in the show's final section, mostly on contemporary American art, is John Currin, who like Saville has been overpraised as a savior of painting for making oils relevant and stylish again. His works in "Paint Made Flesh" mix the sex appeal of contemporary advertising with German Renaissance painters. One depicts a pin-up hobo wearing invisible underwear; and the other, a fully nude, cantaloupe-bellied Lolita reminiscent of a Lucas Cranach Eve. Again, these are the more PG-rated parts of his ouevre, which contains several girl-on-girl scenes and women measuring each other's impossibly large breasts.

Scala's tendency to choose tamer paintings keeps "Paint Made Flesh" from becoming sensationalist or explicit and thus veering off from the contemplative tone it strikes from the beginning with the idea of the post-World War II body as a victim. Too much is missing from the show for it to be considered a full-fledged retrospective of figurative painting from 1945 onwards. Nonetheless, "Paint Made Flesh" achieves much in under fifty works and asks us to consider whether the body is more sound and substantial in flesh or in paint.

"Paint Made Flesh" is on view at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, until September 13.

Katherine Eastland is an assistant editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.