William Davie reviews Alice Neel

Alice Neel, Uptown at Victoria Miro Gallery, London

Exhibition: Alice Neel, Uptown

Gallery: Victoria Miro, 16 Wharf Road, London N1 7RW

Dates: 18 May – 29 July 2017

Website (for images): www.victoria-miro.com

Review by William Davie

Alice Neel was once described as a ‘romantic Bohemian-type Communist’ in FBI surveillance files from the 1950’s, but this seems an overbearing and fearmongering label of the time. At Victoria Miro’s Wharf Road gallery, London, Neel’s compulsion to capture the intrinsic humanity possessed by the people that passed through her life is the driving focus of the exhibition’s curator, Hilton Als.

The exhibition brings together works (predominantly portraits) as well as an illustrative cityscape and archival material. The paintings on the ground floor were made at two addresses where Neel lived in Spanish Harlem, where she moved in 1938, and on the first floor, the Upper West Side, where Neel lived from 1962 until her death in 1984. Neel’s move to Spanish Harlem was perhaps seen by herself as a necessity to bring out an uncompromising truth in her work as much as it was guided by financial factors. Nevertheless, Spanish Harlem, offered her the scope of a world little seen beyond its inhabitants.

On the ground floor, the expansive concrete floor and high walls give the work a subtle anguish. Neel’s canvases are lit with spotlights which bring to focus her exuberant gesture and solemn tones. The works are packed with paint, so much so, that at times the viewer almost feels as though they can feel the heat radiating from the body from the subject; a moment that she was able to capture so candidly. This is further aided by the urgency in her mark making, compact and worked over.

In Julie and the Doll (1943), a young girl sits cradling a Little Bo Peep-like doll in the nook of her arm. She stares sternly ever so slightly to one side. Her face is smooth; a creamy blend of brown and yellow. Her auburn hair looks soft and is swept back behind her large protruding ears. Neel’s brush work in these areas is considerate and laborious; with near seamless blending. Yet, the background is quite the opposite. It is a scrawling mesh of purples and blues, streaked with dark brown. Neel alludes to the dense coarseness of curtains and wallpaper but at the same time dismisses the need for any further clarification and concentrates the viewer’s focus back to Julie. Her eyes are wide and tinged; not with a sadness, but perhaps with a growing understanding that she is not what her fair-haired, blue eyed doll with and reddened cheeks represents. Her life will not play out like a fairy-tale but she is by no means written off.

A case in point is the portrait Harold Cruse (c. 1950). Harold would go on to become a key intellectual figure in the civil rights and black nationalist movements, best known for his widely published academic book The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967). Here, seventeen years before, Neel paints him in a crumpled grey suit and striking, dark blue shirt. His head is slightly sunken as he holds his left cheek in his hand, his right arm lying across his lap. Immediately, the viewer’s investigative gaze is haunted by the melancholy that fills his eyes. Like Julie’s, Neel paints his eyes wide and in yellowed whites; the right one edged with a sliver of red. His pupils are wide with wisps of white. His face is densely packed with dark browns and the economic deployment of ochre smudges insinuate a fuller chin and cheeks. His forehead and nose both have dirtied white strokes emphasising the light upon them, yet here, Neel’s hand is less refined and the gestures appear more abstract.

On the second floor, the gallery opens up and natural light floods in over the exposed brick emanating the feel of a painter’s studio. This dramatic change echoes the nuanced evolution in Neel’s works. Now, Neel’s portraits are airy and lighter. With her subjects often painted on top of variations of pale blue. Her brush marks are less dense, the sense of urgency that crept through the downstairs gallery, has given way to a matured and charming effortlessness.

This is most evident in the vivacious Pregnant Maria (1964), and highlights just how deft Neel’s touch had become. The horizontal canvas shows the naked body of a then heavily pregnant Maria who lived in Neel’s building on West 107th Street. She is laying down on a white sheet, her head propped up on one hand while her other is stretched across the curves of her body resting on her thigh. Her skin is a warm brown and her full breasts and dark areolas exude a sexual liberation as well as a celebration of impending motherhood. Neel blends darker browns and flickers of green into the shadows caused by her pose with a magenta circular motion accentuating her pregnant belly. Her hair is slightly ruffled and her eyes are half closed as if she is sensually collecting the moment whilst a coy grin crosses her pursed lips. The background of washed and dark yellows suggests a maternal warmth and loving environment that Neel marries to the composition’s subtle erotic advances.

At the same time, in Ron Kajiwara (1971), Neel is able to delicately exude the inner turmoil that discreetly governs Ron behind his ultra-fashionable façade. He has long, swept back hair and sits on a wooden chair, guarded. Neel’s brushwork expertly captures his intense and piercing expression. Yet the viewer is drawn to his right hand which lays, palm open, on top of his crossed legs as if sternly gesturing a point. His other hand is balled into a fist defensively and digs into his upper thigh. Ron was a designer at Vogue and according to Neel, ‘fraught with concern about his family’s opinion regarding his homosexuality as I was regarding my lower-middle-class Jewish family’s opinions about my decision to become an artist.’

Where Ron felt shame and guilt, Neel counters her own fortunes with defiance and a necessity to give a voice to those who would not necessarily have one. Her drive to empirically capture her surroundings and the people that inhabit them means that her works have the unique trait of being able to highlight ethnic origins and social standing but dismiss them in favour of communal empathy.

William Davie is a writer and curator based in London. He writes art reviews for Aesthetica MagazineAmbit and This Is Tomorrow. Recent exhibitions he has curated include: Traces, The Workhouse Studios, London (2017) and A Cave With A View, Charlton Gallery, London (2016).

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