Though contemporary art tends relentlessly towards the abstract, conceptual and immaterial, a continually swelling and contracting niche tries to redefine the ostensibly traditional practice of rendering human figures on paper and canvas. These perfectionists of formal craft are a relative anomaly on any given gallery-hop through Chelsea. But if the overnight art stardom of Aurel Schmidt following her presentation of a highly detailed Arcimboldo-esque drawing of an eight-feet-tall minotaur made of trash at this year's Whitney Biennial is any indicator, meticulous figurative realism is gaining favor again. This renewed interest comes part and parcel with the ongoing reclamation of former dirty word "ornament." Group exhibitions at two Williamsburg galleries just about cover the re-emergent aesthetic's full range of possibilities.
Some of the best of what often gets labeled "hipster art"—hybrid humanoids and precious characters rendered exactingly with ink, pencil and bold colors—reveal one extreme of the figurative trend in Temple of Bloom at Cinders Gallery (through August 8). The show revolves around quasi-religious rituals and mystical symbol systems, but the preponderance of human figures and flowers lends an overall impression more akin to a shrine. That's certainly true of the two most prominent pieces by the gallery's co-founders: Sto's giant black and gold paper maché sculpture of a flower-headed figure seated under a fiery portico and surrounded by plants and bas-relief portraits; and Kelie Bowman's similarly life-sized though more sharply rendered painting of a male figure made up of pastel-toned blossoms. Almost facing each other across the storefront gallery's narrow space, the precision and delicacy of Bowman's flower man matches the intentional sloppiness and simulated weight of Sto's installation.
As if by way of bridging these two poles, Jessie Rose Vala's beautiful and slightly morbid pencil drawings meld the human and floral with hyperreal precision, crafting hearts our of finely drawn petals and braids of hair, or a plant sprouting violently from a figure's face. Spectacular collages by Hilary Pecis and a diorama by Sherri Hay also push the floral figuration in interesting, opposite directions, while John Orth's mask-like plaid portraits are quintessential hipster art in the worst way.
A few blocks south, Marked: A Show of Figure at Like the Spice (through August 8) features works of an entirely different class, both in the sense that the pieces are more polished and that they're comparatively expensive paintings destined for the art market. Each of the six artists in the show pursues some offshoot of figurative realism. The subjects in Jenny Morgan's Chuck Close-ian portraits are practically photographic, except that after painting she sands down her work, revealing hidden layers of paint and creating ghostly abrasions that accentuate the figures' often vulnerable and pained expressions. Also strikingly intimate, but in entirely different ways, are Reuben Negrón's cinematic sex scenes, whose textures and palette are so full and lush you'd never guess they were watercolors.
The show's standouts, though, amidst all the exquisite hyperrealism (and Alison Blickle's sub-standard Pop parodies) are the most stylized. In "Swoon at the Water Pump" (2010, above) by Robin Williams (no, not that Robin Williams), a fairy tale figure reclines on a grassy hill in a blue dress with hot pink undergarments whose myriad folds seem almost like illegible graffiti, evoking Andrew Wyeth by way of Murakami protegé, Mr. Two pieces by Chino Amobi set portrait sitters amidst abstract fields of swirling and surreal primary colors, an aesthetic dislocation that reminds of Gustav Klimt's best-known and most kaleidoscopic portraits.
Klimt, in fact, seems an especially apt forbear to the renewed interest in beautifully imagined flights of fancy rooted in precise studio drawing and painting skills—Bowman and Hay's floral pieces at Cinders seem to draw quite directly on his aesthetic as well. That's not to say that so-called hipster art is qualitatively equivalent to art nouveau—another art trend that was at first highly localized and featured more imitators than innovators—or that careful figuration will outsell glossy conceptualism at Phillips de Pury & Co.'s next contemporary auction. Simply that for every Josephine Meckseper or Sterling Ruby making brooding anti-monuments and subverting capitalist iconography, there are scores of artists working in this figurative mode that seems at once much simpler and much more complex. Such largely excellent shows of (neo-)neo-figuratives as these underline how lopsided the contemporary art scene often lets itself become, and to what extent it's able to correct itself almost organically, like a hand-drawn flower growing out of polished chrome.