Visual arts: Rearguard action

After photography, modernism, abstraction, is there anything left for figurative painting to do? An exhibition at Flowers East reveals how the form is fighting back against natural obsolescence. By Tom Lubbock
Figurative painting is the name of a problem. Can it still be done, can it still be believed, can it still be good, at this late stage of the game? I'm using the word "figurative" to mean what it usually seems to mean - painting which concentrates on the human figure. As such, it could cover most paintings in the Western tradition. But really it has a more restricted meaning. The term is newish, and so is the classification. Nobody was called a figurative artist before the middle of this century. Nobody before then had felt the need to corral together all the sundry types of human subject painting - portrait, nude, everyday-life scene, narrative, fantasy - into a single type.

Corrals are usually defensive operations, and so is this one. It recognises that painting the human figure, in whatever form, has become a beleaguered activity - beleaguered by the other kinds of painting, and the other kinds of human image-making, that have become available. Figurative painting means painting the human figure after photography and the cinema and collage, after radical distortion and abstraction and modernism. It means painting the human figure after the enterprise has become doubtful. And although, each time the Turner Prize comes, people ask where the figurative painters are, the problem was there long before the sort of art that now wins Turner Prizes was in the ascendant.

But the figurative painters keep at it, and while they don't get such vigorous support from the public art institutions, many of them do well enough sales-wise. Every so often there's a revival, like the wave of New Figuration that came out of Glasgow 10 years ago. And every so often someone stages a full-dress defence of the form. The Flowers East Gallery currently has an exhibition called "British Figurative Art Part 1: Painting - The Human Figure". It's a big show, with work by 50 artists (a single picture each), and includes nearly every living British figurative painter of note. It's evidently designed as a demonstration of the continuing richness and vitality of the form.

If I were a living British figurative painter, though, I don't know that I'd be so keen to be included. (I'd probably be slightly pissed off to find myself excluded, too.) But I'd have qualms at least at being enlisted in a cause, made an exhibit in a case that places an invisible caption by each picture, reading: "Not dead yet, eh? Oh, surely not?"

And I'd have further qualms because, in this particular show, the cause is used opportunistically. With its multi-tiered title, it has the air of an authoritative survey. But, for one thing, the Flowers gallery uses the occasion to display the work of all its own figurative artists and many of them wouldn't get into a more disinterested selection. And then, the choice of pictures by other artists - artists who mostly would have to be included in any survey - seems to have been made on the basis of availability rather than quality. It was important some artist should be represented: this is what could be got hold of. British figurative painting is not being shown here, collectively or individually, at full strength.

But I think there is enough to show the state of the art, and its problems. This is an art on the defensive, and that has nothing to do with the arguments for its being passe, or that it really ought to be. It bears the marks of defensiveness on its face.

A common line of attack, for instance, is certainly wrong. You quite often hear the phrase: as if "x" had never happened. Someone says: So- and-so carries on as if Cubism, or abstraction, or Marcel Duchamp, or whatever, had never happened. Quite apart from the historical presumption of this sort of talk, it is wrong in its description. These figurative painters don't carry on regardless, as if these things hadn't happened. They are aware of them as possibilities that exist but must be held at bay. And it's the pressure of this resistance that shapes the forms of figurative painting now.

Faced with the many other kinds of painting and other kinds of human image-making that are possible, figurative artists have to establish a holding position, a way of holding their ground. They have to find ways of painting the figure on which the other things can't impinge - and so take themselves out of the competition.

One way, for instance, is to adopt a course of strenuous concentration. The artist undertakes a closed, intensive method. The work is confined to the intense painter-to-sitter encounter in the studio, to rigorous observation and response in this restricted situation. This is the path taken by several older painters, like Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and Euan Uglow. The artist has his self-appointed task, and pursues it without, so to speak, ever looking up. The task justifies itself. To the question "Why paint the figure now, when you could paint otherwise or do the human image otherwise?" the answer is that the general question does not apply: there is this particular encounter to be dwelt on. Nothing else impinges.

Another way is the course of quirky imagination. So many of these paintings depict personal mythologies, psycho-dramas, dreamlands and fantasies. I could mention the work of Craigie Aitchison, Jeffrey Camp, Henry Kondracki, Anthony Green, Kenn Kiff, Carel Weight and Paula Rego. It really is an extensive category. And this way of figurative painting holds its ground by saying: my art is absolutely specific to me, I am painting my private visions, and therefore the decision to paint is also a private matter; my world and my way are outside the world of wider artistic considerations.

And there's a further way too, which involves concentrating on sheer image-making, becoming an illustrator. This is a course taken by several of those Glasgow New Figurationists - Ken Currie, Steven Campbell, Stephen Conroy, Peter Howson (whose Io adorns our cover). The artist does still use paint, but the paint is only used to render an image vividly, an image that would do equally well in reproduction. And this course defends itself by, in effect, withdrawing from the art of painting, and in that way putting itself out of the competition when it comes to other painting possibilities.

None of these courses need be a conscious resolve on the part of the artist. But creativity isn't an unconditional phenomenon. In any situation, certain channels are open, and these are some that are open to figurative painting at the moment - and, one way or another, they're all ways of sticking it out and being stuck.

Other resorts probably are more conscious, like painting in an "inverted commas" manner, a way that's common enough now, but mostly excluded from this show, although Jenny Saville has something of it - painting used as a reference to the tradition of painting (in this case nude painting). And you can think that's the way ahead, a way of stepping neatly out of the whole old game, though it looks to me like just a cannier holding position. How on earth the ground really could be broken I have naturally no idea. But meanwhile, some of the most cheering work is that which really doesn't care less, that carries on precisely as if nothing had happened at all: Patrick Proctor's brisk little Ghurka, for example.

`British Figurative Art Part 1: Painting - the Human Figure', Flowers East, London E8 (0181-958 3333). To 21 Sept