10 Unforgettable Paintings From 2017
Written by Walt Morton for PoetsArtists. The artworks were selected by Didi Menendez and Walt Morton.
100 million pictures a day are shared on Instagram. Every glowing screen, digital tablet, smart phone, and printable surface shoves pictures at us, competing for our frazzled attention. We’re drowning in images barely seen. And it wasn’t always like this. In ye olde days, you had to be a king, queen, pope, or wealthy aristocrat to see a nice selfie and you waited patiently for Velazquez, Goya or Rubens to finish the job.
We took a moment to reflect on the paintings we saw in 2017. Out of the hurricane of images that blew by, some stuck. They won’t be washed away by the storm and they’ll earn a place in memory. You might ask yourself the same question: what pictures did you see in 2017 that fully grabbed your attention? What earned a “wow!” or made you look for more than a second? Painter Chuck Close joked that the reason he made such large paintings was that the vast size would force the viewer to spend more time looking at it as they walked past the canvas. Studies at several museums say viewers look at artwork for an average of 15–17 seconds. On Instagram, it’s even less before we give a “like” or scroll on.
Given this bling-mad social behavior, it’s healthy to slow down and look at art carefully. Engaging with a single painting for a full minute can feel as demanding as an hour of cross-legged Zen, but with many works of art, it’s a worthwhile exchange. Here are ten favorites selected from 2017 that you may have missed, and I’ll tell you why each one is worth looking at for up to a full minute.
Robin F. Williams “Sunday Player” bowls you over with color and strong graphic design. But it also forces a jolt as you discover an confrontational in-your-face sexuality from the card player. The combination of superficial happy innocence and sexual subversion makes one think: what’s going on here? What kind of card game is this? And what’s the next move?
Golucho’s “Alma Y Curro” offers a beautifully painted image of a young girl and her fluffy toy. And then he scrubs over most of her face with brown pigment, leaving the eyes to poke through the mask. Most painters struggle to do a pretty portrait, so why destroy the face? Is Golucho telling us that portraiture is bullshit because we can never capture the real person? And even if it was an immaculate portrait, aren’t we all hiding behind crude masks?
The thing about F. Scott Hess “Natural Selection” is the art shows fearlessness. Hess, a sort of psychological surrealist, is not afraid of the technical issues of painting anything on any surface. There’s a long tradition of nude women as forest nymphs (See: Émile Bernard Apres “le bain les nymphes” 1908) but Hess twists that history with our contemporary tattoo culture. Interesting that now, the nudity feels tame. We’re more interested in the tattoos and the proliferation of the image on all surfaces. Tattoos formerly marked people as wild, outsider, and primitive. Now, they have been naturalized by daily over-exposure.
Sarah Stieber’s “June Bloom” is about color and design. This may seem simple, but composing freely in color is one of the things you can do with paint that puts it outside photography or sculpture. Since the post-impressionists, a lot of artists in the 20th century wrestled with color. What do you do when modern pigments allow almost any insane candy-color on the palette? Streiber’s content is contemporary life, but her take on it with insane pop super-flat color and meticulous graphic design elevates it to a fresh airy place.
Miguel Angel Moya’s “The Biologist” is traditional oil painting done with terrific finesse. While on the one hand it sits in a familiar historical tradition of paintings of laborers and workmen, it also exudes a film noir tension and weirdness. Who is this guy and what is he doing? Is he a scientist? An interloper? Our curiosity draws us in, but this is not an inviting painting, it’s a secretive one. People love secrets.
Xevi Sola Serra’s “Four Roses” is surrealist art in a big fun way. Beyond the visual bang carried by a riot of color and textures, the viewer is left to figure out “what the Hell is going on here?” Dreamlike improbable elements like the bouquet of bleeding roses in the woman’s crotch must be reconciled and explained by the viewer’s active intelligence. The joy of surrealism is deciphering what the painting can mean. And so, even superheroes bleed and grey is the color of half-mourning. Now do you see the truth?
Rebecca Leveille’s “You Can Do Anything” is about women in the current political moment. What do mothers and daughters do when confronted by male patriarchal leadership that talks about women like sexual animals? Leveille’s painting is direct in calling for political action. The text spells out the situation that women nakedly endure. What are we going to do about it?
Harmonia Rosales’ “The Creation of God” incites a mild uproar with it’s reboot of Michaelangelo’s “Creation of Adam.” Here, Rosales changed the original composition replacing the white male characters with black women. The painting pushes hot buttons of sexism, racism, and religion. Some might try to diminish the work by casting it as humorous satire, but the way to see it is as a subversion of the power structure. It’s a direct attack on a very old white male patriarchal story about who is in charge of the world. This painting presents two of the scariest ideas in American politics: Women in charge, and Black people with massive power.
Phil Hale’s “Enemy II” is a tour-de-force technical oil painting exploring textures, fabrics, light, shadow, surfaces, and forms. It’s not surrealism but a fractured reality where the viewer struggles to make sense of elements that appear real-ish. The result is an awakened anxiety in the viewer, reflective of the generalized modern condition of a fractured world of crazy bullshit boiling all around us that we barely understand. Life is just like that, sorry.
Alessandro Tomassetti’s “Animal Lover 2” overthrows traditional heroic painted images of masculinity and presents an iconic uber-sensitive, almost Edenic-innocent image of contemporary man. This work reflects the current political moment when issues redefining gender, sexuality, and manliness collide with older, repressive power structures. Easter Lily’s are symbolic of purity, hope, innocence, and peace. Who doesn’t want a slice of that?