Feelings and Meanings in Contemporary Naive Painting

By Kelly Richman-Abdou*

Emotion and meaning drive expression. Though predominantly characterized by aesthetics, art is inherently meant to be perceived and interpreted. Consciously or not, artists’ feelings inevitably manifest in their work, prompting viewers to decipher deeper meanings and symbolic significance. Such artistic expression has a prominent presence in contemporary naïve art — a movement devoted to playful patterns, bold colors, and flat picture planes. In order to explore the significance of this genre and the distinctiveness of its style, let’s meet a few of its key contemporary players.

Though widely recognized as a neo-expressionist, Jean Michele Basquiat is a prominent figure in the naïve art scene. Basquiat challenged the formal elements and qualities of traditional painting with a primitively expressive and highly chromatic style. Initially a New York City street artist, he used his work to critique American society and bring attention to racial discrimination, culminating in an oeuvre renowned for both its visual innovation and its rebellious messages. Since his death in 1988, Basquiat has been an unavoidable reference for contemporary naïve painters — like Todd Bienvenu, a young New York-based artist whose intrepid style and emotional intensity hail Basquiat’s work.

An equally irreverent — but less colorful — approach to naïve art is present in the intimate work of Jesús Martínez Flores. A Spanish artist, Flores has honed a unique and individual style comprised of muted washes and quick lines. Often presented in a cuaderno format, his pieces reveal skillful draftsmanship and a knack for spontaneity.

Like Flores, New Orleans-based artist Gigi Mills presents a unique take on naïve art. Inspired by the paintings of Milton Avery, Mills’ subdued pallet and lack of detail evoke a contemplative simplicity.

Another notable figure of contemporary naïve art is Texas-based painter Gabe Langholtz whose work toes the line between representational and abstract, coupling a color-field sensibility with pictorial storytelling. Favoring playfulness over proportions and color over depth, Langholtz’ work is a unique amalgamation of modern, minimalist, folk, and pop art.

Like Bienvenu, Langholtz often relies on a quirky and lowbrow sense of humor as a tool for social commentary, as visible in his painting Lone Star Picnic, a still-life work comprised of a picnic basket, two Lone Star beer cans, an overturned Solo cup, and an open Lifestyles condom wrapper splayed across a red checkered blanket.

Though he favors still-life subject matters, Langholtz convincingly incorporates humor, parody, and pastiche — a unique grouping not easily accomplished in still life painting — to comprise a body of work that is as eclectic as its inspirations.

While the artists explored above all dabble in naivety, each has a unique approach to the genre, culminating in a vast array of interpretations and projected meanings.

Whether through a social critique, an intimate glimpse, or, as in the case of Langholtz, an exploration of “traditional subject matter in nontraditional ways,” each artist exhibits a deeply human and emotionally entangled approach to art making, epitomizing the essence of naïve art.


* Based in Paris, Kelly Richman-Abdou is an art writer originally from San Francisco. With a focus on research and curatorial projects, her experience spans the realms of museums, galleries, contemporary art magazines, fashion copywriting, and art business.