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Alan Feltus, New Paintings

Perhaps because figurative art is out of favor with many of the aesthetic theoreticians of our own day, people have begun to forget that the figurative in painting, besides being a reflection of what we perceive in the world that surrounds us, is also a way of ordering our mechanisms of perception. Certain exceptions are of course made, in the very midst of this neglect. One is the work of the great 17th century Frenchman, Nicholas Poussin. The response to the great Poussin retrospective, seen in Paris and London during 1994-1995, showed how keen an appetite there is now for art of this type.

Though Alan Feltus draws some of his titles from classical mythology, his work, in contrast to Poussin's, is essentially domestic in theme. His characteristic subject matter is not the gods of the Greek and Roman pantheon, but figures, almost inevitably female, in the studio, or in quasi-domestic settings. Like the personages in Poussin's work, however, these figures serve as a vehicle for what would now be dubbed "abstract" concerns -- a play of spatial relationships, a subtle balancing and rhyming of forms. To such concerns, however, are added others. These additions are what the choice of the figurative mode allows. Feltus's work often -- indeed invariably when two or more figures are involved -- has an implied narrative, which is more engaging because its terms are ambiguous. One painting in the present exhibition is called Moment Between, which calls our attention to something that would in any case be obvious: the two women shown are caught in a transitional phase, perhaps connected with the letters and papers scattered on the floor. Some action has just been completed, most probably by the odalisque-like figure to the left. Another activity is about to be initiated by her companion on the right, shown in a pose that indicates that she is about to rise to her feet.

The literal-minded spectator may perhaps be disconcerted by the fact that the figures, dispite their role as actors in a narative, are also somehow impersonal. The women always conform to the same physical type, posess the same calm Italian beauty of feature, and, especially when nude or nearly so, offer an idealized version of the human body. The fact is, nevertheless, that Feltus's paintings belong to a very well established tradition, not only in the history of European art (as my comparison to Poussin suggests) but in the history of modernism.

The comparison most often suggested, when Feltus's work is discussed by critics, is one with Balthus. A general resemblance to Balthus's paintings, especially the earlier ones, certainly exists, and one knows that this is an artist whom Feltus studies and admires. Yet there are also very obvious points of difference. Feltus does not share Balthus's perversity; his eroticism is of a different and less obsessive kind, his relationship with the classical tradition much more straightforward. In trying to find an exact stylistic location for Feltus's paintings I would point first to an artist who lies just outside the boundaries of Modernism -- to the figurative work (as opposed to the landscapes) of Camille Carot. It is significant that this aspect of Carot's work attracted little attention until the rise of the Modern Movement. It was Carot (almost as much as Ingres) who provided the inspiration for Picasso's brief but dazzling Neo-classical phase of the early 1920s. He was also important to the post Fauve Derain; that is, to the aspect of Derain's work so much appreciated in the 1920s and 1930s which is now, though only slowly, being rediscovered.

If Corot, Derain, and Picasso seem to be exemplars, so too do some of the Italian painters who flourished during the first half of the present century. Two who come to mind are Felice Casorati and Mario Sironi. These in turn refer Feltus back to the great artists of the Renaissance: Giotto, Piero della Francesca and Uccello, and back beyond them, yet again, to Greek and Roman sculpture. It comes as no surprise to learn that Feltus's own paintings are essentially constructs, dependent not on the presence of actual models in the studio, but on the artist's familiarity with the whole tradition of Western art. Poussin, essentially, worked in the same way. We know of no studies from life by him, but of many compositional studies, some clearly based on the engravings of earlier masters.

Looking at Feltus's work we enter into a dialogue both with "classical" aspects of Modernism and with the whole history of Western art. What he does is not only beautiful in itself, but serves as a reminder, more necessary now than at any previous moment, of the essential underlying continuity between 20th century art, however radical this may strive to be, and what artists did before the notion of an avant-garde was formulated.

 

 

(Edward Lucie-Smith is one of the best known writers today on international contemporary art. Among his more than sixty art books are the following: Movements in Modern Art Since 1945,  Eroticism in Western Art,  20th Century Latin American Arts,  Race, Sex, and Gender in Contemporary Art,  ArToday, and  Art Tomorrow. He is also an internationally recognized photographer, poet, lecturer, curator, and art critic. You might like to visit www.arttomorrow.info)

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