Editor’s Letter | People Watching

Storytelling in figurative art

By Kristin Hoerth

Regan by Carrie Ballantyne

Regan by Carrie Ballantyne

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved to watch people. I know this is a common pastime, but I may take it a little further than most. I’m fascinated by observing people’s appearances and behaviors—not to be nosy or intrusive, but because I love to imagine who they are and what they’re like. Body language, expressions, and clothing all provide wonderful clues about people’s lives and personalities. A group of young women in a restaurant? They seem like they might be in town for a convention. A man in the office elevator wearing shorts and sneakers? Let’s see, maybe he’s on vacation but he had to drop something off for a coworker. I’m sure my imagined scenarios are way off the mark most of the time, and that’s fine. What really matters, though, is how important and intriguing people’s stories (real or fictional) can be.

This became even more clear to me after reading this month’s issue, in which we have a number of special features as well as Show Previews that focus on figurative artists. Over and over, the painters stress the importance of storytelling. Bryce Cameron Liston, who has a one-man show at RS Hanna Gallery this month [page 68], puts it this way: “I think for all the artists in history who have painted the figure, there’s a personal draw. I always say that figurative art is art about us—the human condition. It’s art that tells a story about people.” Carrie Ballantyne, who’s featured on page 94, says simply, “I’m fascinated with everyone’s story.” And for Johanna Harmon, who’s featured on page 90, painting means not just rendering a model’s outer appearance but also reflecting his or her inner life. “I always ask my models about themselves, their lives, their stories,” she says. “People want to be heard.”

Which is not to say that figurative art has to be narrative in order to be successful. And even if the artist does give us some context, that doesn’t mean they’re telling us the whole story, anyway. Take Ron Hicks, who has a solo show at Gallery 1261 this month [page 34], and who often paints people interacting with other people. “‘What’s happening between the two of them?’ is the sort of question I often get,” says Hicks. “And I’ll ask right back, ‘Well, what do you think it’s about?’” Creating our own stories can be just as rewarding as learning someone else’s.

Featured in the November 2013 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
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