Saatchi Art is proud to present Major Figures, a survey of contemporary figurative painters highlighting artists who approach their subjects and mediums in bold ways, with reference (or reverence) to the art historical canon combined with fresh perspectives.

A long-standing painting subject, representations of the figure were largely considered passé by the 20th century, at which point avant-garde artists opted for abstraction as a means of challenging tradition. Pop art brought figures back to the fore through stylized portraiture and appropriated images from mass media that functioned to reflect and critique consumer culture. Then, Neo-Expressionism saw the reemergence of the emotive dimension of figuration, with artists using crude and gestural painting techniques to paint evocative characters.

By the late 20th century, many artists outside of these movements returned to the canvas to represent the figure, and with it, contemporary issues, through the tactility and expressiveness of paint. Today, artists use figurative painting to explore personal identities, relay new narratives, and push the formal boundaries of representation—drawing on the visual culture and color palettes of the digital age, as well as visual traditions past.

As such a time-honored tradition, figurative painting’s place in the art historical canon—and its history of exclusivity—cannot be ignored. In turn, many of these artists draw on and critique historical modes of figuration to speak to the present. Painter Kaili Smith draws on the gravitas of history painting to portray children growing up in impoverished inner cities as resilient and determined, and Benjamin Stephenson deconstructs Colonialism and notions of the exotic as a driving force of figurative art in the Western canon. Meanwhile, others such as Jennifer Warren and Abigail Albano-Payton use large-scale canvases, portraiture, and realist conventions as a means of bold self-exploration.

Co-curated by Aurora Garrison, Associate Curator, and Bethany Fincher, Assistant Curator at Saatchi Art.