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REVIEW: ‘A Place For Me’ — A captivating new exhibit on figurative art

As you walk into the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art’s new exhibit “A Place for Me: Figurative Painting Now,” a sense of warmth and intimacy fills the room, unlike the traditional environment of a portrait gallery.

ICA "A Place For Me" gallery
Installation view, “A Place for Me: Figurative Painting Now,” The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, 2022. Sophia Herbert writes the figurative art exhibit featuring queer, BIPOC and female-identifying artists and subjects is a must-see for art experts and newbies alike. COURTESY OF MEL TAING

The exhibit aims to tackle the tropes of portraiture as well as figurative art, inviting the viewer to challenge their perceptions of what voices define the figurative art scene, and what new narratives now define contemporary art.

Featuring all queer, BIPOC and female-identifying artists and subjects, “A Place For Me” displays a departure from the people and stories that once defined portraiture, making space for new stories in the world of contemporary art.

When you first enter the galley, the viewer is greeted by a massive yellow and white jacquard print wall. The yellow wall is as comforting as it is impressive, and the title of the exhibition aims to do the same. “A Place For Me” perfectly encapsulates the experience of the exhibit, contrasting existential ideas of belonging and selfhood with comforting feelings of community and compassion.

As you travel through the four galleries of the exhibition, the theme of physical space as a mechanism for establishing self-hood and comfort becomes tangible. Color and movement in each piece help enhance each gallery. These choices create a unique sense of intimacy that starkly opposes the darkness or grandeur of a traditional portrait gallery, making the viewer’s connection more profound.

In addition to portraits, the exhibition features several still-life paintings which characterize the contemporary figurative art style and evoke a unique sense of connection to the artist’s work and their spaces.

Known for his autobiographical artwork and unique use of fluorescent ground colors, glitter and texture, artist Arcmanoro Niles’ section in the exhibition features several portraits of himself, his family and his friends. However, the still life of his bedside table stands out as his most revealing piece of all. Niles’ piece, “Don’t Think I Won’t Take A Good Thing Too Far (Maybe I’m Looking For Something I Can’t Have),” provides a window into the everyday life and routines of the creative in a way that almost breaks the fourth wall.

By inviting onlookers into the space the artists create, the viewer finds themselves transported into the same quotidian routine as them, ultimately enchanting their understanding of the other pieces they create. In “A Place For Me,” objects have the potential to become identities, to represent home or to bring comfort or familiarity to the space Ruth Erikson, Mannion Family Curator, created with her curation.

The entryway features a single piece from the ICA’s permanent collection by David Antonio Cruz, from his series on “chosen family.” Cruz’s piece “canyoustaywithmetonight_causeyouarehere,youarehere,andwearewherewithyou” differs from the traditional seated portrait, featuring a group of friends draped and tipping off the sides of a couch, their bodies flowing into each other, forging a sense of community and support.

Cruz’s use of color and texture as well as diverse subjects makes for a piece that redefines the sitting portrait, giving figurative art a new dimension. Cruz represents one of many artists in this exhibition who contort the expectations of portraiture to make space for underrepresented people and narratives in the art world.

The exhibition includes various works from Louis Fratino, Doron Langberg, Aubrey Levinthal, Gisela McDaniel, Celeste Rapone and Ambera Wellmann. While each artist is undeniably unique in their artistic processes, mediums and styles, their work evokes a sense of belonging and seeks to show how portraiture and figurative painting can be expanded to encapsulate people who feel marginalized, or unwelcome in the typical space of figurative artwork.

“A Place For Me” is a must-see for first-time visitors to the ICA, like myself, and contemporary art experts alike, and displays the beauty of the changing art world, shedding light on the bright future of contemporary figurative art that lies ahead.

The exhibit will be open until Sept. 5.

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