London’s Victoria Miro gallery is currently hosting the extraordinary works of painter Alice Neel. Alice Neel, Uptown, curated by Hilton Als, celebrates the late artists portraiture works, sadly underappreciated during her life time as a figurative painter in the abstract era of the 1900’s. Living in Uptown New York during a time when it was a very different world to the popular space it is now, she worked in the Spanish Harlem and the Upper West Side, painting its multicultural inhabitants until her death in 1984. Poor, unsuccessful, little recognised until reaching her seventies, Neel had a turbulent life that never saw the rewards of her undeniable talents.
Her portraits, to try and put it concisely, are a raw depiction of humanity. Their rugged simplicity exudes a tremendous amount of feeling, backstories scream out to be known. Race, gender, and social class play a manifest role in every subject, these are the Uptown underclass residents of the Spanish Harlem, captured with a strange beauty that makes them deeply alluring. I personally find that the manner in which Neel depicts the eyes of each portrait to often be the most fascinating feature, so full of emotion and expression, that captures the intense moment of the encounter between subject and artist. Neel’s penetrative gaze sees straight through the surface.
In the exhibition catalogue Als imagines Neel’s thoughts as she paints:
“Love comes in many forms, and I love you, now, while I’m painting you. That love has a certain intensity while I’m painting a person, and it may not last past the painting, but at least the work’s a record of that love. My paintings are a way, sometimes, of trying to understand how we get into another person, and why, and why it’s beautiful, hard, exhausting, enriching. People — that’s all we have, one another. And sometimes that’s unbearable, and sometimes all we crave.”
There is something about this quote that rings very true as you look at Neel’s works, that are indeed simultaneously beautiful, hard, exhausting and enriching pieces of art. Intensely emotive, how could they be created with anything other than this passionate and inexplicable love that Als imagines.
An exhibition worth experiencing, Alice Neel, Uptown is open at Victoria Miro Gallery, running until 28 July 2017.