Genieve Figgis Paints High Society as a Spectacle of Humor and Horror

Genieve Figgis, “Irish House” (2021), acrylic on canvas (image courtesy the artist and Almine Rech Gallery, photo by Dan Bradica)

Back in 2017, Rob Colvin wrote in these pages on the phenomenon of “Like Art” — an emerging genre of highly attractive painting that fosters “easy acceptance by servicing screen-tap culture.” Colvin points to the popularity of Irish artist Genieve Figgis, whose rise to technicolor stardom began on Instagram and Twitter. While “like”-ability certainly factors into Figgis’s popularity, the artist’s melted neo-Rococo style has become a recognizable brand of macabre kitsch in its own right. Her musings on bourgeois decadence feel particularly canny in a time of widespread inequality.

Figgis paints ghoulish portraits of aristocratic families, portraying high society as a spectacle of humor and horror. Her latest exhibition, at Almine Rech’s Upper East Side outpost, finds her continuing with themes of decayed splendor. Immortal Reflection features her large-scale drip paintings, along with more detailed figurative works that lean closer to realism. The two painting styles on display here seem to contrast, yet they retain the gloomy playfulness that her audience has come to expect. The gallery has marketed this show as “subversive” and “resistant to the structures of the establishment,” so I felt compelled to exhume the particular critique Figgis is offering viewers this time around. 

Genieve Figgis, “Fashion shoot” (2021), acrylic on canvas (image courtesy the artist and Almine Rech Gallery, photo by Dan Bradica)

On the surface, the artist’s irreverence seems charmingly innocuous. She satirizes the pomp and circumstance of Britain’s and Ireland’s upper classes in bright shades of pink and yellow, hinting at superficial sweetness in the gaudy dress and decor of her subjects. Women wear colorful wigs and bear clownish grins made with thick globs of white, red, and black acrylics. The lizard-like features of the ladies in “Fashion shoot” (2021), for example, could put Ralph Steadman to shame. Figgis accomplishes this by applying a funeral’s amount of blush and eyeshadow to each visage.

Contradictions come to bear on these works, with some playing tricks on the eye. In “Reflection” (2021), Figgis paints two mirror images of noblewomen in white dresses, flipped upside-down to resemble a Rorschach test. Their faces vary in color, from bold shades of purple and yellow to orange and red, and their blotted profiles stand out against lighter pastels in the background. While the two images seem to match across the horizontal axis, subtle differences reveal themselves. A window appears out of place, a body lurches in a different direction. The overall composition has a cerebral effect, materializing across the vertical canvas like a hazy dream and its abstracted memory.

Genieve Figgis, “Reflection” (2021), acrylic on canvas (image courtesy the artist and Almine Rech Gallery, photo by Eric van Kampen)

Throughout the exhibition, the haunted subjects peering out of Figgis’s paintings make direct eye contact with the viewer. Some of them appear as colorful beasts or apparitions, as in “Halloween group” (2020) and “Mauve room” (2021). The spectral figures in these works hint at impermanence, replacing once-powerful people with the monsters and ghosts they might be known as today. “Victorian people” (2020) likewise gathers a crowd of elegantly dressed men and women, leaving the background blank so their bodies seem to float in place. 

Figgis adheres to the tenets of third-wave feminism, with royal women overpowering blandly dressed patriarchs and diversity integrated within existing power structures. This is clear in “Family outdoors” (2021), which places young girls in colorful dresses directly in front of nondescript men in black jackets. Another painting shows a muscular Roman woman flexing in the nude, flanked by two imperial guards dressed in gold armor. Figgis reverses the male gaze and places all the power in the model’s hands — or biceps, in this case. 

Genieve Figgis, “Queens” (2021), acrylic on canvas (image courtesy the artist and Almine Rech Gallery, photo by Dan Bradica)

Other works are more ambiguous on the subject of race. In “Queens” (2021), Figgis presents five women with varying shades of white, brown, and black skin dressed in wigs and gowns. On its own, the painting is a stunning recalibration of who gets to become royalty. In juxtaposition with the other works, however, it brings into question what Figgis implies with her color choices. Should we assume that faces painted blue, red, and orange — as they appear in “Reflection” and “Family outdoors” — are racially coded as well? If so, what does that say about the artist’s perception of whiteness? It remains unclear whether Figgis is deliberately obscuring these details or merely including people of color in their specific skin tones.

When I think of subversion in 18th-century France, one crucial anti-establishment event comes to mind. But Figgis doesn’t seem interested in revolution — her paintings are most effective when depicting the corrosive decay of wealthy historical figures. Her mockery of aristocratic degeneracy will give viewers a hearty laugh, as they did for me. Nonetheless, Figgis seems rather comfortable operating within existing political hierarchies, as exemplified by her unusually realist portraits of Queen Elizabeth II and Catherine the Great. For that reason, her work remains aesthetically appealing but thematically disorganized. Let them eat cake?

Genieve Figgis, “Queenie” (2020), acrylic on canvas (image courtesy the artist and Almine Rech Gallery, photo by Dan Bradica)

Genieve Figgis: Immortal Reflection continues at Almine Rech Gallery (39 East 78th Street, 2nd Floor, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through December 11.

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