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The figure as foundation in ‘You Had Me at Hello’

New American Paintings magazine is behind this show at Steven Zevitas Gallery.

Josiah Ellner, "Where do the chemtrails lead," 2022, oil on canvas.Courtesy of the artist and Steven Zevitas Gallery

“You Had Me at Hello: New American Paintings 2022 Review” at Steven Zevitas Gallery considers the figure at the leading edge of contemporary painting.

The bimonthly New American Paintings magazine is published by Open Studios Press in an office adjoining the gallery. It advertises itself as “juried exhibitions-in-print,” tapping curators as jurors.

The return of the figure isn’t a new trend. It’s been driven, in part, by movements such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, as artists seek to tell underrepresented and untold stories in ways only the human figure can. Queer theory, like its predecessor feminist theory, has had a growing impact on artists’ understanding of subjectivity and the sheer, confusing messiness of living in a body.


Artists in “You Had Me at Hello” come at representation and the figure along many avenues. Elizabeth Glaessner’s “Hobby Horse,” painted in broad, buttery strokes under a moonlit blue sky, could be a figment of a childhood memory, more sensory than narrative, its rockers folding beneath it like a foal’s unsteady legs.

Elizabeth Glaessner, "Hobby Horse," 2020, oil on canvas.Courtesy of the artist and P•P•O•W, New York

Maud Madsen, too, leans into memory and the felt experience of a small body. In “Average,” a tangerine-toned realist painting, a child gazes up as an adult hand marks her height with a pom-pommed pencil. She’s almost lost, secondary to the grown-up’s imposing shadow, and the steamy colors give the scene a sickening heat.

Maud Madsen, "Average," 2022, acrylic on linen.Courtesy of the artist and Steven Zevitas Gallery

The show is artfully installed; one wall is given over to paintings with glowing orbs, such as Joanne Ji Young Kim’s sweet “Going Home,” in which a confetti of light from a streetlamp sprinkles over two children on a bike at dusk.

Joanne Ji Young Kim, "Going Home," 2021, oil on canvas.Courtesy of the artist and Steven Zevitas Gallery

A tiny orange sun hangs near the top of Josiah Ellner’s “Where do the chemtrails lead?” It depicts the sky, framed by the head and hands of a giant, cartoonish pink figure. The white trails in a plane’s wake are the subject of a conspiracy theory suggesting they have a nefarious purpose, such as altering weather. Ellner imbues his image with a sense of wonder that implies innocence and awe in the hazy mix of conspiracy-spinning.


In a way, we are all just children, trying to make sense of a confusing world. Conspiracy theories are one way to do that. Painting figures is another, and the young painters in this show pour curiosity into their work, not fear.

YOU HAD ME AT HELLO: New American Paintings 2022 Review

At Steven Zevitas Gallery, 450 Harrison Ave., through May 15. 617-778-5265, www.stevenzevitasgallery.com

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.