Mary Luke’s Paintings Merge Existentialist Theories and the Human Figure

by Paul Weiner

mary luke

Detail of self portrait, 2013

Mary Luke is known for paintings involving existentialist commentary on the human figure, particularly as it relates to aging. In her monumental oil paintings that often extend five or more feet in either direction, Luke develops a tour de force of painterly figuration, engulfing viewers in voids and distorted body parts. Luke often works on unstretched canvas, applying various papers, paints, tape, and detritus from her studio to create heavy layers of rich, malleable textures and an atmosphere reminiscent of action painters like Willem De Kooning. Better yet, her recent works plunge into the realm of gesture and ephemerality, where her non-archival paintings are given a life span mimicking that of her subject, elderly human figures. Though many of Luke’s recent works may be seen as vignettes, these single figures act as decentralized nodes for a postmodern theoretical discourse when placed in the gallery setting. A visual language emanates from the didactic works, which is punctuated by elegant aesthetic choices including swirls of impasto oil paint, varying line qualities, and enticing pops of color.

Luke recently relocated to Philadelphia after graduating from Syracuse University with a BFA in painting in May of 2014. She has displayed her artwork in the Piazzale Donatello 21 in Florence, Italy, Katonah Museum of Art, SUNY Purchase, and various galleries throughout the Syracuse area such as 914 Works and XL Projects. Further images and information about Luke’s work can be found on her website.

new installation

Installation at Piazzale Donatello 21 in Florence, Italy, 2013


Paul Weiner:
What kinds of materials do you use in your work?

Mary Luke:
Oil paint is the leading medium in my work. However, I am interested in combining oil paint with other mediums including charcoal, graphite, pastel, ink, and acrylic paint. And, although I generally paint on canvas, it is often stretched directly onto the wall, exposing imperfect shape and fraying edges.
This combination of materials and collage-like process along with my informal presentation is key to my work. I allow things to remain unfinished, and I find form in the scraps of paper and other studio debris often recycled from other works.

new bigversioni

Self Portrait, Sitting No. 2, 2014

Paul Weiner:
How has your work evolved over the past few years?

Mary Luke:
I have always focused on the human figure as a subject in my work. And although that has not changed in the past few years, my style, portrayal, and scale of the figure has evolved dramatically. I find it important for artists to develop observational skills through traditional means before being allowed to utilize distortion or abstraction in their work. That way, they fully understand that which they are abstracting. That is why there is a definite transition from my early work, which employs aspects of realism and impressionism, to my recent work, which focuses more on gesture and exposes the process of the painting rather than masking it with fully rendered form and space. My work has also grown in size over the years; I find that my larger works have a greater effect on the viewer and allow them to enter the painting as the subject.

new self portrait, sitting

Self Portrait, Sitting, 2013

Paul Weiner:
Which artists have been most influential to your practice?

Mary Luke:
There are many artists who have influenced my work. Francis Bacon has probably been the most influential, especially in my most recent body of work from the past couple years. I have always admired his distorted depiction of the figure often placed in an equally distorted space. He has an incredible ability to create these figures that make you uncomfortable yet empathetic. I similarly strive to allow for the viewer to place him or herself in the context of the painting; in that way, the work becomes something greater than a painting and allows for a very personal, yet universally human, emotional response to the work.

I have also avidly studied the works of R.B. Kitaj who utilizes bright colours and layers of space and form, mimicking collage. He also creates disorienting environments which provoke a sense of psychotic-ness, similar to Bacon.

Both Bacon and Kitaj stayed faithful to figurative art during times when abstraction dominated the art world. Since then, many artists have continued to abandon the figure as more media is introduced into contemporary art. Despite this, I think the figure will always be a vital part of the art world and my body of work as it is inevitably the most relatable to both the artist and viewer.

new self portrait, collaged

Self Portrait, Collaged, 2013

Paul Weiner:
Do you see painting as being more about expression or is it a tool for conceptual and political commentary?

Mary Luke:
I think that painting lends itself equally to expression and conceptualism. When you think about it, concept comes from expression; at least, that is how it should work. I do think that contemporary art is often over-conceptualized, meaning that the concept is more important and precedes the expression of the artwork itself, leaving little for the viewer to look at and contemplate. Whenever art is described and used as a tool for political commentary, it completely loses its expressive and artistic quality because it is being extorted and manipulated into something synthetic and insincere. There is a fine line between these realms of art, and I think the only way to decipher between the two is to determine if a piece of art can speak for itself or if it needs translation. It is the latter that we need to avoid.

new old woman

Old Woman, 2014

new old man

Old Man, 2014

Paul Weiner:
Many of your recent paintings involve elderly figures. Why did you choose this subject matter?

Mary Luke:
There are a few things that attracted me to portraying elderly figures in my recent works. First, it has to do with form; the ideal human form as the media and society is concerned is completely different than the ideal form in figure drawing. Figure needs mass, space, shapes, line, etc. to make it visually appealing as well as interesting to draw in the first place. Though the idea of folds of skin and wrinkles and sagging body parts seems off-putting, these qualities have so much potential for capturing emotion as well as a sense of physical being. I am very concerned with confrontation in my work in that I want the viewer to confront the figure and vice versa; therefore, it is necessary to give the viewer a figure that, though two-dimensional, has a physical presence.

The second reason I have been painting elderly figures is more conceptual than the first. I try to incorporate my studies and interest in philosophy in my paintings. There is an inarguable connection between existentialist theories and my portrayal of these aging human forms who, when you really look at it, are only made up from gestural lines and glimpses of body parts. So, although they seem physically there, it is really the mind and consciousness of the figure that has brought forth its existence on the canvas. Again, I believe that elderly figures have the greatest potential to relay this idea because you can see their bodies aging and deteriorating, further emphasizing the role of conscious existence.

new 2013

Self Portrait, 2013

new self portrait, reaching

Self Portrait, Reaching, 2013

Paul Weiner:
Where would you ideally display your work? Does it belong in a traditional gallery setting or a more alternative space?

Mary Luke:
Of course, as an artist, it would be ideal to see my work in a gallery or a museum. However, I find that my paintings thrive most on the walls of my studio, where they were created. Few people get to see my work in that environment, but it’s interesting to see how the space has been transformed by the making of the piece and vice versa. In that way, you can see further into the process, see what was left behind and what was included and how my paintings progress together.


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