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REVIEW: Ralph Barker explore artist Alice Neel's psychadelic character studies

“Like Chekhov, I am a collector of souls…if I hadn’t been an artist, I could have been a psychiatrist.” - Alice Neel

Neel’s portraits are unlike any you’ve seen before. Sure, they display a hint of Freud and maybe even Schiele in their expressiveness, but they are altogether beautifully undefinable. There is a rawness in the features of her subjects that can only really be described as being painted with a psychiatrist’s gaze, and it’s this gaze, this quiet carnality that left the deepest impression on me as I write after a few days of artistic reflection; mon coeur mis à nu.

The eyes in Neel’s work bored through me as I stood in front of the canvas, the dimpled and pockmarked skin almost tangible as one becomes absorbed in the neatly effective brushstrokes of oil that bring Neel blindingly back to life, as though you can still smell the turpentine and hear her Kerouacian drawl whisper fragments of Keats in your ear. This power was most evident by the persistent high-pitched ‘beep’ of viewers craning close to the paintings to analyse the sweeping lines in minute detail, to immerse themselves in the world of paint and psyche.

We begin the exhibition on the upper floor, thrown into Alice Neel’s formative life in Cuba through a series of character studies of past lovers and Havana locals (a section so evocative that my fiancé took as a sign that we should head there for our honeymoon - thanks Alice). I was particularly drawn to Mother and Child, the mother’s eyelids and broken-toothed smile expressively represented with a few deft flicks of red-brown paint, alongside the sagging figure of a beggar woman in Beggars, Havana, Cuba, who seemed moments away from sliding out of the frame and onto the gallery floor.

Moving to Greenwich Village after a nervous breakdown, Neel’s period painting the beatnik bohemia of the area takes on almost a Mondrian quality; angular features emerging atop ballooning breasts and buttocks. Despite being a fanboy of the Beat Generation, I confess I had not come across Alice Neel before this latest retrospective (the largest in the UK to date), so it was a real delight to discover old film footage alongside her painted works of her interacting with Ginsberg et al in Pull My Daisy where she plays the ‘Bisphop’s Mother’ (the ‘Bishop’ in question played by 60’s art dealer Richard Bellamy).

One of the more psychedelic aspects of Neel’s work is her approach to the penis. Read that again. There’s an almost comical, caricaturist quality to the thin, wormlike member of the Bronx Bacchaus, and Joe Gould’s five-penis tower of babel reads almost like a bizarre religious symbol, crazed eyes and mad professor hair daring you to look away. Despite this, there’s something very humanising about the nudity here, particularly redolent in Untitled (Alice Neel and John Rothschild in the Bathroom), where an almost cartoon couple urinates together in various porcelain receptacles.

There really is too much to fit into one review here, Neel’s oeuvre is as diverse as the fleeting subjects of her portraiture. I haven’t even gotten to her work for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and the political landscapes that emerge lowry-like from the smog of Great Depression America. There’s too little space and too many words, you simply have to go and see the show to understand why my descriptions aim to be so vivid. All I can say is that I’ve gained a new favourite painter, isn’t it worth seeing if you could too?

Alice Neel: Hot Off The Griddle is open 16 February – 21 May 2023 at The Barbican Centre. Tickets available here.

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