John Figura is a painter who has been exhibiting his work professionally since 1977. His paintings have been seen in solo and group exhibitions here in the US and abroad. He currently serves as the Salve Regina Gallery Director and Visiting Assistant Professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.Read interview with Figura about this exhibition
Tillie Murphy is currently studying Art History at The Catholic University of America, and plans to graduate in May 2021. After graduation, she will attend graduate school to continue her education in the fine arts.Read her introduction to the exhibition
Interview with John Figura conducted on February 6, 2020 by Tillie Murphy, transcribed by hand and approved by the artist on February 19, 2020.
John Figura is a painter who has been exhibiting his work professionally since 1977. His paintings have been seen in solo and group exhibitions here in the US and abroad. He currently serves as the Salve Regina Gallery Director and Visiting Assistant Professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.
Murphy: How long have you been working here at Catholic University?
Figura: I started here part time in 1986 and went full time in 1999.
Murphy: How many shows do you think you’ve put together in your career?
Figura: I wouldn’t even want to guess. I started putting together shows in 1983; I organized at least nine to ten shows a year. I’ve done a lot of exhibitions! When I put a show together, I try to come up with a general theme, but I don’t like to have it to be too restrictive. In this instance, the general theme is the idea of the figure. I have done a number of figurative shows in the past. I originally did the first version of this show at George Mason University back in 1998. I was the art director there. I was also the director of a commercial gallery called Anton on R Street from 1986-1997. From 1997-2004 I was the director at an underground art space called Signal 66. Exhibitions at both spaces were well covered and reviewed by critics.
Murphy: What kind of works were shown there, at both galleries?
Figura: Anton was a commercial gallery, it was on R street right around the corner from the Phillips Collection. I think Studio Gallery now has that space. We were a commercial space, we had a gallery roster of about 24 to 30 artists that we would show; artists would get a solo exhibition about every two years. We also did a couple group shows every year, usually over the summer. Signal 66 was kind of a unique undertaking. It was located in Blagden Alley, which is now totally gentrified. Back then it was an alley of various nefarious activities.. It was a rougher neighborhood, but we got the space cheap. We had a huge space, bigger than our painting studio here in Salve Regina; we had an upstairs gallery where a few artists had studios and a smaller back room gallery, so there was a lot of space. We didn't really represent artists with an exclusive contract like a commercial gallery, but we would mount solo shows of the artists we thought deserving, the idea was that the gallery schedule was more in a state of flux. Our ideas were to show work that we found to be deserving whether or not it was sale-albe. We would have the art opening of the show that would last from like 6-9pm, then around 9:30pm we would bring bands on until midnight.The idea was to cross pollinate the DC music scene with the DC arts scene. We survived and made rent by selling art and cheap beer. So we were sort of a pirate, punk, DIY art space. We had no advertising, there was no signage, it was word of mouth -- you had to know where the place was to attend our events.
Murphy: And what happened to it?
Figura: Well, the Convention Center went up and we knew our days were numbered. Then the rent went up like 200% and we just couldn't survive.
Murphy: The beer couldn't sustain you guys?
Figura: Yeah, we couldn't sell that much beer. We sold artwork here and there but it was an artist run space that exhibited challenging work and that was the point. We showed art that many other spaces were unwilling to. We were not careerist gallery curators. We were four artists running it and we exhibited what we wanted -- no board of directors or anyone else to answer to. We were not beholden to anyone.
Murphy: That's cool!
Figura: We actually did a music event at the Hirshorn. There was a show called 24 Hour Psycho. It was a Douglas Gordon exhibition. Gordon took the movie Psycho and slowed it down to take up 24 hours.The event was on February 29th of leap year. The idea was to have a music event with it, so the Hirshhorn contacted us and our music director/sound man. We put together a group of about a dozen bands and DJ’s that performed on the ground floor of the Hirshorn. We started at 6 in the evening and went until dawn. My band played at 3 am; it was kind of wild and unbelievable!
Murphy: Have you known the artists in the Figure Interpreted show since your time at Anton and Gallery 66?
Figura: Yeah, I have probably shown most of them before now at some point. In this upcoming show, there will be eight artists: Steve Lewis, Kevin Mitchell, Wolfgang Jasper, Adam Bradley, Sarah Wegnew, Regina Miele, Erik Sandberg, and Joseph Lozano. Steve had a show here a couple months ago. He was in the first version of this show that I did at George Mason University back in 1998; I wanted to come full circle with this show and include him. Kevin Mitchell is an incredible painter, I have always admired his work. I definitely wanted to include him. Wolfgang is from Richmond; I went to graduate school with him way back in the 1980s, and I have always admired his work. I used to show him at Anton Gallery when I was there. Adam Bradley is a lecturer here in the Art Department. I included Sarah’s work in one show here before as part of a group show. Regina had a solo show here about three or four years ago. She is a realist, representational painter; so I wanted to fill in the gaps with some stuff that was somewhat more traditional. Eric is a well known figurative painter in DC. He taught here at Catholic University for a short while as an adjunct. He’s an incredible painter, producing Bosch-like fantastic, figurative pieces. I had Joseph Lozano in a group show five or six years ago. I am acquainted with the work of all of them. I don't like putting together a show just by looking at images on a laptop. I like to know the work. I really think that is important, the physicality of the piece, the artwork, the objectness is a key component of the works nature and it is a crucial component of putting together a show.
Murphy: What is the style (or styles) of the artists?
Figura: It is kind of all over the place, that was the idea. Adam and Sarah are sculptors. Regina is a painter; she is going to put a drawing and a painting in the show. Steve, I'm not sure what I am getting from him. He is working away in New York and is going to send me something; it will probably be political and impactful, that's usually what it is. Kevin is a figurative artist. Joseph’s work is extremely well painted, and slightly funky look to it. Wolfgang is an expressionist, magical-type painter. With his works, you've got to see the stuff. Eric is Boschian, but it runs the gamut from personal expression to political commentary and beyond. With limited space, eight artists was the most I could fit.
Murphy: You didn't want to be in this show?
Figura: I think it’s in bad taste to put yourself into the show that you are curating. It's kind of like “look at me”--you can’t do that. You have to have a degree of professionalism and keep yourself out when it's appropriate. Plus most of my current stuff is landscape-oriented. Occasionally, there is a figure, but in my current work, I'm not as committed with the figure as these artists are.
Murphy: Do you think it is important to be committed to the figure?
Figura: Yeah, I have utilized the figure in a number of earlier shows and I consider it to be one of the great traditions in the history of art. We have always had figurative painting. Throughout art history, mankind has made art that depicts the human form; and we as people are infatuated with images of ourselves and others. Social media is all about that. Everybody wants to see images of themselves and other people. The human figure has been utilized throughout time. Utilizing the figure is a great means of communication, whether it's personal or political. We can relate to it because we’re people looking at people.
Murphy: In terms of the title -- The Figure Interpreted: Redux -- when you say “redux,” are you referring to your figurative show at George Mason?
Figura: Right, this is a revisit of that 1998 show. I’ve brought it back, revived it, whatever you want to call it.
Murphy: Is this a revisit to the works of artists in the original show or a return to the idea of that show?
Figura: To the idea -- a revisit to the theme in a different location, decades later. Plus, the word “redux” looks cool on the card [said while laughing].
Murphy: Do you like curating shows where you show the human figure?
Figura: Of course, I am excited about any show that I put together, group shows and solo shows. It's exciting to select the work. I really enjoy when the stuff comes in and I start to install the works. I get a real thrill from seeing the work in person and putting it up in different combinations, seeing how a show can develop in front of you after you’ve done the work putting it together.
Murphy: Do you think it’s hard to choose which pieces to go next to each other when?
Figura: I don't usually plan the work’s placement out ahead of time. I might do a little sketch of the room, thinking this could go here and there. I like to have the pieces arrive and have a few hours to move them around, trying different combinations. They should all feed off each other visually, but also be artistically different in order to create a dialogue. Curating is improvisionational and reacting to the work. Also, the space here in Salve is rather funky and limited.
Murphy: Dr. Heimann told me that sometimes when you are curating shows you bring in more work than you have space to hang, does that happen often?
Figura: I’ll usually invite folks to bring some extra pieces. Like Wolfgang, I'll probably have him bring a couple pieces, anything that he is feeling really good. Then we can see which ones fit and which don’t. So, I often like to have a little bit more than I need. I try to get it all in.
Murphy: Do you need to see all the pieces before you show them?
Figura: Not if it's a brand new piece. For example, Steve is thinking of bringing some new pieces. I’ve known him and his work for a long time, I know it's going to be good. It might be confrontational and upset some people but I know it will be good.
Murphy: In the school-wide pamphlet for events this academic year that was written last spring, the work in this show (which was not yet finalized) was described generically as offering images of the human body in all its forms -- “vividly youthful, poignantly aged, and honed by time.” When I first read that, I thought that all the works would be about the human body as it ages. Is that true to the theme at all?
Figura: No, not really. I mean thematically, every artist’s work has different issues and explores different ideas.
Murphy: Would you add anything to the advance explanation in the pamphlet?
Figura: No, it’s a fine general explanation. When it comes to describing an exhibition’s theme, I don't like to be too specific. Rather, I like to let the reader figure out the meaning and theme for themselves. I want them to chew on it to get it.
Murphy: Do you think showing figurative work is just as important as showing abstract work? Do you like showing one over the other?
Figura: They are both important; what you show can depend on the type of gallery you are in.
Murphy: Why did you choose to do a second show with this theme, the figure interpreted, now in 2020?
Figura: Well, I think I am being pushed towards retirement here, so this might be my last go-round. I wanted to close the circle so to speak.
Murphy: Was the original show of The Figure Interpreted one of the first shows that you did?
Figura: Actually I started putting shows together back in 1983, when I got out of grad school.
Murphy: When you are choosing themes for exhibition here at Catholic University, do you usually feel restricted in what you can show?
Figura: Definitely, but that's not an issue with this show. At Signal 66 and elsewhere, I’ve done a lot more outrageously confrontational shows; but obviously, at a university setting, it is different.
Murphy: Do you think now, at Catholic or in general, it is important for the human body to be shown through different artistic perspectives?
Figura: As I said before, the human figure is who we are. I think we relate to the figure because it's an inherent part of each of us. The human body can communicate all different things. An important component of this show is also that all these different works are hand-made. The artist is utilizing mind, body, soul; the artwork has that sort of embedded information in it. It’s the depiction of the body made by a body. This complex is what intrigues me about this show.
There is also this sense of stillness in all this work -- there is no video; there is nothing that requires time to elapse. Everything is compacted into a single image here. The stillness of the art object lets the viewer set their mind free to dream, interrupt, and engage. All the decision making, all the corrections, and the entire process take place on one plane. The whole element of time reverberates back to the viewer, if the viewer is willing to take the time to look at the piece. The work is not explained for you, you have to do it for yourself. Art is not like a TV show, already chewed up and explained for you. You have to do your own chewing here! The answers aren’t on your cell phone. You have to engage with the art in order to understand each piece.
Murphy: What do you hope that the viewer gets out of this show?
Figura: I want the viewer to have the opportunity to encounter and engage with the works in the show. I want them to have the time to do that to get something out of it.
In my painting classes, I make my students go on museum visits, and I provide them with a list of questions to ask themselves when looking at the pieces. Too often, you see people walk into galleries and only do a quick walk around. I wonder, what the heck is that? I always want students to sit in front of a piece, and to analyze it formally, asking themselves: What’s the shape and color used? Are things overlapping? What is the scale? What is the subject matter? Then, what is the content? What does the subject matter mean to you? That sort of analysis of a piece -- from formal issues to subject matter to content and meaning -- is the way you start to comprehend a work of art. But it does not suffice to just do just a formal and content analysis. A lot of understanding art comes from relating to the work through your own personal experience.
In my own paintings, I try to keep the work open ended. My paintings always have a narrative, but I don't want to spell it out completely. I want the viewer to bring his or her life experience to the looking experience. If the viewer is not engaging and getting something out of it, what's the point? It should be an interchange, you -- as the viewer -- should be able to bring yourself to the work and engage with it.
As an artist, a lot of times you make something with a particular idea; but other people will have totally different ideas about the artwork when they look at it. Their ideas can be just as interesting as the artist’s own. Of course, I am referring to all this as a painter, not as a historian.
Murphy: Thank you for this meeting and for sharing your history and ideas with me. This has been interesting for me!
Figura: Of course!