Art Review Archives:
Naked or Nude:
May 28 - June 27, 2003
Fine Arts Building Gallery
When is a figure 'naked'? Which of these are 'nudes'? Inspired by the outcry surrounding the initial exhibition of Edouard Manet's Olympia in 1865, Naked or Nude, a national juried exhibition at the Fine Arts Building Gallery, features 36 works by 31 artists exploring males and females in the full monty, the buff, the birthday suit, in short, the human figure: naked... or nude.
It is an exhibition that invites both looking and thinking, prompting one's definition of the terms and their application to each individual work. 'Nude' carries connotations of artistry, classicism, elegance, involves a passionless objectivity: the bare body in a state of natural grace. 'Naked' has nuances of inappropriateness, a statement of judgement or lack; the word's subtleties include ideas of exposure, defenselessness, often a distinct level of erotic content. Naked or Nude brings these abstractions into a visual realm. These 36 works perform one of the functions of good art, provoking one to apply and reapply criteria, and ultimately, to probe one's own thoughts and reactions to these figures.
'Nudes' seem to focus on the body itself, presenting the human figure as full of planes of texture rough and smooth, ingenious hinges, sleekness or fleshly folds: the body as ingenuity of form, rather than as object of desire. In Erik C. Nelson's Untitled (photograph: 21"x18": 2002), the female nude is cropped at the neck, focusing the viewer's attention on her ripe breasts and flat belly. A black background isolates the image in space, highlighting the fullness of the bodily forms themselves, independent of identity or narrative. Similarly, the minimal background of The Quiet (mixed media: 62"x39": 2002) by Michael Reedy offers up these two figures as illustrating the body's duality of gender, pose and flexion. The male crouches, limbs knotted; the female stretches at length; both are to be admired as perceptive studies of anatomical beauty, though with a certain inherent, introspective mood.
The Fall (pencil: 40"x28": 1998) by Grace Benedict, with its sleek figure on her carpet of ginger and gold, hovers halfway between nude figure study and object of arousal. There is a formality to the composition, a restrained grace that invites objectivity in one's examination of this young woman as an elegant nude. Drowsing, unaware, she seems so natural on her bed of leaves: natural, delectable... desirable. The pattern of the leaves resolves into a curiosity -- why lies she so comfortably on the leaves? For whom is she waiting? -- and the detail of the necklace resting at her throat becomes a flush of awareness that she is not only nude, she is... naked. Sexual content is a primary factor tipping the scale toward 'naked.' The more there is, the less the work can comfortably be regarded as a 'nude.' Where 'nudes' present factual data, an almost architectural beauty, 'nakeds' often have narrative that creates story and personality, inviting the viewer into the work. The joyful innocence in George C. Clark's Zaira and her Sister (oil on canvas: 20"x24": 2001) is lent an overlay of warm, nubile lusciousness in its placement of the two figures on the edge of a big double bed. And Laura Hartford's Untitled [Graham Reclining] (photograph: 20"x25": 2002) is steeped in sexual imagery, the inviting come-on so strong it borders on camp.
That come-on lies as well in a factor that perhaps pushed Olympia into scandalosity. Not only had, in the words of exhibition curator Charles Gneich "the 'acceptable' nude figure study... been changed into a sexually postured naked girl," but Olympia, so invitingly posed, so coolly sexual, looked back at the viewer with a gaze that pointedly refused to free him from his own awareness of taboo-breaking. Lorraine Sack's Figure with White Background (oil on canvas: 42"x38": 2002) stares levelly back, engaging the gaze even as one views -- cannot help but view -- her naked body. We know that she 'knows' she is being watched... and yet, we continue to look, to explore her with our eyes. Figure with White Background conveys the complexity behind categorization of 'naked' or 'nude'. It is a beautiful figure study, to be sure, but as well containing, not necessarily a sexual assertion, but certainly a challenge (or invitation) in the subject's awareness of our appraisal of her naked form. 'Nudes' are more forgiving: either having no heads at all (i.e. where cropping of the image has focused it down to specific body parts), or with eyes closed or averted. The young woman in Robert A. Hudson's Starboard (pencil: 15"x7": 2003) turns her head away, unaware she is being observed. The eye follows the fluid contours of her flesh without hindrance, encouraging us to see form over personality, allowing us to view and appreciate while remaining anonymous in our looking.
Carol (oil on canvas: 24"x30": 2002) by Leslie Parke presents a dilemma: must a 'nude' be beautiful? The artist's cropping restricts the subject to an obese torso, a Lucien Freud-like exploration of skin texture, heaviness, fleshiness. The curvature of her weighty breasts is doubly echoed in dual rolls of stomach and belly fat. A viewer was heard to remark that this was certainly 'naked', because such grossness repelled, and should be hidden from sight. Or does the focus on flesh as architecture, along with her apparently unselfconscious stance, make this a 'nude'? And, at times, 'naked' simply indicates the absence of clothing where clothing should be. Rick Weaver's Polly (oil on canvas: 36"x24": 2002) steps out from a woodland, forlorn and somewhat lost. Where the golden leaves of The Fall seem a warm and inviting carpet, the woodland in Polly is gray-green, dank and chill, and Polly herself looks at the viewer with mute appeal, as if finding herself unaccountably bare, and pleading for something to put on. The sleeping males (actually one man, double-exposed) in Larry Chait's Touch (archival inkjet: 9"x12": 2003) are a further evocation of simple human nakedness, uncovered and somewhat defenseless on their undraped bed.
Twenty-two additional works are on exhibition in the adjoining Member's Gallery, seven of which directly complement the theme of Naked or Nude. Highlights of these include Liz McKay's Wrapped Object (oil on canvas), in which a cloth wrap conceals the woman's head and face, draping one shoulder but leaving breast and loins bare. It is both reversal of Western dress (we cover the body, reveal the face) and seeming commentary on Islamic veiling. In Marion Kryczka's After DeKooning (oil on canvas), the bright realism of the grinning, bosomy blonde is punningly reproduced in the inset of abstractionist representation of same. Mel Theobald's Wall of Flesh (digital photo on Duratrans) jiggles with lascivious pop and hustle, a gaggle of well-endowed beauties in a boobs-and-butts cattle call: not a stitch on, unless you count shoes and tattoos. Naked... or nude?
Our era of sexual saturation, with salacious images featured on everything from catalogs to billboards, is a far cry from the Parisian mores that led to such hue and cry in 1865. Still, Naked or Nude piques controversy and will fuel a good art conversation well into the night. When is a figure 'naked'? Which of these are 'nudes'? What criteria are to be applied, and how -- and why -- do we apply them? Naked or Nude, an exploration of the human figure, classical to humble, taut to fleshy, in media including oils, acrylics, inks, and sculpture: 36 images by 31 artists, at the Fine Arts Building Gallery through June 27, 2003.
--Katherine Rook Lieber