Art Review Archives:
The Body Revealed in Contemporary Art
Ed. Marianne Kupelnik
Stripped Bare: The Body Revealed in Contemporary Art presents a collection of 250 works, art which includes images by many of the more famous names of the contemporary scene, yes, but art which for the most part seems to spring from the baser human impulses, never to quite go beyond that level. Featuring photography, painting, drawing and three-dimensional construction by a variety of twentieth-century artists, Stripped Bare's exploration of the human body is primarily and almost obsessively sexual in nature. Less a vision of 'the body' as a whole, the book explores a fascination with erotic content, explicit acts, 'art' inspired by, derived from, or simply reproducing pornographic imagery.
Paging through Stripped Bare yields a variety of imagery, disquieting in its jumble; even the elaborate essays fail to knit it into a coherent whole. To take the works on their own merit, they fall generally into three categories -- a reader's observation, not anything explicit in the book, in which the sequence of works is free-form. (Earlier twentieth-century artists tend to come first, present-day artists later in the book; but there is no hard-and-fast rule, and works by individual artists are scattered throughout the pages.) Some of them are intriguing, promising: these are the first category, those artists whose classic approach to the nude and to nude photography, whether of delectable physicality or more explicit bodily imagery, employ the strength of formal composition. Even when they contain overtly sexual content, as in the artistically observed erection in Mapplethorpe's Dennis Spight (selenium-toned print: 19x19 cm: 1980), their discipline and composition, their aesthetic presence, cause them to stand out among the book's images as examples of noteworthy work.
But these are a minority. Less formally-constructed images of lesser or greater genital content are the second, and largest, category in Stripped Bare. These include works by artists ranging from established names such as Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Cindy Sherman, to present-day individuals such as Noritoshi Hirakawa, Larry Clark and Terry Richardson. Most of these are explicit photographs of the female, occasionally the male, body or its private parts. Bondage, a beaten woman, and acts of oral sex are included, though intercourse itself is primarily absent. Their variety is manifold; their commonality is that, individually, and certainly taken page after page, their subject matter has a tendency to diminish into flatness. Andy Warhol's Nude Male (set of seven color Polaroids: each 10.6 x 8.7 cm: c. 1970-77) presents photographs of the male member, raw in its nakedness, erect, bound, or flaccid; an interesting experiment in spontaneity, but not particularly compelling as art. Larry Clark's Untitled (black-and-white photograph: 50x60.5 cm: 1992) shows the male subject receiving fellatio from a woman while he points a (presumably) toy gun at himself.
This what we want, we are told. We're all voyeurs, according to Stripped Bare. It tells us so in four essays of varying levels of psychological density. A whole constellation of attitudes is implicit, at times explicit in these text, primarily -- and perhaps not surprisingly -- that unrestrained physical pleasures are mankind's highest good. We are called to believe that taboos and restraint are "repressive", learn of the "terror" of looking, the oppressive insistence of the "Ur-gaze". Essayist Victor Tupitsyn writes that "Apparently, the joy we feel at the sight of an open (smiling) mouth, as well as our readiness to smile, is nothing less than an affirmation of death." At times the conclusions being drawn seem almost unreal -- Tupitsyn again:
Thomas Koerfer's own essay celebrates the pornographic movie as "the semi-legitimate offspring" of cinematography. He notes how presenting these images is part of "a liberated depiction of the body... the rupture of Christianity's two-thousand-year-old decree against the depiction and portrayal of the phallus or vulva, under pain of excommunication." But much of what Stripped Bare presents seems a false liberation, an adolescent look-at-me of transgression. No matter how hard its essayists try to defend it, they never achieve a convincing argument for this art whose inspiration springs from the bare presentation of bodily parts or explicit acts. If this is indeed representative of 'the body in contemporary art', then society's deconstruction has led art to a sterile area, masturbatory in its obsessive focus with sex and pleasure.
And this is one of the challenges the art of Stripped Bare illustrates. Trading on sexuality is easy -- too easy. An art wanting to deal with such a charged and visceral subject must take extra pains to have purpose. Manet painted Olympia (1863) not merely to titillate with an image of a sexually available young woman, but to challenge academia's practice of using classicism as a thin excuse for erotic content. Toulouse-Lautrec's prostitutes were proferred with a sympathetic world-weariness; Georges Rouault's, as bitter social commentary. Here, though, many of the artists seem to present their work for its shock value alone. Of course one can photograph a prostitute performing oral sex, and label it art: but the bare presentation of such an image and the sexual charge it carries do not necessarily give it weight, meaning, or merit. As art critic Roger Kimball notes in his book Art's Prospect, shock value, 'transgression', is the darling of the contemporary art world, and one of the quickest things to wear off. Much of the work in Stripped Bare bears out Kimball's exhortation. Scenes of bondage or young ladies offering their private parts in various bedroom settings, seen page after page, quickly grow ho-hum.
The message of Stripped Bare is hidden in its images. Discipline is the foundation of good design -- and good art. The most interesting offerings in Stripped Bare are those whose artists work within the constraints of form and composition. The least interesting are those whose 'liberation' from these necessities has degraded them to mere trading on pornographic imagery. Such works are an illustration of artists taking a trend in contemporary art to its logical conclusion, and how devoid of spirit that conclusion becomes. One is no longer meant to respond to an image intellectually, nor even emotionally. Stripping away the appreciation of aesthetics, of substance, one is left with only the viscerality of sexual desire. But the sensation most of the artists of Stripped Bare offer is not enough to create an art that satisfies, that sustains repeated looking.
It would take a deft essayist to make a coherent survey of the imagery that comprises most of the works in Stripped Bare; there are plenty of observations, left unmined by the contributors, that might have made fertile reading. But it would take an even defter writer to knit the entire body of works into a whole. We spoke of the art falling into three categories. The third and final one is the most curious, potentially intriguing, yet left virtually untouched. These are the works, mostly photographs, whose content seems anomalous to the book's carnal context: either directly polarized to it, or simply, curiously unrelated. In a book devoted to genitalia and sexual suggestion, what is to be made of photographs such as Dmitri Baltermants's Grief (gloss gelatin silver print: 48 x 57.3 cm: 1943-44), a devastated battleground, peopled by mournful men and women, staggering across the wasted earth searching among the corpses for their loved ones? Or an entire series of photographs by Soviet photographer Boris Mikhailov, shot in the late 1960s and presenting socially conscious images of the former USSR? Valid images, compelling, in fact, but too distant from the matters under discussion to cohere. These might have provided a fascinating leavening of the sexual imagery, but receive little, if any, discussion in the text. Other contemporary works seem added in at random, mysteriously disengaged, such as Raymond Pettibon's Untitled (Who's on First?) (ink on paper: 63x46.7 cm: 1999), which presents a cartoon-like ink sketch of a baseball player, captioned with thought balloons ("Who's on first? Who the f*** cares?"), or Damien Hirst's Anarchy (glass, steel, MDF and drug bottles: 137x102x23 cm: 1989) a realistic, three-dimensional re-creation of a medicine chest. These too receive scant mention, and the reader may well be left perplexed and bemused at their inclusion.
If there is an explanation to this uneven content, it comes within one, final, obscure revelation. What proffers itself as an overview of artistic portrayal of the human body in twentieth-century art is in actuality a limited survey of works drawn from a single collection, that of Swiss filmmaker Thomas Koerfer (also a contributing essayist, as noted above). It is noted meekly in small print on the title page, not on either the front or back bookflap, where it would be plainly presented (though, to give credit, it does appear in the titling of the Amazon.com citation). It receives a spare mention or two in the essays. But it is never explained who Koerfer is (one must refer to other sources to learn he is a Swiss filmmaker), or why he might have assembled such a collection. This hidden one-sidedness contradicts Stripped Bare's apparent positioning as a comprehensive overview. The danger of such presentation is that the casual reader may take it at face value -- as a definitive study of 'the body in contemporary art', rather than a concentrated focus on one individual's assemblage of works of a variety of contemporary twentieth-century artists, with a distinctly sexual bent.
If, as the book's inner jacket notes, "art has rejected the cliche of the beautiful nude", it can be said that based on many of these works, contemporary artists have yet to find a suitable substitute. Art need not be beautiful to be powerful, or profound; but it does need to trade on more than superficial desires, and that is what so many of these artists, in works derived from or inspired by pornography, do. Stripped Bare's essayists may hold up for observation a wealth of sociological detail on taboos, gazing, voyeurism and sexual tensions. But they never quite validate the more explicit works as art, and much of the 'art' itself, though copious in its explicit imagery, never excites more than a stir. In the end Stripped Bare: The Body Revealed in Contemporary Art seems a body of work trying hard to find a raison d'etre other than the fact that it springs from a single collector's assemblage of photographs and paintings. And its enthusiastic defense of these subjects as art fails to answer the question. Once one has penetrated all mysteries, unveiled all forbidden areas, 'liberated' us from all taboos -- what then?
--Katherine Rook Lieber
Editorial Note: Roger Kimball's Art's Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity (Ivan R. Dee: September 2003) is a lively assembly of twenty years of Kimball's art reviews. Art's Prospect was reviewed by ArtScope.net in October 2003 (http://www.artscope.net/VAREVIEWS/artsprospect1003.shtml).
Stripped Bare: The Body Revealed in Contemporary Art, as well as Art's Prospect and other books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews, may be purchased through this site's Amazon.com link.