No Sex Please, We’re Artistic


“The Nude in Contemporary Art” is the kind of show you go to with more than art in mind. Especially in summer. Everybody’s naked under their clothes, so this exhibitionistic exhibition, about an hour north and a smidgen east of the city up in Connecticut, must be a show for everybody.

Unfortunately it is, but not in the complex, confusing, come-hither, stay-back ways it might have been.

For a show consisting entirely of images of naked people, there’s a surprisingly low incidence of sex, not to mention sensuality, flirtation, or affection. This is flesh in a halfhearted climate: the tropic of indifference. Leave it to the art world to come up with this pitiable concoction.

“The Nude” is G-rated from top to bottom. You can bring the kids, and people do. There is one erection—obscured in tasteful shadow. Forget gynecological detail: there are no details here, or sneak peeks, or hot spots. Occasional naughty bits are dressed in issues like “the aging body,” “the grotesque body,” or “the mundane body.”

None of this would be a problem if the show just had more good art in it. Chief curator Harry Philbrick states that this exhibition of over
80 paintings, sculptures, photographs, and videos—but mostly paintings—by 45 artists was “born out of a series of conversations with Karen Finley.” That may not be such a good place for a show to start. In Philbrick’s estimation, Finley’s installation Go Figure is an “open-ended assault on some of the accepted sensibilities of our age.” But it’s hard to believe Finley’s piece triggered the Whitney’s 1998 cancellation of its “American Nude” show, as Philbrick states here. Consisting of a daily on-site life drawing class (meaning that a nude model appears two hours daily, six days a week, from 1 until 3 p.m., and anyone is welcome to participate at no charge) the work is tame and academic. Although there’s something sweet about seeing a diverse group
(including parents and their kids) struggling to render the figure in the midst of the show’s well-behaved professionalism.

Curatorial overstatement and Finley’s piece aside, the exhibition’s big idea might have been interesting: the nude is a place where the conservative and radical branches of the art world meet. But the curator’s choices are often unoriginal, uninspired, or tinged with political correctness. Defined by a weird insularity, hemmed in by issues, and framed in categories, this exhibit starts out Apollonian and ends up puritanical.

The show is rife with representations of one of the world’s oldest straight couples, Adam and Eve, presented mostly in their prelapsarian state, standing side by side, staring into space, making little visual contact with us or each
other. The worst example of this has to be James Croak’s life-sized pair cast in dirt. A
traditional idea using untraditional material, it’s nothing more than a bad George Segal.

There are a few attempts to modernize the motif. The handsome and fit thirtysomething nude couple in William Beckman’s otherwise bland and conventional painting might be your parents, or your idealized view of them, before they had you. Studiously unerotic, they occupy a chilly region between partnership and estrangement. Renée Cox’s photograph presents Adam and Eve as a vigorous black pair; sharing culpability, each holds an apple, though not our attention. Andres Serrano’s picture shows an aging couple standing naked belly to belly, holding hands, and still twinkling with mischief. Joe Cavallaro’s gouaches comically recast our first parents as overendowed, naughty-greeting-card figures. And Chuck Close’s oversized close-ups give us the postserpent phase, showing us the swollen belly of a pregnant woman. These headless photographs also indicate that Close is finally looking from the neck down after decades of neck-up. He should paint them sometime.

For Weirdest Technique in a Group Show see Daniel Ladd, who has managed to grow gourds in the shape of the Venus of Willendorf, in one case, and a classical male torso, in
another (“It’s all done with molds,” I was told). Coolest Nude goes to Karin Sander, who scanned a body with some fancy Air Force computer, then turned the data into a miniature three-dimensional plastic model. On the other side of the technical fence is Harriet Casdin-
Silver’s To Soutine and Matisse, an overproduced, unengaging, holographic double portrait of two women viewed from the rear.

John Currin’s dreamy painting of three
Dürer-esque–yet-contemporary women is
too complex for this exhibition; ditto Melanie Manchot’s mysteriously blatant billboard-sized photograph of a topless older woman. And the fabulous ass in Lisa Yuskavage’s Big Blond Squatting is too overly everything for these proceedings.

More in keeping with the show’s conservative bent is Steven DiGiovanni’s allegorical painting, which features a naked man flipping a coin while a clothed woman pensively looks on. The stuff of melodrama and daytime soaps (will he love her or leave her?), the painting itself is as muddled as the subject. The same thing could be said of Hanneline Røgeberg’s
Ex-It, a depiction of a writhing woman giving birth, I think, to a full-grown man.

There’s a fat-nude theme here, too—or should I refer to “people of size”? Jenny Saville, the British phenom, whose work has barely been seen in this country, is represented by a typically corpulent self-portrait. Other than the cropping (which pinches her face in one corner of the canvas) and a couple of squishy dimples, this is run-of-the-mill figure painting. Laura Aguilar does slightly better with her Nature Self-Portraits, in which the hefty artist lies down on some rocks by a small pool. Less obvious and more intimate are her photographs of a father and his two sons, clothed in one, unclothed in the other.

A number of second-rate conceptualists are represented by typically second-rate works. Meg Cranson gives us the theoretical, or demographic, body in The Average American, a color photograph of a naked white woman standing next to stats telling us she is 32.9 years of age, 135 pounds, and 64 inches tall. So? Jeanne Dunning includes two mediocre photographs of a woman covered in brown slime; and Spencer Tunick’s videotape shows hordes of bare bodies, as they lie down or get ready to be photographed by the artist. A tape with this many naked people that manages to be so dull deserves some sort of prize.

Ironically, or maybe not, it is around the aging body that this show stirs to life. In one photograph the old sly fox John Coplans is seen seated, hairy-legged, and pudgy. He twists to show himself off. His admirers soberly talk about Coplans’s “addressing a taboo subject,” when
really he’s just a spunky narcissist. Finally, Manabu Yamanaka’s large, immaculate black-and-white photograph of a very old Japanese woman is as shocking as it is intriguing. “So this is what the end looks like,” you think. Her skull, now nearly bald, rests on the floor like an ancient stone; she’s little more than flesh on bones, yet she’s still vibrant. If you do not distance yourself from this picture of life-on-the-threshold-of-death, Philbrick’s seminar in the flesh may have its saving grace after all.