The nude in contemporary art carries with it centuries of baggage spanning the arc of art history. The subject matter has been both classic and modern, academic and expressive. For artists of every generation, the nude is one of the most sacred and challenging representations.
Consider the mythic but coy Birth of Venus by Botticelli and the painfully raw figures of Jenny Saville, bookending a tradition that includes Degas’ Bathers, de Kooning’s Woman, Phillip Pearlstein’s models, and Alice Neel’s self portrait, just to name a few. The nude figure confronts, soothes, welcomes objectification, and spurs self-reflection. It is our full physical self, exposed and unflinching.
The Body in Lines exhibition brings together sixteen artists working with the nude figure. Erica Aubin’s detailed studies of the lines made by two bodies coming together create richly compelling abstractions while Michael Ahern’s Payne’s Grey watercolors capture the nude in quick, saturated shapes, forming the figure in bold wet brushstrokes. Sydney Phillips Hardin uses comical, yet poignant subject matter to confront the notions of sexuality in the nude and challenge the status quo objectification of women. Her Inflatable Love Doll Descending a Staircase is a sharp-witted homage to Duchamp’s nude while doubling as a crass sex toy deflated and discarded on a staircase. In Kate Gartrell’s painting, the artist turns the focus on herself and paints the flesh of her bare legs, examining her own nudity and the intimacy, or disconnect, that artists must have when tackling their subjects. This idea is also at play in David C. Burr’s portrait of a model seated and slumped in the middle of a drawing class. Lines race around the image, stabbing, pointing, and shaping the nude figure out of a cacophony of mark making.
In creating figurative art focused on the nude, these artists continue a rich tradition while simultaneously exploring new and exciting directions. Can a subject matter so personal and universal ever truly be exhausted? The freshness and potency of these contemporary works are testament to the nude’s unwavering dominance and appeal in the practice of visual art.
–Andrew Fish, 2013