Friday, November 19, 2010

Catching Up vs. Ignoring the Precedents

Lilly Wei writes a thoughtful, thorough survey in the December issue of ArtNews of women painters bold enough to tackle the last great taboo in fine art: depicting the penis. Although plenty of gay men artists have offered up images including male genitalia, Wei wonders:
[W]hy are there so few stripped-down males, their charms unveiled by women for the delectation of women? While there is no one answer, some artists say that men’s bodies are less esthet­ically pleasing; others suggest that women need to take back the female body, not colonize or ­promote those of men. Women—in fact most viewers—still have difficulty scrutinizing male genitalia, or, conversely, men resist being scrutinized by women as subjects. It might make them feel too vulnerable, and that raises a question: Does the mere fact of being depicted naked feminize the male body?
Among the few female artists Lilly finds who have painted male nudes, they tend to fall into two categories: non-sexual portrayals of nude men or (and this is the category I want to consider a bit more) images that heavily reference previous works by male artists depicting female nudes. For example,

Women artists have more directly tackled the art-historical notion of the male gaze, turning it on its head. Now in her mid-90s [sadly she just recently passed away], Sylvia Sleigh has been undressing her male subjects for dec­ades. The model in Philip Golub Reclining (1971) looks into a large mirror in which the artist at work is also reflected. It appears to be an amalgam of two Velázquez paintings: the Rokeby Venus, one of the most seductive nude female backs in the history of art, and his masterpiece Las Meninas, in which the artist is shown as he paints the scene before us. A more recent work, from 2006, portrays a nude young man sitting in an Eames chair clutching the armrests. The work, featured in P.S. 1’s “Greater New York” exhibition earlier this year, suggests a provocative interpretation of another Velázquez, his canny portrait of Pope Innocent X.

Working in a similar vein, Ellen Altfest is noted for her meticulously detailed, trompe l’oeil paintings of quirky subjects as well as her sly, subtly charged portraits of male nudes that parody the male gaze. Some she presents with eyes closed, arms behind their heads, legs apart, mimicking a classic female nude pose. Penis (2006), an anatomically correct, crisply drawn close-up of the body part, offers an upending of Gustave Courbet’s Origin of the World (1866), an unblinking look at the male phallus that is both real and theatrical, perversely clinical but with an undertone of heat, appealing to the voyeur—and exhibitionist—in all of us.

Referencing earlier compositions is a fine tradition in representational painting, but in this context, where as Lilly points out there's not been much work by female artists of sexualized male nudes, I have to wonder whether catching up (so that there exist enough referring counterparts to the existing female nudes by male artists that the issue is moot) is as interesting an idea as perhaps taking advantage of the pluralistic era clean-slate available to simply ignore the canon intentionally and simply paint what you (as a female artist) find beautiful about the male body.

Wei hints at what might be the stumbling block to that option:
Why does so much sublimation and unease surround these descriptions of the male body, once considered the ideal of beauty?
I'd say it's a mix of homophobia and the systematic suppression of female sexual desire (with a touch of patriarchy in the arts), but that's just a guess.

But now that we're arguable past a good deal of all that or at least able to call it openly what it is, what's to stop women artists from eschewing the precedents (and in doing so, arguably not hiding behind art history) and showing us what they find truly beautiful in a man's body? Sure you're gonna make your grandma blush, bold. The societal conditions have never been more accommodating.

Labels: art making, nudes


Blogger LG said...

I don't believe that merely showing the male form naked feminizes men. I think most men are not used to being considered a sexual being outside their own terms. That and a touch of that homophobia you mentioned.

Short story: Siggraph 2001 in Los Angeles, video featuring a very low-detail, animated, naked Robbie Williams chasing naked, low detail, animated women for sex throughout music video. The penis was simply a small pole, no details what so ever other then bouncing while the character ran (the chasing). No close ups, no hair even. All of my male associates were uncomfortable with this video. Keep in mind these are guys who felt it was just fine to analyze the heft and bounce of animated women's breasts, preferably DD or bigger, in great detail "to get it right".

Simply put: it's ok to consider a woman a sexual object, or part of her body as an object to be compared, considered, and dismissed. I know of very few work in any media that show men this way. And those that do exist are "controversial".

I must admit, at the last art fairs in NYC, Out of curiosity I tallied a "boob/penis/vagina" count. Guess which won?

11/19/2010 11:32:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The challenge I have always found with female artists depicting nudity -- male or female -- in their art, is that it is almost always done through a filter of politics. Whether it's Lisa Yuskavage, Jenny Saville, Tracey Emin, even, for that matter , Alice Neel, nudity and sexuality itself becomes some tormented existential grievance. Then again, someone like Sally Mann may work outside that box, as did Louise Bourgeois.

11/19/2010 12:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Randall Anderson said...

1965, Carolee Schneemann's Fuses. She says: "...I wanted to see if the experience of what I saw would have any correspondence to what I felt-- the intimacy of the lovemaking... And I wanted to put into that materiality of film the energies of the body, so that the film itself dissolves and recombines and is transparent and dense-- as one feels during lovemaking... It is different from any pornographic work that you've ever seen-- that's why people are still looking at it! And there's no objectification or fetishization of the woman."

Having had the privilege of working on my own projects with Carolee during a residency and then curating an exhibition of her new work in Montreal I have developed a deep, and abiding, respect for her bravery and tenacity. I can't think of any other artist, female or male, who has revealed the sensual body, in all its guises, as poignantly as Carolee. From making love with her partner, as in Fuses, or kissing her cat, Infinity Kisses, this work has been challenging, and as such, marginalized. Carolee has paid the price for her convictions. It's no wonder younger artists have steered away from this loaded subject matter. I produced a body of work over 6 years that explored masculinity and even as a male was harshly criticized. It's odd, but as I write this, I'm thinking it's only in the works of gay men that the penis seems, somehow, to be acceptable. Why is that? Am I wrong?

11/19/2010 12:49:00 PM  
Blogger Saskia said...

First off, it is pretty clear that female sexuality and female libido is much more complicated than men. Did anyone read the Times Magazine article about that in 2009? I am especially thinking of the study where they showed porn of different kinds (man-woman, woman-woman, man-man, and chimpanzees mating???) to men and women, asked them to rate how aroused it made them, and measured physical arousal. Predictably, the men said they were aroused by and showed physical signs of arousal to images depicting which ever sex they were interested in (gay men to images of men, straight men to images of women) and were not aroused by the chimpanzees mating. Women on the other hand, showed physical signs of arousal to all the images but reported being aroused only by the images of whichever sex they were interested in.
There were a lot of hypothesis in the article about why this could be, but the long and the short of it was that female sexuality is still pretty much a mystery, even to women.
That said, my first reaction to this post was somewhat echoed in Randall's Carolee Schneemann quote-- I don't want to speak for all women here but based on my personal experience, it seems like women tend to me more interested in how sex feels than what it looks like. So why would I draw a penis as a way of talking about my sexuality? and on top of that, I'm way more interested in how it feels to me-- and in that case, I become the subject, not the man.
That's just my 2 cents.

11/19/2010 02:23:00 PM  
Blogger Saskia said...

p.s.- Giant penises galore in Japanese shunga prints... made by men, for men, and look at those women swoon. whoo-eee!

11/19/2010 09:22:00 PM  
Anonymous michelle muldrow said...

Maybe it is the fear of actual sex,male penises represent action/sex and naked women are erotica,(no matter how explicit the images)?It's as if culture and artists don't tackle the male penis because it seems so sexual and challenging and yet at the same time extremely vulnerable.There is a discomfort,psychologically and artistically it is really strange that it is not explored more..

11/19/2010 10:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

I saw a new acquisition of a Picasso painting this week at the MMFA, full "frontal" (as much as you can in cubist terms) nudity of both a male and female.

What was refreshing is it recognized the genitalia as being for more then sex (I don't think Picasso was avoiding the issue)- probably a more taboo topic then simple sexuality/eroticism , that the erotic is potentially grounded in the perceiver, (sounds something like art somehow) that the biggest sexual organ is the brain and even that organ does double duties too. Leading me to wonder why we always have "redundant" senses.
I think there are larger taboos then parts of the human anatomy-

11/20/2010 10:15:00 AM  
Blogger Carlin said...

I see an opportunity :) *grabbing brushes and paint post haste*

11/21/2010 09:03:00 AM  
Anonymous kloe said...

I teach life drawing and the students, male and female, are OK with male models who are young and not too "masculine." They absolutely cringe at older men with girth and hair.

Personally I love to paint male nudes and erotic scenes involving men, but I can't get many people to look at them.

11/23/2010 12:56:00 AM  

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