Hayden Gallery exhibition provocativeThe title of the Hayden Gallery's current exhibition is undeniably provocative.
The sense of taboo surrounding the subject may be to blame. But perhaps the presentation of something increasingly perceived as down-to-earth in the often ethereal environment of art is equally responsible. In bridging the latter gap, this show is quite succesful.
A body without clothes is a basic commodity, with an inexhaustible potential for artistic treatment. Contemporary art exploits this in a endless variety of ways. In the process, it widely surpasses the traditional imagery of the nude as truth and beauty incarnate. No nymphs or demigods here; instead, most works on display tend toward the very opposite, to the intuition, rooted in contemporary history and philosophy alike, of the body as a vulnerable, transitory vessel of precarious existence.
Very explicit in this respect are the photos of Peter Hujar. Reviving a medieval artistic formula, they show living nudes in reflective moods next to decaying corpses. From here it is but a small step to the dissecting picture-story of Greer Lankton, and hence to the foetal self-portraits of Mary Ahrendt. The clinical registration of body features in the quasi-photographic paintings of Dennis Kardon mrks the ne plus ultra.
Two portraits by Alice Neel stand out in this company, both for their formal qualities and for the spirit which animates them. Margaret Evans Pregnant shows the awkwardly seated sitter sporting a gaze of bewilderment above her bulging belly and swollen nipples; by contrast, the courageous Self-Portrait suggests a vigorous, independent spirit in the decrepit body of the eighty-year old pinter. As reflections on the dialectic of body and soul, these works have no rivals in this show.
The self-portraits of John Coplans on the same wall are more than a negation of the traditional aesthetics of the naked body; they strive to be its very inversion. Coplans photographs his aged, hairy body in statuesque poses, keenly exploiting its age-enhanced geometrical qualities. Rpulsive by any established standard of beauty, these pictures exhibit a sense of defiance impossible to ignore.
But if flawless immortals no longer hold sway in the realm of the nude, the fascination which engendered them lingers on. They have simply stepped down from the lofty abode of Mount Olympus to the less detached platforms of advertisement, beauty pageants, movies and adult magazines. The simultaneous breakdown of certain inhibitions has exposed others. Though many of these developments involve imagery hardly classifiable as art, the exhibition includes material to document them.
Chuck Close's huge photograph of a reclining Bertrand, which greets the visitor upon arrival, sets a standard for comparison, being a centerfold in every respect except its dimensions -- and, of course, its context. Robert Mapplethorpe's portraits of male and female bodybuilders are variations on the same theme. The exhibitionism which often transpires in these images and their connotations of aggressive sexuality are made explicit in the photo series If you want to see a really good picture... and This is all you really wanted to see by Cheri Eisenberg, as well as in the astonishing photographic impressions of a nudist beauty contest by Fran,cois Robert.
With the traditional politics of the nude put in jeopardy, it is not surprising to find artists who attack its social and cultural roots. Robert Colescott, for instance, challenges the western, white ideal of beauty by transposing its classical images. In Mother Earth (African Venus), he replaces the white goddess by a black one. Suzanne Shepherd's Leathergirls Just Wanna Have Fun photos proclaim the validity of out-of-the-mainstream attitudes toward the body and sexuality.
The overall coherence of the present show leaves a bit to be desired. Some things don't fit very well -- most obviously the prominent installation by the artists' collective TODT, rather intriguing in its own right but difficult to relate to either nudity, nakedness or stripping. Quality varies, and there are several items which I would call merely, well, cute. But as a document on a changing culture this show should not be missed, and whoever has not seen it yet should use the few days left to view it.