In the introduction to his classic (if wildly problematic) tome The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form (1956), the art historian Sir Kenneth Clark wrote that: ‘To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel at that condition. The word "nude," on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a huddled and defenceless body, but of a balanced, prosperous, and confident body: the body re-formed’.
Today, it’s a rare art historian – or artist – who would subscribe to Clarke’s definition. Indeed, as an aesthetic and critical category, ‘the nude’ has in many respects collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions, thanks in no small part to feminist texts such as Lynda Nead’s groundbreaking The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality (1992). And yet, contemporary artists still find themselves drawn to the naked (and near-naked) human physique, as a site that speaks of desire and disgust, pleasure and violence, the shaping forces of biopolitics and technology, and giddy utopian dreams.
Here, we gather together six works from the Artspace store that draw on – and complicate – the concept of ‘the nude’. Each of them reforms the body, although in a manner that Sir Kenneth would barely recognise.
Click on the images to find out about how you can buy these Contemporary Nudes now. The cheapest is $1170 (£890) and the most expensive $4,550 (£3,500) - with plenty of variation between.
Everything depicted in the work of Julian Opie is subjected to the same formal treatment. From landscapes to architecture, from the faces of celebrities to the strolling bodies of anonymous city dwellers, the leading British artist renders them all in schematic black outlines, which are filled and framed by blocks of flat, unmodulated colour. His is a vision of our own world visited by frictionless modernity: clean, well-ordered, and curiously lacking in affect. It is a place where the human face is often nothing but a perfect, featureless circle. Even in portraits such as Kate Moss (2001) and Sam, Schoolboy (2001) the sitters – for all their disparity in age, gender, and public renown – stare out of a pair of identical, pin-prick eyes.
How to wrest feeling, even a sense of the essential difference between one thing and another, from this all-pervading visual equivalence? One approach is to pay close attention to the details. While Opie’s titular Woman Taking Off Man’s Shirt, 2003 is almost as standardized as the figures on a road sign or lavatory door, her actions hint at a personal narrative. Does the man’s shirt belong to her husband, her lover, her ex? For whom (if anyone) is she taking it off? Such questions of particularity turn the work’s monotone into a song.
Few art school graduates will recognize the scene in Lisa Yuskavage’s print Art Students from their own time in tertiary education. A knowingly florid fantasy, it depicts the academy not as a place of chilly studios, interminable lectures on critical theory, and (for some) broken creative dreams, but rather as a prelapsarian idyll of artistic and sexual fulfillment, which recalls Pablo Picasso’s many images of clothed male artists painting nude female models, minus those works’ focus on power imbalance, age discrepancy, and barely sublimated performance anxiety. There is an almost comic ampleness to everything in this image, from the women’s breasts to the man’s sideburns. Flowers burst through the fencing behind the central figure. As the artist has said: ‘I hate stingy art’.
For all that her work draws on 1950s ‘cheesecake’ pin-ups and 1970s Playboy spreads, Yuskavage, one of the key American painters of her generation, is playfully radical – or perhaps radically playful – in her approach to the braiding of gender, sexual desire, and questions of creative and political potency. We might read this print not as an image of a vanished Eden, peopled by priapic male artists and their pliable female models, but of a future utopia, in which the patriarchy is nothing but a distant, un-mourned memory. Note the plural in Yuskavage’s title: Art Students. Perhaps tomorrow, it’ll be the whiskery Adonis’s turn to pose and giggle while his classmates wield the brush.
Are the figures in the American artist Jack Pierson’s photograph Hot Dogs at Sunset nudes? One clue is provided in the apparent contradiction between the work’s title, and the teasing absence in the image of any wieners, pork-based or otherwise. Instead, we see a trio of buff youths gathered around a beach barbecue, wearing nothing to protect them from its hot coals and spitting fat save for identical puka-shell necklaces, and swimming trunks so tight that they make the fig leaf that Michelangelo added to the genitals of his David (1504) at the behest of the Florentine authorities seem modest by comparison.
This photograph, then, is all about fantasies of what we cannot quite see, and of what may have taken place here once Pierson put his camera down. Consider the figure on the left: the way he holds his effervescing, proudly vertical beer bottle at crotch height, the thick forefinger he places to his pouting lips, the burst of sunlight that frames his head, transforming him into an all-American Apollo, or a haloed (and startlingly homoerotic) Christ. Was there more sizzling at this cookout than simply the hotdogs on the grill? Pierson isn’t telling. All he provides us with is this frozen moment, a surface in which we might glimpse the reflection of our own desires.
Contradiction – or perhaps more precisely a clashing of received gender codes – is what powers the young French artist Camille Henrot’s 100% Cashmere Blanket. The fabric bears an image of a woman’s crotch and legs, rendered in a cartoonish line that recalls at once the paintings of Phillip Guston and the drawings of Robert Crumb. While both her feet are shod in tottering high heels, her right leg is sheathed in a fishnet stocking, while her left bristles with thick black hairs. There is a game being played, here, with attraction and repulsion, with the raising and dashing of expectation. Those legs both belong to the same body, so why does the hairy limb provoke (at least to those with vanilla sexual tastes) such unease?
Much of the humour of this work derives from its possible use. Drape the blanket over your lap on a cold winter’s night, and it will appear as though you are exposing your vulva, and have neglected to depilate your right leg. Feeling the softness of the cashmere, you might reflect on the relative wiriness of human body hair, or the fact that while the wool of the pashmina goat is highly prized, you send your own fuzz spiraling down the plughole the moment you’ve shaved it off. With this work, Henrot (who was awarded the Silver Lion at the 55th Venice Biennale) has created that rare thing: a design object that makes you think.
Naked, and shot in profile, the man in the celebrated German photographer Thomas Ruff’s Nudes ga08 glows against a dark background, his flesh a pale white save for his ruddy face and genitals. Arms aloft, his shaven head lolling, his skinny body stretched into an elongated ‘S’ shape, it seems as though he is being suspended from his unseen hands, like a participant in a BDSM scene, or a detainee awaiting an interrogator’s attention. This is a lo-res image (indeed, its haziness has an almost painterly quality), so it’s difficult to read his expression, although his slack penis does not speak of unbridled excitement. Looking at this work, we’re reminded of the crucifixion in Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece (1512-1516), or else of the shocking photos of troops torturing and humiliating prisoners in Abu Ghraib.
This photo – like all those in his Nudes series – is in fact culled from internet pornography. Digitally processing the original image so that it’s enlarged to the point where it dissolves into murky ambiguity, Ruff scrambles our sense of what we are seeing. Is this figure a willing participant in whatever is going on, here? Is he experiencing pleasure, or pain? And what, in the end, is the documentary value of this photograph? As Ruff has said, we have ‘all lost, bit by bit, the belief in this so-called objective capturing of real reality’.
The pioneering Canadian Queercore artist, writer, and filmmaker Bruce LaBruce is celebrated for his work’s punky, abrasive spirit, which suffuses his 1999 photograph, Nun with Pussy #3. Here, a woman dressed as a Holy Sister stares straight at the camera, her right arm hiking up her robes to reveal her naked crotch, its flesh the same blush hue as the studio walls. Her neatly trimmed pubic hair finds an echo in her eyebrows, which have been plucked into two dark scimitars. Nuns, of course, are not primarily known for their devotion to personal grooming, and we might wonder whether these details are an admission that LaBruce’s model is merely playing a role. Either way, they only amplify this image’s already highly transgressive charge.
While LaBruce’s shot owes an obvious debt to late 20th Century pornography, it also belongs to an older tradition of erotica, which places supposedly chaste religious figures in sexual situations, often to satirical effect. Think of Rembrandt’s etchings of rutting monks, or the dildo-brandishing nuns in the Marquis de Sade’s novel Juliette (1791-1801). Another antecedent is perhaps Gustave Courbet’s notorious close-cropped painting of a vulva, L’Origine du Monde (1866). Witness how LaBruce employs a great stretch of black robe to distance, even disconnect, his model’s face from her crotch. Then there’s his odd title, Nun with Pussy, which suggests the Holy Sister’s genitals are an exterior object, rather than a part of her (God-given) body, no more shameful to expose than any other stretch of skin and hair.