Kerry Kugelman writes : In this broad survey of exploring the nude figure, curated by Eric Minh Swenson, there is a dizzying mix of artworks that reflect Swenson’s intriguing eclecticism, and the sheer range of images and sculptures could induce a sensual vertigo if consumed too rapidly.
The exhibition, Swenson’s curatorial debut, is the first of a series he is presenting to explore the idea and expression of the nude figure in contemporary Southern Californian art.
Swenson locates the energy of the nude image as part of a sexualized ecosystem, driven by passion, and with an analogue in the creative process. Stimulation, desire, arousal, and consummation are seen as a primal cycle, expressed with and through the body, as well as sublimated into cycles of creative and market forces.
However, the art in this exhibition juxtaposes approaches to the nude subject that are not just visually compelling, but that also resonate with relatively recent historical currents in how nude imagery functions in art. Most depictions of nudes since the Renaissance have had their roots in Greek and Roman Classical sculpture and painting. Until a little over a hundred years ago, female nudes in Western art were associated with fertility, divinity, and pleasure. Male nudes functioned to express physical ideals, athleticism, and scenes of war and death.
Moving into the modern era, though, the nude in art moved away from emulating the past, and instead became a battleground for cultural conflicts of morality and desire. Victorian morals saw the the nude as naked, immoral, and a deliberate excitation of physical desire – the Western concept of pornography was essentially born out of this reaction. Art and pornography, starting with Edouard Manet’s transgressive “Olympia,” have been engaged in an arresting dance ever since.
However, there is an important distinction to be made between art and pornography. Nudity, that is, nakedness in service to Art, can sublimate desire, to a large extent, and encourage aesthetic contemplation. Pornography allows no such thing.
Blunt-force pornography of the type usually associated with that term tends toward the harsh and brutal, a stark Hobbesian nakedness that bears no relation to nudity. Almost always photographic, it is devoid of nuance and strips away the contemplative act in favor of prurience and arousal.
In contemporary art, the nude and the body in general function increasingly as vehicles for inquiry into experience and recover identity. The art in this exhibition is positioned on a continuum of aesthetics, power, and transgression for the viewer themselves: the assertion and acceptance, or rejection, of control by another over one’s body and oneself.
Our lives seem played out in a social panopticon of literal and even moral surveillance, defined and bounded by economic necessity, legal constraints and sometimes repressive social mores. And we continue to be presented with idealistic depictions of the body in advertising that bear no relation to the actual bodies that each of us must live within.
Nude art, in the face of those pressures, allows artists to redefine their experience and themselves through a myriad range of expression. The NUDE survey reflects this, with artwork in a wide range of media, and embodies cultural critique, enigmatic abstraction, lyrically narrative passages, and much eroticism.
Eroticism in Western art is a bridge, the coupling of the beautiful and the transgressive, the desire for both aesthetic and physical immersion in the experience implied by the image before us. The NUDE Survey artworks embrace this idea, and draw the viewer in.
This survey, sprawling, encyclopedic, and revealing, is an ambitious and auspicious launch for Eric Minh Swenson’s curatorial portfolio - and an interesting counterpoint to his own documentarian oeuvre.
For more info on Eric Minh Swenson visit his website at thuvanarts.com. His art films can be seen at thuvanarts.com/take1