Thursday, October 31, 2013


Through November 17, Hammond Harkins Galleries in Bexley, Ohio is showing Naked, a group show featuring faculty members of Columbus College of Art and DesignChar Norman, Dean of the Faculty Emeritus at CCAD, curated the show. 

Norman's Curator's Statement in the handsomely-prepared catalogue tells us that her "call to the artists was to interpret the word ["naked"] in any way imaginable..." The variety of interpretations is broad indeed: Don't worry about crossing picket lines of the morally outraged when you come. Few of the 25 artists interpreted "naked" as "nude." In general, it appears that they interpreted the theme as another route into the problems of their own, continuing practices, in form and content both.
Gordon Lee, # Pink Princess. Acrylic and oil on canvas.
Framed: 31 1/2 x 31 1/2 inches (image: 30 x 30 inches)

Gordon Lee's # Pink Princess is a smooth-surfaced, flawless presentation of a nakedness created to be covered. Stripped to its insensate skin, the Barbie-style doll is a clothes horse with nothing of beauty or real attraction underneath. Her nakedness is either appalling or—perhaps worse?—indifferent. 

The details of the doll's ensemble are laid out around her on the blue pattern grid. She will have designer sun glasses, Italian purse, 4G phone, and 3 carat ring to accompany her pink gown, the cut of which sure looks Chinese—for the all-American beauty.

In a materialistic world, naked has no value for being literally no-thing. Were Barbie nude, would she matter more?

Doug Norman, Reclining. Graphite on paper.
Framed: 13 x 16 inches (image: 5 x 7 inches
Figure studies in graphite torn from a sketchbook are among Doug Norman's offerings to this show. The flesh they evoke is the sort that humans wear; the sort to which adding more layers is, aesthetically speaking, optional. Even in focused studies of foot and face, here is nudity.

On these two pages, the artist contrasts the darkness of areas to which he has committed the efforts of minute detail to those he has merely outlined, leading up to and out again from the focal details. In both drawings, erogenous areas are the ones hinted at, breasts and buttocks. Left almost as implications, the eye nevertheless lingers as it passes over them, delicately. 
Doug Norman, Hands and Feet. Graphite on paper.
Framed: 13 x 16 inches (image: 5 x 7 inches)

Some artists move beyond representations of the body to metaphors for either the naked figure or for its exposed parts—but they still invite us to connect the idea of "naked" to the human body.

Several pieces of Kelly Malec-Kosak's sculpture are included in this show, all executed with nylon stockings. They evoke skin (between the body and the world) or membranes and linings (demarcating the interior's soft tissues).

Kelly Malec-Kosak, Dimpling. Mixed Media: Nylon,
cotton, thread. 
2 1/2 x 6 1/2 x 20 inches
Dimpling, made from a pair of pantyhose, retains its association with legs even after considerable alteration of the stockings. In this, as in her other work in this show, Malec-Kosak employs flesh-tone (for white people) hosiery, which is made to give the impression of enhanced nudity when it is worn. Nylons are "see-through" apparel, traditionally marketed to increase the sex-appeal of a woman's legs.

If we think of this piece as legs, the dimples are lost between the growths, which appear as fields of warts with long, black hairs like one would see on a witch's face—where dimples would be for that matter. 

But think of these as legs, nose, face, fingers, or any body part, and it's hard to avoid the irony in the artists's use of a medium (pantyhose) that so effectively suggests truths about nakedness. Cover up that skin with all its disgusting flaws! 

Must naked flesh be sexy or attractive? Will cosmetic embellishments—silky sheer stockings—make a difference? What a piece of work is man.

When Char Norman takes on nakedness, there are similarities between her epidural focus and Malec-Kosak's. Both women move their viewer into territory where the values of naked and covered compete and we have to wonder about the standards: Is nakedness more authentic? Is it less pleasing aesthetically? If so, should we be ashamed to admit it? What do we keep secret and what do we display?
Char Norman, The Naked Truth.
Mixed Media: linen, flax, tree bark. 29 1/2 x 8 1/2 x 8 inches
Where Malec-Kosak's image is more disturbing than not, Norman's The Naked Tree keeps the viewer slipping back and forth between aesthetic beauty and the meaning of the natural forces that produce it. 

This sculpture could very well be interpreted as a reliquary, or any object of veneration. In this piece, Norman has taken extreme care to use natural materials polished and manipulated so their native beauties stand out. Suspended from the stick, finished and polished to such a degree that it looks like bronze, the beautiful cocoon dangles, its exterior is made of bark from an ash tree. The tunneling of ash borer beetles, which have gone far to kill off the tree species, is in plentiful evidence inside the "skin." Those whimsical tunnels are reflected in the woven fiber rope that loops and fills the split cocoon. Like the tree, it is blasted—beautiful, but killed by being opened. 

Nakedness is exposure, and those intimacies—the beetle in the bark, our examination of the interior of this "cocoon"—are killing. The Naked Tree is one of the most exquisite works in this show. It's as elegiac as it is beautiful.
Kathy McGhee, Cottonwood Stand
Intaglio -- photogravure using 2 polymer
Framed: 14 x 12 1/4 inches
 (image: 5 1/2 x 3 3/4 inches).
Photographed under plexiglass.

Kathy McGhee uses trees to exemplify nakedness in a way we know from Shakespeare's Sonnet 73:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold 
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, 
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. 

The naked boughs in the layered photogravure, Cottonwood Stand, form an elegant image in which each branch is in intimate, organic relationship to all the others. There appear to be systems real and reflected, all affecting one another.

What is the idea of nakedness in McGhee's print? The leaves have gone from the trees, yet being stripped, the trees don't appear vulnerable, inappropriately exposed, or reduced to a final layer. Rather we have a richly built-up image, graceful and complex. If it is naked, it is so in the way of the anatomical invisible man demonstrated in layers of transparencies. His nakedness reveals everything about him in full and specific detail, showing him at his most complex when unclothed.
Susan Li O'Connor. Inkblot No. PA150004
Microns black technical pen on Bristol board and vellum
14 x 17 inches

There are many more artists well worth discussing in Naked. I was very taken, for instance, by a series of drawings by Susan Li O'Connor—black ink on board with ink on vellum in one or two layers on top. The cellular, organic quality of the forms and the floating, receding aspect of the vellum layers are both beautiful and suggestive of microscopic life. The relationship of these images to the theme of "naked" would be worth the poetry I expect to be found at the end of further consideration.

The catalogue to Naked includes statements from the artists regarding their work in this show. I don't recommend that the visitor refer to these as aids in viewing the show, for I find that artists' comments are usually much more limiting than helpful to visitors who bring any of their own viewing history to the show.

Many of the artists tell us what their work is about or why they made it. No doubt they give truthful accounts. But when an artist tells us about specific references, and how they interpret their own work, they tell us what they are to have let go of in presenting completed work. It's for the public to interpret now. 
Julie Taggart, Bye, Baby Bunting
Oil on panel, Framed: 7 1/4 x 7 1/4 inches,
(image: 6 x 6 inches)

"It is more serious in tone and explores what it means to be psychologically naked in the presence of political propaganda; the figure is turned away to our left and trying to ignore the bluster around her..." "The white crosses I use are partly inspired by A Monument to Betty, which is a large white cross on a hill overlooking Nelsonville, Ohio, that was at one time billed as the world's largest freestanding cross. The environments suggest a world formed by our unending thirst for fossil fuels."

While these comments may be of background interest, statements like these risk being reductive. And, ultimately, do they matter to our experience of the works?

If the artists were driven by narrative or expositional ends, did they make the works as illustrations to help articulate their ideas? Was there discovery in the process? Can we find it? If not, much better to leave us to our own imaginations, references, and stories, attaching each piece to the theme as we examine and interpret works with the independent eyes and minds that one hopes all viewers bring to the gallery. Artists' stories count, but they shouldn't lead our first impressions. It's up to viewers to speak to artists, who often can't see what they have in fact done. Artists often miss how richly they affect the minds of viewers, even when it's in ways they did not set out to achieve.

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