Hanging Out

"Untitled (Rodin pose)," by Jack Balas, photograph.

Subtly placed at eye level on the front door of Ron Judish Fine Arts is a letter-sized sheet of paper with an advisory for viewers of Horse: the male as sexual entity. It states that the exhibit, which is now showing, includes the depiction of the male nude and that some of these images are "homoerotic" and some are "heteroerotic." And according to gallery director Ron Judish, the warning has done the trick -- there's been a heavy stream of viewers since the show opened, and the phone's been ringing off the hook.

The show's title alone has surely caused many passersby to blush. After all, using the horse as a metaphor for men suggests the expression "hung like a horse." But it doesn't seem to bother the people who have been constantly touring the gallery. Judish relates an amusing story about two couples who saw the show. "After they went partway through, I heard one of the men tell the two women to meet them outside. As the men were leaving, I asked them if the show had made them uncomfortable. One of them responded, 'No -- inadequate.'" There's that horse metaphor again. In fact, if the show does nothing else, it will put to rest the idea that lifting weights is an indication of other physical shortcomings. That's surely not the case with the gym rats seen in most of these pictures.

The buzz about the show has been mostly positive, however, which is something unexpected, given how in-your-face it is. Plus, men as sexual objects is an issue that elicits negative reactions. After all, it was only five years ago that Republicans in Congress used photos of male nudes by the late New York photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, (along with "Piss/ Christ," by Andres Serrano) to try to bring an end to the National Endowment for the Arts.

True to the gallery's form, photos by Mapplethorpe and Serrano are available on request. But for some reason, neither has been included in this show. Too bad, because these two artists would have substantially added to Horse; besides, there's some dead wood that could have been pruned to provide space for their work.

Though the male nude can still look shocking when seen in a political context, from an art historical standpoint, it is anything but controversial. Depicting it is a tradition with more than 10,000 years under its belt. It was a central subject for the Ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as for the Italians during the Renaissance.

Beginning in the eighteenth century, however, and continuing into the nineteenth century, it went out of style as the female nude became predominant, especially owing to the efforts of the School of Paris artists, both the academics and the impressionists and their many followers. The male nude as a subject was put away in the closet, and though many artists still produced male nudes, such works were mostly hidden and known only to an audience of specialized collectors.

In the last twenty years, male nudes have tentatively come out into the gallery lights again, but only infrequently. This preserves the confrontational quality of many of the things seen in Horse and explains why, despite all those old European pieces, Judish felt he needed a warning label on his door.

And the sign isn't the gallery's only act of discretion: A temporary wall has been placed in front of the main window that not only blocks the view of gawkers on the outside, but also provides a prominent place on the inside to hang the exhibit's single most important piece, "Male Nude NM144," a meticulous crayon drawing on colored paper done around 1970 by the late Paul Cadmus.

Stylistically, the detailed drawing reveals the artist's deep appreciation for the old masters, whose accomplished realism and instinctual sense of composition he had obviously perfected. It shows a rugged-looking man, lean and sinuous, with a hard expression on his face. He seems to glare at the viewer (or perhaps at the artist) as he poses in a three-quarter stance, leaning against a wall. The drawing, on loan from the DC Moore Gallery in New York, "is one of only five or six by Cadmus available anywhere in the country," Judish says. "Since Cadmus died last year, the estate has been frozen."

Cadmus has been called the Mapplethorpe of his time, in part because in 1934, one of his ribald paintings, "The Fleet's In," was removed from an exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. The painting depicted robust sailors and lusty women running amok in an orgy of drunkenness, and the U.S. Navy didn't like that one bit. History repeated itself more than half a century later when, in 1989, the Corcoran, a federally funded institution, canceled the Mapplethorpe retrospective, "A Perfect Moment," under pressure from conservatives in Congress.  

To the left of the Cadmus, on the other side of the door, is a group of drawings by another deceased artist who gained fame decades ago. But unlike Cadmus, the artist known as Tom of Finland wasn't getting his work kicked out of museums; he just wasn't getting into them in the first place. Tom of Finland created outrageous depictions of nude men with exaggerated physical attributes -- not as art, but as products for sale in America's proto-porn industry of the 1950s and '60s. The artist, whose real name was Touko Laaksonen (and who really is from Finland), had his name changed in 1957 by Bob Mizer, publisher of the male pin-up magazine "Physique Pictorial," and the moniker stuck.

In the 1980s, some began to notice that Laaksonen, who died in this country in the 1990s, could actually draw, and in a stroke of art-historical revisionism, his work began to be perceived not as porn, but as art. That's why we can now see his work hung side by side with the likes of Cadmus.

The same is true for the photographer known as Bruce of Los Angeles. Several of his pieces have been hung across the gallery from the Tom of Finland drawings. Bruce of Los Angeles, whose real name was Bruce Belles, also created his work for sale as erotica -- but times change, and so do attitudes. Since his death, Belles has been recast as a significant West Coast photographer. In style, these are classic Southern California black-and-white figure studies -- not unlike the work of Edward Weston, except for the use of campy props such as the archer's bow seen in "Mike Sill." In the photo, a vintage gelatin silver print from 1956, Belles captures a rear view of a strapping nude blond man standing on a ridge, set before a mountain landscape. It's interesting to note how well these photos, intended to be dirty pictures, hold up alongside the works of a bona fide figure from the history of photography, the late George Platt Lynes, which are hung right next to them.

There are eight impressive Lynes photos: four gelatin silver prints from the 1950s, and four larger reprints that were posthumously reissued in 1997 from the 1930s, '40s and '50s originals. All have been loaned by DC Moore. Many of Lynes's photos have a surrealist mood. For example, in "George Tichenor (in hammock)," a recent print of a 1939 original, the man named in the title lies languidly in a hammock, his arms falling to the sides. Unnervingly, he is blindfolded, and the hammock, instead of being outside among the trees, is placed against a rich silvery-gray background of indefinite depth. Also surrealistic is "Three Nude Models (one in shadow)," a vintage gelatin silver print from the 1950s.

There are only a few local artists in Horse, and two of them, Michael Brohman and Bruce Price, both of Denver, seem out of place here -- even if both refer to the penis in their otherwise very different sculptures. Brohman is represented by handsome oversized figural bronzes, which are abstract but still anatomically correct. One is in the middle of the gallery's front space, the other in the back. Price's wall-hung installation of five square boards mounted to the wall is also in the back. This very cool piece, "School of Scandal," in enamel and acrylic on wood, has dimensions that have been determined by the measurements of five men's erections. The spacing of each of the five on the wall was determined by measuring the inseams of five other men. Price has long done work based on body measurements, but he's never before used the penis.

One local artist whose work does seem right at home in this show is Jack Balas from Berthoud. His photographs appear courtesy of the nearby Robischon Gallery. Balas combines traditional compositions with conceptual and narrative content. In "Untitled (chest measure)," a gelatin silver print from 1998, one nude young athlete wraps a measuring tape around the chest of another. The same two young men are seen again in "Untitled (Rodin pose)."

In some of the Balas photos, there are added words, either set in type running below the image, as in "You Don't Know Enough to Not Like This Photograph...," a 1990 gelatin silver print of a well-formed torso, or on signs held by the models, as in "Untitled (joy/fear)," another gelatin silver print, this one from 2000.

Gallery director Ron Judish is so pleased with the response he's gotten from the community regarding the provocative show that he's thinking of making it a summer annual. If he does, it will most likely be the next time we'll see male nudes on display in Denver -- at least in a gallery setting.

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