The depiction of the nude figure in the fine arts isn't just ancient--it's genuinely age-old. In the Paleolithic cave paintings of France and Spain, usually seen as the oldest works of art on Earth, those famous bison and deer are being pursued by nude men with spears. In the tens of thousands of years that have followed, artists have very often looked to the undraped human form for inspiration.
The passage of time, however, has done little to take away the subject's power to enrage conservative viewers. The National Endowment for the Arts is being threatened with extinction in no small part because the agency provided funding for a traveling exhibit that included--though was hardly dominated by--photographs of the nude.
That exhibit, of course, was a retrospective of the work of the late Robert Mapplethorpe, one of the great photographers of the twentieth century. That Mapplethorpe's chief concerns were frame composition and the interrelationship of light to dark--as opposed to any prurient aim--is well-illustrated in his 1980 vintage silver print "Untitled (Nude Female Torso)," one of the 100 photographs included in The Nude, a mammoth exhibit at the Camera Obscura Gallery. The photo, which is essentially an abstract, features a detail of a woman's nude chest against a dark background offset by a black vertical line. It's as tame and tasteful as one of Mapplethorpe's more common floral still lifes.
Equally demure is the work of another photographer who has elicited the notice of the morality police: Jock Sturges, who specializes in portraits of young women. The two beach shots in this show, "Katherine..." and "Marine...," were taken in France, where issues of morality in art do not focus on nudity. (The French, like the Italians, even display nudes in their churches.) Another participant in the show who has inspired controversy, Herb Ritts, is likewise represented by work of a decidedly reserved character. In the 1990 vintage silver print "Horizontal Male Nude," a bodybuilder in a contra pasto pose becomes a veritable abstract device used to create an asymmetrical composition.
It's apparent, then, that curator Marla Kennedy of the G. Ray Hawkins Gallery in Santa Monica, California, made her selections with an eye toward not offending viewers. In this show, there's little that would shock--let alone provoke--anyone. Only a few works feature full frontal views. And only a few are pointedly erotic. Instead, Kennedy, whose approach is loose and instinctual, riffled the history of photography, choosing artists working in certain currents--exoticism, kitsch, surrealism and abstract photography--and putting them together with a variety of contemporary photographers, many of whom are reviving the styles of their predecessors.
The exotic influence of Oriental and Middle Eastern art in the early twentieth century is seen in Edward Steichen's 1903 halftone "Nude With Cat," and in "Nature," a 1909 photogravure by Alice Boughton. A half-century later, Orval Hixon picked up the theme with "Nude," seen here in a silver reprint of the 1951 original. D. W. Mellor's 1991 silver print "Wendella Studio/Bryn Mawr" brings exoticism into our own time. In each case, the photographer framed the subject iconically, making the figure a living sculpture.
In a sense, kitsch is exoticism gone wrong. "Girl With Swan," a 1960s vintage silver print by A. Schultze-Naumburg, has a tawdry quality that's humorous--the swan is an inflatable one. The same sort of wry camp informs a 1968 vintage silver print by Camera Obscura director Hal Gould. In "Picnic With Firebird," Gould depicts an absurd scene in which four young women set out lunch in front of a shiny muscle car parked in a grove of cottonwood trees. You don't have to be Freud to pick up on this one. Psychosexual issues are also close to the surface in another work, "Cupid & Psyche," a reprint of a 1985 cibachrome by Dianne Blell.
The surrealist work in Nude is more serious. There are no period surrealist photos in the show; Kennedy has instead limited the selections to contemporary artists dedicated to reviving this early-twentieth-century style. Among the real standouts are "Alice With Springs," a silver reprint of a 1986 image by George Holz, "Untitled (Nude With Wire Skirt)," a 1990 type-C color print by Francois Robert, and "Yahana's Box," a 1995 silver print by Loretta Young-Gautier. In each case, the photographer has juxtaposed inanimate objects with partially clothed women in order to create dreamy and incongruous visual relationships.
The richest vein of material in the show is provided by the abstracts in which photographers use the human figure as a formal device. The back of a nude woman swimming becomes a dynamic diagonal element in Louise Dahl-Wolfe's 1940s silver reprint "Nude in Pool." In the 1968 silver reprint "Aspens," Ken Marcus uses the same diagonal device to reveal a woman among the trees. Blake Little's 1993 vintage silver print "Untitled (Man Balanced on 3-Wheel Cart)" sets two diagonals against one another as the subject struggles to remain upright.
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Finally, there are those photographs in the show that don't relate to any of these fine-art trends--or to each other. Among them are some of the exhibit's most interesting pieces.
Horace Bristol's "PBY Blister Gunner," a silver reprint of a 1944 image, reveals a drama of light and dark with its preposterous subject, a nude Royal Air Force gunner standing in the cockpit of a bomber. Another photo not closely related to the others in the show is the lyrical and movement-filled 1995 vintage silver print "Untitled Nymphs Series #1," by Denver's Mark Sink, which shows a pyramid of partially clothed women set against blowing drapery.
Given the great diversity displayed in The Nude--65 photographers whose work spans nearly a century and who have employed more than a dozen techniques--it's tempting to think you've seen it all. Until, that is, you get a load of David Zimmer's highly individual work in Photographs, an exhibit now on display in the recently created alternative-space-within-an-alternative-space, the Associate Members Gallery at Pirate gallery. In Zimmer's work, creepy and fetishistic images, often in multiples, are printed on the black grounds of exposed photographic paper. Using a large-format production camera with a homemade fish-eye lens, Zimmer produces what he calls "high-tech pinholes." The imagery of the photos--nudes, insects, archaic scientific instruments--echoes that of Zimmer's recently exhibited box sculptures.
Zimmer, seen by many as the logical successor in the local arena of outre photography to the late Wes Kennedy (Denver's own Mapplethorpe), has only in the last year or so emerged as an art star. And this current show is being widely regarded--justifiably so--as an unqualified triumph, with tremendous word of mouth and sales to match. It's a rare chance to see a first-rate local artist at the very beginning of his promising career.