The nude has a long history in art. From the formidable slab of marble that Michelangelo carved into the David to the various nudes presented as feminist critique in recent years, to depict a nude is to enter a long a developed visual conversation. What made many of the nudes at the Pulse Art Fair so disappointing was that they took no stock of this conversation and proceeded to present pornography masquerading as fine art. By pornography, I mean work where the entire appeal of the work hinges on the titillation of flesh. The style is weak. The technique is sloppy. The iconography is shallow. The artist's vision is vacant.
Muzi Quawson's Swimming with Diamonds from Yossi Milo Gallery was one of the few good nudes on view at Pulse. This British artist took a picture of a nude woman swimming a shimmering pool in Woodstock, New York. The backlit duratran light box emphasizes the glimmers on the water. The rough and rippled texture of the dark water contrasts well with the smooth and soft texture of the woman's pale skin. It is strong photo in which formal devices compliment the nude. It joins a long history of photographers like Robert Mapplethrope who see the nude body as one visual note to harmonize with other formal elements as they create the symphony of a captivating work of art. They do not deny the erotic appeal of the nude. However, this appeal isn't the work's only selling point. There is a soothing serenity in Quawson's photo as this woman soaks in this glistening waters.
Mark Denis' Art History Major from 2008 epitomizes the genre of the disappointing pornographic nude. In this painting, a young girl lifts her shirt in a formally evocative Girls-Gone-Wild pose. The background is Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling from Rome. The warm color of the girl's skin clashes with the pastels of the ceiling. Perhaps, there is a certain ironic appeal in juxtaposing this self-conscious flash with the seat of the Vatican, a bit of Cancun in the middle of Rome. But it is a heavy handed iconography that brings focus back again to the appeal of the pornographic. Whereas the symbolism of Quawson's work was one of a radiant aquatic providence from the worries of the world, Denis relies upon the attraction to the flash. Such works prove that the feminist enterprise is still desperately needed.
Terry Rodgers's painting The Resonance of Undergrounded Reality from Amsterdam’s TORCH Gallery was a stirring figurative work that addressed these questions of sexuality and pornography with a striking visual scene. The viewer beholds a group of half clothed magazine perfect men and women. They indulge in the joys of alcohol, cigarettes, perhaps drugs, and a luxurious interior. There is a marvelous ambiguity about what is precisely going on in the scene. It could be a brothel. It could be a night club. It could be private party. The work displays a powerful mastery of the photorealist style. Each strand of hair is visible as are the small sparkles on the wine glasses and jewelry. The haunted faces of all of these revelers suggest that despite all this hedonism, something is missing.
Terry Rodgers spoke very eloquently about his intentions regarding this work:
"The paintings are not meant to judge or criticize. I am looking closely at who we are, the density of influences upon us, the mistakes we make, and the recognitions that occur in trying to navigate a universe with no sign posts. The figures in my paintings often are seen at a moment where some recognition or self-reflection seems to be taking place. These moments of recognition are metaphors for grappling with the unknown. Perhaps something is missing from their lives and they don't necessarily know what it is. They are metaphors for the search. My reaction to the figures and their gestures is sympathy, not judgment.
My hope is that ultimately these paintings show fragile, genuine human beings trying to make something of what they are confronted with. Each of them is unique in their individuality—in their hair, their eyes, their lips, their hands—and they are all separately struggling and often finding merely surface solutions and ephemeral escapes to the timeless riddles of consciousness."
Pornography was recently addressed in a long and stimulating column of this art blog. I agree with the author that sexuality is not something we should fear in that predictable American and puritanical fashion. However, it is an open question whether valorizing pornography as a form will actually advance this enterprise of nurturing a healthier sexual paradigm in America.
Jean Baudrillard once observed that "at the heart of pornography is sexuality haunted by its own disappearance." Sexuality is a physical and emotional dance with the other. Pornography eliminates this engagement with the other and replaces it with the one way interaction with a ghost image. The cool touch of the keyboard pales in comparison to the warm touch of the lover. Something is deeply absent in the pornographic experience.
As Rodgers might put it, engaging with the other as lover is one of the timeless riddles of consciousness. Pornography strikes your commentator as an easy way out and a surface solution. Recent conversations in the gay community focus on the sequestering in a virtual closet. Many "down low" men now limit their experience of same sex desire to imagery on a computer screen. For them, pornography operates as a mechanism of sexual denial. This is but one example of the way in which pornography can inhibit rather than foster healthy sexuality.
But Porn sells - and it sells very well. The good and provocative work of Rodgers and Quawson's works was outnumbered by many pieces in the pornographic region of Denis. it is not the best work. At the end of the day, it demonstrates the underlying problem of appointing the art market as curator during art fairs. Although it may be a tired example of the market's flawed judgment, Van Gogh never sold a painting during his life. These porn pictures at Pulse smacked of the category of art that sells well in the moment but lacks the aesthetics and iconography to merit enduring memory in the art world - which is ultimately resale value.