PORTLAND — Way back in 1989, the Guerrilla Girls called attention to the fact that less than 5% of the artists in Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Modern Art sections were female, but 85% of the nude works on display featured women. Twenty-five years later, it should be common practice not to create shows that are noninclusive, mostly white, and mostly male. But the patriarchy is still going strong, even in the liberal mecca that is Portlandia. The exhibition Unveiled Nudes at Elizabeth Leach Gallery, although much smaller than the Modern Art galleries at the Met, harkens back to those statistics from 1989. In addition to being mostly white, the show contains work by eight artists, seven of which are male, depicting the favorite subject of art history past and present: the female nude. Here, more than 85% of the artists are male, and 100% of the work on display is nude women.
Abstract Expressionist sculptor David Smith’s “untitled” (1964) enamel-on-canvas painting is an abstracted woman’s body; he focuses mostly on her hands and feet in a drawing that feels loose and free in its strokes. Gaston Lachaise’s pencil-on-paper “Kneeling Nude” (no date) is a bulbous drawing of a thick, hour-glass-shaped woman, her watermelon-like breasts protruding as obliquely as her angular elbow. Matisse’s elegant “Nu assis les bras étendus” (1925) is a lithograph on japon paper of a nude woman, reclining, gazing off to the edge; she’s unrecognizable as a person but tangible as an art object. John Sloan’s “Nude on Red Velvet” (c. 1920) painting features a lush, plump white body splayed over a red cover, her rosy cheeks matching the color on which she reclines.
Contemporary artists Malia Jenson, Stephen Hayes, Joseph Park, and Robert Hanson offer a continuation of these art historical works, showing how portrayals of the nude haven’t really changed all that much. Park’s psychedelic abstraction, “Hallucination C” (2013), is an oil on panel that hides the naked woman behind a series of hypnotic lines, swirls, reflections, and bursts. Hayes’s monotypes, despite being from a series titled Man/Woman, seem to only portray women in blurred forms — shadows of original bodies that seem to be fleeing from themselves. Hanson’s pencil-on-paper drawings reflect a variety of female forms, their lines far more angular and their faces actually recognizable among a crowd of bodies. Six male artists idealize six nude women.
In this context, Brooklyn-based artist Malia Jensen’s photographs of a nude woman draped on trees and across branches, from her Jungle/Woman (Captiva Suite) (2013) series, read as both a critique of the other works and a counter to the idealization of female bodies. She’s also the only photographer in the show; all of the other pieces are drawn or painted.
Jensen photographs her model as if the woman’s limbs were leaves and branches, too. We don’t see her face, but rather her hands, feet, and hair all hanging, waiting to be scooped up or left alone. This is no Rapunzel; the woman appears comatose or passed out. This is the female form outside of the romanticized and sexualized nude of art history — as an object, yes, but not idealized. If that sounds like a downer, cheer up: there could be a Portlandia sketch about this coming out soon.
Unveiled Nudes ran from January 16 through March 8 at Elizabeth Leach Gallery (417 NW 9th Avenue, Portland, Oregon).
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