Portrait of Naked Man Ignites Controversy on Streets of New York

The nude male photograph in the front window of a Manhattan gallery (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

A photograph of a nude male in a downtown Manhattan gallery’s front window has drawn protests from neighborhood parents and schoolteachers requesting its removal. Fully frontal, the young man stares out to the busy street with his genitalia in plain sight, in a large image that is part of Rivington Design Houses’ current exhibition. CFNM (clothed female, naked male) is portrait photographer Bek Andersen’s first solo show in New York and features nude portraits of men in the intimate settings of their homes. Inside the gallery, eight additional photographs hang on the walls, each as unflinchingly revealing as the print hanging up front.

Gallery owner Brion Isaacs

The show opened only a week ago, but the photograph quickly bred controversy within the surrounding blocks, home to two preschools, a public school, and a daycare center. Two days after the opening reception, police arrived at the gallery to inform owner Brion Isaacs of complaints that a nude man was walking on the street, but they left upon realizing the man was merely a work of art. Isaacs, however, found himself facing “a mob of teachers and parents” at the start of this week who insisted he take down the photograph, claiming it was inappropriate for children. Isaacs refused and plans to keep the image up through the duration of the show, which ends on August 15.

“I told them they have the full right to avoid our space, or tell [their] kids not to look or walk in the next street or around the block,” Isaacs told Hyperallergic. “Or tell them what’s really happening. Because you’re in New York. You’re going to see a lot worse than a bunch of penises.”

He also offered to bring Andersen into the gallery and host an open discussion with children about the show and listen to everyone’s opinions, but the teachers and parents laughed at the suggestion, saying there was no way they were going to allow that to happen. When he asked if they would allow their children to see Michelangelo’s David, they said yes, with one parent arguing that the sculpture is “different because his penis is smaller.” Isaacs also recalls a teacher saying that “freedom of expression needs to have its limits,” a remark he found odd coming from someone in that profession.

“I also asked them how many of them bring their kids to museums and galleries, and two people raised their hands out of 20,” Isaacs said. “So I could understand why this may be surprising to them.”

Harlem resident Scott Laubner surveys the controversial photograph

The image, which Isaacs chose because its square format fits the window well, has drawn mixed reactions from passersby: nearly everyone pauses by the gallery or, at the very least, turns his or her head to stare. Drivers and passengers in vehicles stopped in traffic elbow one another, pointing out the marked member. Most people, according to Isaacs, just giggle or snap a photo with the full-frontal male — which he had expected; some of the offended do walk inside the gallery, and like the parents and schoolteachers, demand the photograph’s removal.

“I’d say we hear both sides everyday,” Isaacs said. “Everyone thinks we should put a camera up and video people’s reactions. It would be funny.”

Harlem resident Scott Laubner, 44, who learned about the show only through the publicized controversy, finds no issue with the image. “I think it’s fine, really,” he told Hyperallergic. “There’s nothing sexual going on. It’s just a naked person … there’s nothing wrong with that. This is what we all look like underneath our clothes.”

21-year-old kimono designer Sasa Li agreed. “I can see why some people would be offended by it, but quite frankly, it doesn’t bother me,” she said. “I feel like there’s a lot of sensitivity towards male nudity, and then when it comes to female nudity, it’s like, whatever, it’s the norm. I have no qualms with this.”

Isaacs also thinks that different reactions would emerge if the image was of a woman, adding that it may also depend on whether or not she shaved her pubic hair.

Installation view, CFNM (clothed female, naked male)

Edward Arakelian, 22, visiting from Sydney, Australia, thinks that the manner of display may also play a role in the photograph’s reception.

“I think it’s a bit full-on, to be hanging on a window on a main street, but that’s just my personal opinion,” Arakelian said. “The height of the painting as well … it’s easy for kids who pass to see especially the genitalia — it’s sort of right at their height. Maybe if it was a little higher, or if it wasn’t as obvious it would be alright, but especially with kids, it’s a bit out there.”

This is far from the first time the male nude has tested the limits of public taste and art. In 2004, Czech sculptor David Černý installed a fountain in Prague of two men gripping their penises, while water streaming from the tips wrote out quotes by the city’s most famous residents. And in 2012, Vienna’s Leopold Museum devoted an entire exhibition to art revolving around the male nude, featuring larger-than-life pictures of naked men by its facade. More recently, who can forget the barrage of complaints Tony Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” (2014) received on the campus of Wellesley College, regardless of its subject wearing underwear? In a curious incident in 2011, which bucks the trend, sculptor Laura Facey received backlash for her “Redemption Song” (2003), which is a symbolic representation of the spiritual emancipation from slavery, because of complaints that the male figure must ‘gay’ since he did not respond sexually to the presence of the naked female figure in the sculpture.

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