Jim Herbert’s paintings of naked lovers are not for the feint of heart. At first glance, viewers might want to look away as though catching a glimpse of a couple kissing. And some people will totally avert their eyes from these intense canvases. At the opening for the recent show at the English Kills Gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn, a young couple strolled in, saw one work, and then bolted out the door.
They left because these works are not simply nudes. With today’s porn-soaked internet and sexually liberated gaze, nudity’s shock value is dismally low. Something else plays out in Herbert’s huge canvases. By depicting the tenderness between lovers, these images portray intimacy — the same emotional concept that pays therapists’ mortgages.
For example, in 2010’s “Untitled,” a man and woman stand close beside each other. The angle isn’t designed to put the erogenous zones on display, but a careful eye can still observe numerous nuances of body language. The man’s nose rubs against her cheek. His forehead rests above her ear. His chin rests on her shoulder. Her arm stretches across his back and rests on his shoulder. And yes, he holds her breast as she caresses his genitals. Their eyes close in quiet bliss as they cherish the warmth of each other’s bodies.
Herbert breaks proportional rules and paints enlarged heads. At this stage of his career, the heads are actually closer to natural scale than earlier, more glaringly disproportionate works. Big faces can effectively dominate the works’ composition and draw attention towards their complex and emotive facial expressions. It’s an effective formal strategy to counter-balance the genitals as the de-facto center of gravity, which renders the overall content less sexualized and more emotional.
Scenery plays a critical role in most of the paintings. In one work, two lovers embrace and twist around each other on an abandoned street. Trash is scattered about and a dog stands guard. It’s not exactly the most conducive environment but they are far too enamored with each other to care about their grungy surroundings. In another work, two half-clothed adolescents stand before a mountain vista. Their poses are simultaneously trepidatious, curious, nervous, and excited. The saccharine scenery betrays that teenage urge to fulfill Disney-inflicted fantasies of a picturesque first love experience. Perhaps, the anti-picturesque sentiment of the more adult couple in the dirty street is a natural reaction to this younger aesthetic. In any case, both works employ scenery to reveal and reinforce the texture of the lovers’ emotional connection.
A few works examine the sexual charge between two men. In one work, a peachy colored boy sits next to a purple youth. Their faces writhe with pleasure and they sit on a flowery couch with clouds and trees in the background. In a clever visual pun, they might be out(side).
In another image, two boys stand next to each other in a swamp. Each attempts auto-fellatio. The boys stand far apart and do not touch each other, appearing more like old buddies than budding gays. This picture explores that adolescent moment when curiosity about the pleasures you can unlock from your body is piqued. In this phase, nothing is more helpful than trading notes with a trusted and intimate friend of the same sex.
Herbert’s honed finger-painting technique adds wicked texture and thick sculptural facture to his paintings. The skin’s coloring is particularly rich and varied. To indulge in a sci-fi metaphor, it’s like looking at painterly plasma clouds with colors dissolving into each other — but without curdling into a dull grayish mud. The twist is that every figure has been touched, caressed, and massaged by Herbert’s fingers. Just as the traces from his hands subtly show up on all their bodies, we are all covered with the fingerprints of our lovers.
Herbert still remembers his art classes with Clyfford Still, who once remarked that he paints visual rather than verbal ideas. These paintings attack a picture – how we are accustomed to seeing the naked body depicted. In our visual culture, nudes usually appear as classically disengaged and aloof statutes or as mechanical and cold puppets carrying out a fake performance for the camera. The image of two people pausing to cherish each other’s warmth and unlocking pleasure together is far less common. It’s an open question whether we look away from these couples out of polite modesty or to avoid the intimidating vulnerability that this intimacy creates.
Jim Herbert’s New Paintings were on view at the English Kills Art Gallery (114 Forrest Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn) from September 17 to October 24, 2010.