Rush Arts Gallery in Chelsea has a well-intentioned but flawed exhibition, titled Neekid Blk Gurls. The show, now on view till January 27, 2012, features artwork from 18 photographers who range in experience and background.
According to the show’s curator, Danny Simmons, the exhibition’s mission was “to take the traditional art form of the female nudes and show images of Black women beyond that of sexual objects.” The female nude (which essentially means idealized depictions of white women) is one of the major motifs of Western art. The black female nude, however, exists on the fringes, positioned as a sideshow “freak” or sexual deviant. We need to look no further than the Hottentot Venus, a kidnapped South African paraded before white men in 19th C. Europe for her protruding buttocks and large vulva.
I, for one, had a difficult time thinking of positive examples of the black female nude in contemporary art. (Renee Cox’s self-portraits, Mickalene Thomas’s odalisques and Ifétayo Abdus-Salam’s blaxploitation heroines came to mind, but few others.) So I applaud the curator’s aim to re-present, and uplift, the black female nude but fault his execution.
More on that in a minute. First I should admit Rush Art Galleries hooked me with the title Neekid Blk Gurls. As cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales notes in the press release, though the female nude has long been a subject of art, the Black female nude has more often been fetishized than other women. The exhibition provided me, a white guy raised in the suburbs, the perfect opportunity to eyeball “neekid blk gurls” under the pretense of high art in Chelsea. I will be the first to say that I am transfixed by the flickering images of dark apple bottoms thunder-clapping in much-too-short pink panties. I imbibe racy photo spreads of buxom video vixens like a kid devours candy Easter bunnies. Before I stepped foot in the gallery, I knew that it might be a challenge to view the women without ogling them, to appreciate them without objectifying them.
Most of the work on view was not challenging enough to be an issue. It veers toward innocuous fashion photography. But there are few exceptions. The most powerful image in the show is Russell Frederick’s photograph of a sinewy nude woman reclining on a couch inside a modest apartment. The presentation is straightforward, leaving room for the viewer to be possibly titillated (as I was). The sitter makes eye contact, and her gaze could be described as gentle, but it would be amiss to say she is lascivious or inviting.
Frederick both embraces and subverts the long established visual archetype of the female nude in repose. The model’s pose and the domestic interior brought to mind Matisse’s odalisques, but the similarities end here. Matisse’s paintings exude exotic carnality; Frederick’s photograph is grounded in the real world. I feel I could know this woman. I recognize the couch, with the embroidered pillows. Maybe she purchased it at at the Raymore and Flanagan department store.
She is an attractive woman, with a warm, open face that still retains some of its baby fat. She is well toned, but lithe, with ample breasts, which are topped by gumdrop nipples. She is as beautiful as every other nude in art history. What sets her apart from most other nudes is what she lacks: a leg, which has been amputated.
I assume there is a painful back-story to that gnarly piece of meat formerly known as her right leg, but the information is not privy to the viewer. She is a bold challenge to mainstream notions of beauty.
What I find so appealing about the photograph, which is erotic and unsettling, is that it neither exploits nor tries to hide the nubby hunk of scarred flesh. It is what it is. If you watched The Sopranos television series, you may be reminded of Svetlana, the one-legged Russian character, as I was. (In the series, Tony and she had sex, but she was no goomara. Rather, I would suggest, Tony was her goomara, as he was literally bewitched by the hard-nosed straight talking Russian.) Frederick could increase the scale of the portrait, say to six feet, and ditch the clunky art school matt, both of which diminish the stature of the sitter.
Equally affecting is Deana Lawson’s photograph, titled “Ashanti.” Like Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’s “Grande Odalisque” (1814), the photograph shows a reclining figure looking over her shoulder at the viewer. Whereas Ingres’s painting is notable for sitter’s elongated spine and lavish opulence, Lawson’s photograph is notable for the sitter’s squat, compact frame and complexion, and the room’s lowly decor.
Ashanti is a stark portrait of an ordinary woman lying on a bare mattress in a threadbare room. She’s attractive, but not stunning. She has nice hair. But her most prominent feature is her proud derriere, which demands attention. She confronts the viewer with an uncompromising stare, which is neither inviting nor declining. (You can look, but that’s all you can do.)
The unforgiving overhead light meticulously records Ashanti’s every blemish–wayward pimples, roving stretch marks, and, the occasional inflamed hair follicle. These imperfections are not exceptional, but commonplace. Though the model’s posture echoes Ingres’s “Odalisque,” she also brings to mind the women shot by Richard Kern or Roy Stuart. Who is Ashanti, and why is she in this room? She could be an executive on a business trip, a housewife on vacation, or an escort servicing a client. Or I could imagine that she is required to be on her feet all day because of their rough, crackled skin.
The point is, I wanted to know her, the subject of this photograph, as I wanted to know the sitter in Frederick’s portrait. Despite its flaws, the show succeeded in its stated mission.
Neekid Blk Gurls continues at Rush Art Gallery (526 W 26th Street, Suite 311, Chelsea, Manhattan) until January 27, 2012.