Neekid Blk Gurls Rush Arts Gallery (photo by writer)

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.

Deana Lawson, “Ashanti” (nd), Pigment Print, (no dimensions given)

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.

16 replies on “Neekid Blk Gurls”

  1. Pay attention the curators name is DANNY SIMMONS not Danny williams and this is a racist article.

  2. This author is a racist! objectifies and doesn’t understand women or art and cant even get the curators NAME RIGHT! Would love to see you back in Chelsea, Carrol. Really.

  3. Threatening the author ? No ! One should feel pity with a person who writes such nonsense !
    It is obvious that only one image spoke to the author. Maybe something that comes close to his upbringing….. If you would have been at the opening were many different people of color and age could be heard talking about the images this kind of assessment would have never been a thought. The show is not a comparison. Every image in it has his own story. I believe the choices are fantastic and unless the author is the only one that understands art and the 200 plus people at the opening were uneducated perverts this is a great show. It is interesting how fare a subject can be taken and it is certainly not a place for a narrow minded little brain Mr. Vartanian.

    1. Hi Guenter, but when you curate a show you invite comparison and contrast. That’s the nature of an art exhibition. To assume that people are not going to make comparisons is unrealistic.

      And I don’t think anyone thinks that a review is a definitive opinion on anything. Readers understand it is the reviewers opinion that is informed by their experience and knowledge. The reviewer has a voice and it is as valid as any other. We can all disagree though.

      Also, the name of the show sounds deliberately provocative. What is your thought on that?

    2. Hi, Guenter: The title of the show, “Neekid Blk Gurls,” brings to mind salacious tumblr domains. It’s provocative. I focused on the work of Mr. Frederick and Ms. Lawson because they re-worked the theme of the traditional nude in art history, and did not bat an eye at the content of the exhibition. The other work in the exhibition, I felt, resembled fashion or fetish photography. This is not to say the other work in the show was bad or less than Frederick and Lawson’s photographs, just different.

  4. I think what ever you say as an “art critic” should be even handed not a destruction of an effort.
    It is easy to criticizes. It should be made clear it is only his opinion not the truth nothing but the truth. To believe people would question the written words is naive. A good review should intrigue people not turn them off. The real opinion should come from a woman not a man. Women are the subject here and I asked women at the opening for their opinion. That was a very different picture that I heard. The name! We live in America and prudery is common. So in order to indicate light hearted what you will see the name is appropriate. The pictures themselves went form disturbing ( nude lady with missing leg ), boudoir to fashion (invitation) from sensitive to hard confrontation. If the whole show would have been ladies on unmade beds in an average environment the “art critic ” would have given his blessing. Why doesn’t he curate a show and invite me I gladly rip it to shreds. No I wouldn’t !

    1. I disagree. An art critic is not intended to be even handed, that’s the job of the art historian. Art critics are supposed to be opinionated and challenging. Sometimes that involves being super critical. A “review” is not intended to turn someone on but challenge the work to stand on its own feet with the crutch of the curator or other supporting text. If reviews were all positive that would be PR. Critical reviews are designed to inform others about shortcomings as the reviewer sees them. Of course, we can all disagree about shortcomings.

  5. You need a catching name for a show, It was ment to be, although literal,   humorous in its irony. Anyone who doesn’t get a bit of simple irony, and calls a woman lying on a mattress  the reinvention of the nude should not be a critic.The pics your focused on are as traditional as they come. The other images in the show had very different approaches. There was a reason for that !!! 20 pictures with different ways to look at a nude. Danny Simmons did an excellent job CURATING  the show. It is definitely above average !!!! A show is not set to please an art critic. This show tells a story! Fashion is one part in our society that plays with nudity. Fetish must be your fantasy but I did not see any. The article is very poorly written and anyone who saw the show had a very positive opinion.( for example the photo editor of CBS).

  6. Hi, Guenter: 

    Part of the reason I liked the name of the show was the tongue in cheek reference to the sexual tumblr domain names. It was provocative. The title immediately caught my attention, and made me want to check out the show. 

    As you mentioned in your previous response, Mr. Simmons did select nudes from a variety approaches. I, however, was most engaged by the two I chose to write about. I felt these two works celebrated the beauty of the models while challenging mainstream notions about beauty. 

  7. The poor writing  reflects on the person who wrote it. Reading it my thoughts would be I never want to meet that SOB. What a negative character. People who saw the show and that I talked to did not understand the art critic. You have the right to write what ever you want but the way it is written it does not represent one persons opinion that I know. Maybe trying to get this across to you may improve your thoughts and approach for later articles. I assume it is not common to get criticized as an Art Critic but give it a thought. Have a Happy Holiday and a successful New Year. Guenter

    1. Actually, it’s very common to be criticized as an art critic. Thanks for your holiday wishes. Ours for you are here: Happy Holidays!

    2. As a critic, I wrote a review based on my personal experience of the show, which I found to be well intentioned, but lacking in certain areas. As I mentioned in my post, I commended the concept of the show, and I championed Mr. Frederick and Ms. Lawson’s photographs, in particular. The post is my individual response to the show, which should not be taken as an authoritative statement. In your comments, you raised some interesting points about the role of the critic and the nature of writing about art. And although I do not agree with your assessments of my character or my writing style, I appreciate your candor, and your willingness to engage in debate. Season’s Greetings and Happy New Year. ~ Brendan

  8. Everyone is a critic to some extent, sharing their opinions about various aspects of life. It is to be expected that individuals will not respond to any given medium in the same manner because everything one perceives is filtered through his/her own perspective that colors the very image one is viewing or experiencing. For example, rain is just rain, neither good nor bad, nor does ones opinion make it so; instead it determines the way one will receive and interact with it. This is the same for opinions, reviews, etc for any review, comment or opinion conveys more about the reviewer than the person/subject being reviewed. Either direction does not change the ‘subject’…it remains its own entity.

    Similar to any other review, Mr. Carroll’s review only represents his own thoughts and perspective of the medium he viewed, in the same manner any other individuals thoughts/opinions only speaks to their views. Personally, I did not feel the review was poor (negative, bad, etc) nor did it speak ill or was disrespectful to the photographers or their work. It was an opinion. Although I do not know the race of Mr. Carroll (I am assuming he is not Black since the accusation of racist was mentioned) I wonder if the same article was written by a Black man or woman and he/she used the same verbiage “I am transfixed by the flickering images of dark apple bottoms thunder-clapping in much-too-short pink panties” would the article have received the same feedback/response and accusations of being racist?

    Unfortunately, the woman’s body (Black women’s body to a larger extent in some cases) has been objectified in many cultures and reduced to ‘pieces’ whose only purpose is for the sexual pleasure of men. There are many discussions we can have as to why this is the case (although this is not the platform *smile*). Despite the many reasons, I commend the photographers, curators, artist, models and women who carry themselves in such a manner (and the men who respect them) that shows a different side of beauty, love, compassion, pride, respect, honor and acceptance.
    Perhaps this dialogue will spark an interest in the reader and motivate him/her to view the exhibit and form their own opinion of the work. Again, their opinion, similar to my opinion is just our .02 cents which neither increase nor decrease the value of the work or the people involved. Thank you Danny Simmons, Deana Lawson, Russell Frederick and the other photographers for following your passion and fulfilling your purpose, for by doing so you are giving others the courage to do the same. I Grow. You Grow. Love Grows!

  9. Hey, Brendan: people “set foot” in places; they don’t “step foot.” In English, at least.

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