Opening night for In the Raw: The Female Gaze on the Nude (on view now through May 21 at The Untitled Space) was predictably packed, and not just because it’s Frieze week and the gallery was giving out free booze. I’d like to think that people were there for the actual art exhibition, which was billed as an all-female, all-nude art show where 20 women artists, aged 21 to 60-something, from Russia, Chile, and beyond, “explore a perspective less chartered, that of a woman’s eye on another,” and in the process “challenge the status quo with a liberating and authentic beauty.” Or maybe they were there because Victoria de Lesseps (daughter of Real Housewives “star” Countess LuAnn de Lesseps) is also on the roster of participating artists. Who could tell?
Indira Cesarine, who curated the multimedia art show along with Coco Dolle of Milk and Night, told me that she felt the exhibition was a “timely” one. Dolle told Whitehot magazine that the work is “saleable.” They’re in no way wrong.
Feminism and women’s “empowerment” are all the rage right now– and highly marketable, too. From lacey diapers billed as underwear “for women with periods” to Beyonce’s new workout line and her “visual album” that was hailed a “feminist masterpiece”, us women people are now being told that cultural products (and also just products) can make us stronger and freer. Supposedly, they can liberate us from “the shame and taboos” associated with our bodies and destroy the stereotypes that are holding us back. Predictably, Huffington Post declared that “In the Raw” was redefining the nude as “a space of empowerment.”
Whether it’s Ancient Greek sculptures with their chiseled glutes and modest dongs or naked sexts from Molly Soda, the nude is a massive concept– a trope of creative expression that spans across art history and is represented in probably every single art movement. The buck nekkid manifests itself everywhere, all the time, forever. And outside the simplistic world of Art History 101, it seems like it might be too diverse a thing to draw any one blanket conclusion about the purpose, portrayal, and understanding of nudes in general.
But one thing is certain. By and large, the female nude in Western art history has been portrayed in rather oppressive ways through a number of conventions: conformity to beauty standards of the time; subjects who are reclining or posed to appear vulnerable, innocent, passive, or weak; the odalisque, or concubine, an image of the exoticized slave girl, a representation of colonial power over the female body; the perpetuation of strict gender norms. But as we’ve come to understand and generally agree upon, art history is limited to a canon, which is determined and closely guarded by an insular establishment. Translation: it’s not really real. So, for a long time, there have been examples of artists (male and female) working against these conventions.
“Liberated art has been around for a long time, and a lot of feminist artists have addressed [the gaze],” Cesarine acknowledged. But the artists of “In the Raw,” she pressed, “really addressed different relationships between themselves and the nude.” Their work, she said, includes “whimsical” pieces, more erotic forms, and reflections on personal experience.
But does the fact that women artists are depicting female nudes automatically make the work revolutionary? Unfortunately, yes. As an all-women art show, “In the Raw” is automatically (and sadly) a rarity. Women, especially women of color, are still underrepresented in the art world, but Cesarine, who started showing artwork in New York in the early ’90s, says that the level of female participation right now is nevertheless unprecedented. Plus, the artists she’s chosen to spotlight are diverse and emerging, foreshadowing a more inclusive (and interesting) future for the art world.
“When you look at the amount of amazing work right now with female artists, it’s almost this explosion of art out there that just didn’t exist 50 years ago,” she said. “It just wasn’t happening. You didn’t have that level of women in art and you certainly didn’t have as many 20, 30 years ago– of course you had some feminist artists and whatnot, but it’s just so amplified now.”
Cesarine acknowledged that although it was the “feminist artists and whatnot” who have been challenging patriarchal constructs in artistic expression and the problem of the male gaze for some time now, what’s on display at “In the Raw” is still “not [found] in the everyday work of contemporary art that you see in a gallery.”
But, wait, haven’t we gotten over nudity by now, especially when it comes to art? Apparently not. Censorship on Facebook is a very real obstacle for some galleries, even ones located in liberal-as-can-be, cosmopolitan New York City. Even crafty websites like Etsy, where many artists can supplement their income selling handmade goods or items bearing their designs, ban sellers for showing even “just a hint of pubic hair.” Petra Collins famously had her Instagram account deleted in 2013, and Jerry Saltz continues to fight the good fight on his Instagram, but sometimes his posts depicting Renaissance art get flagged.
As both a curator who deals with nude work and an artist who depicts nudity, Cesarine also feels the pressure. “Despite thousands of years of the nude in art, nudity is still considered a taboo subject,” she said. “And then you have the taboos that revolve around women’s personal bodily functions, that for whatever reason are not apparently a subject that people are supposed to be talking about. I think that if it’s important for women, and it’s something they’re thinking about. They shouldn’t be afraid to use it in their artwork, and that’s what a lot of these women are doing, is really addressing subjects that matter to them– their personal experiences and turning those experiences into their works of art.”
Even if we can trick ourselves into thinking that we’re so post-everything now, to the point that nothing’s really shocking anymore and really only corporate Puritans are responsible for any remaining prudishness, it’s hard to deny that there’s still something titillating about a room full of female-made nudes, particularly the ones on display at “In the Raw.”
On opening night, a gaggle of neon-haired young women, who all seemed to be emitting an enchanting aroma of Palo Santo wood cut with Dr. Bronner’s, had formed a protective circle around one section of the white walls. I had to stand on my tiptoes to get a good look at Elisa Garcia de la Huerta’s work hung behind them: a lush photo of a woman, dress pulled up past her ribs, arching her lily-white torso into a bow over an unruly patch of weeds and wild grass, revealing her cherry-printed granny panties stained with a patch of period blood. The blotch is an honest one– it’s not idealistic, as a blossoming, feverish red, or even a deep, pensive crimson. Instead, it’s a feral, brownish streak left by viscous menstrual splash– that pallid, watercolor liquid that tends to accumulate at the string end of an almost-spent tampon.
What we see of the woman, however, is only pieces of her body. It’s as if you’ve accidentally crept up on someone writhing in ecstasy (or maybe on ecstasy). The unnatural twist of her body, though, the absence of her head, and the vulnerable, outward splay of her arms out, might also strike you as a murder scene. As in, you wouldn’t want to take a few steps forward and see her in full focus. But, after a closer look, the woman’s legs seem to be coming out from under the photographer, extending around her in the frame. It’s as if the photographer had stood up for just a moment, maybe without her partner knowing, to capture the lovely way she was sprawled out like that, legs askew (if you catch my drift). In this way, the photo is highly erotic, even without the typical trappings of the nude or even full nudity.
Among those surrounding the photo was De la Huerta, the artist, a Chilean-born SVA grad who is now based in Brooklyn. She does independent work as a photographer and multimedia artist in addition to collaborative performance art with the “queer, transnational, radical feminist collective” she co-founded, Go! Push Pops. She stepped directly in front of me and pointed to my right hand, her mouth agape. “Are you one of the artists?” she asked, indicating the tattoo of a naked woman on my right hand.
The short answer is, no– I just happen to have an image of a nudey woman (boobs, pubes n’ all) curled up, hair over her face, seemingly peering down at her crotch, etched onto the top of my hand forever and ever. Sometimes I forget that I have tattoos and I definitely wasn’t thinking about this particular one when I decided to check out “In the Raw.” But, actually, it does provide a useful way to think about the show, which promises to commandeer the male gaze by showcasing artists who “embrace a vision of the nude that is brave and honest” and “fearlessly uncensored.”
Even though nudes are a well-worn subject, containing all kinds of classic tropes, and are a common subject for all kinds of artwork, including Drawing 101 assignments and tattoos, people always seem pretty intrigued by the fact that I have a naked woman on my hand. (To be fair, I think de la Huerta just liked the tattoo and how it inadvertently matched the setting.) Is it really that weird? I dunno. I definitely don’t think that it’s revolutionary, or even especially not-erotic as the curator, Cesarine, insisted that most female-directed views of the feminine form are.
“I wouldn’t like to stereotype and say that all male artists who do female nudes are sexually motivated, but traditionally the female nude by the male artist was an object of desire. And often, that was an erotic fantasy for men, or the beauty that they were drawn to, versus a woman addressing a female nude is looking at it from a totally intellectual, conceptual point of view,” she said. Her own work, she argued, “is not sexually-motivated work, it’s intellectual work. That’s a really important differentiation.”
But “In the Raw” does include quite a bit of distinctly erotic work. Katya Zvereva‘s Japanese wood-block prints, titled “Sodom,” show swirling orgies of intertwined bodies that occupy every inch of the landscape. She’s created an alternate universe where dicks and fingers pop out of thin air and are immediately met with a breast or a mouth. The prints definitely qualify Zvereva as the M.C. Escher of porking.
Photographer Sophia Wallace‘s “Truer” (2008-2009), depicting a queer couple during intimate moments, is also included in the show, a series that the artist says “functions as art and as evidence” of legitimate queer female narratives which have largely been suppressed in favor of “a seemingly endless reservoir of material which portrays lesbians as props in heterosexual, male fantasies.” The work is nevertheless romantic and sexual, just not in a way that caters to men necessarily.
However, it’s hard to say that all the nudes present at “In the Raw” were necessarily against the status quo. Before getting her MFA from Parsons, Leah Schrager, a former model, put her BS in Biology to use and founded “Naked Therapy“– talk therapy combined with “the client and/or therapist getting naked to facilitate more honest and unique insights through the experience of arousal.” According to Schrager’s artist statement, she started photographing herself after discovering “that she didn’t own her image,” as a means of taking back ownership. Two of her photos are included in the show. “The First Metaselfie” (2015) depicts Schrager clutching a selfie stick and pouting into an iPhone– she’s coyly covering her breasts while the phone conveniently blocks her nethers. The image has a porn-like soft focus and looks like it’s been given an airbrush once-over with one of those creepy beautification apps that can make you look like an anime puppy.
The second photo, “Clothed in May” depicts standard beauty and feminine ideals– blowout hair, curvy but thin body, high heels– and could easily be part of a fashion editorial in a magazine like Glamour or Cosmopolitan. Without context, it’s impossible to distinguish these images from the fashion nudes that inspired them and even with it, I’m a little confused.
Most of the work, however, was subtle but very effective in its thwarting of traditional nudes. Maria Kreyn’s jaw-dropping oil painting “Obscure Object” (2015), which depicts a woman wearing a pair of low-rise jeans but otherwise nude from the waist up, is masterfully done. The woman has maybe just finished crying– her face is flushed and her eyes are swollen, her brow relaxed– or is carefully inspecting a bruised arm after a fight. Whatever her emotions, they’re complex and can’t simply be summed up as “happy” or “sad.” She’s exasperated, hurt, but still confident– she carries her body like a muscle rather than a burden. The painting is a dark one, recalling the electricity-less high contrast of 16th- and 17th-century Dutch Masters and the sickly glow of Degas. I found Kreyn’s work to be striking and emotive and really just great. It’s a complicated portrait that obviously rivals traditional nudes of a naked woman lying prone.
Back to my own nude portrait stuck to my hand, forever– yes, it was done by a man, and no, aside from a belly bump and actual body hair, it doesn’t look much different from traditional nudes painted by misogynist white dudes throughout Western history. Or does it? It’s hard to say, but I’m still drawn to it. She doesn’t look anything like me, but I still feel a strange identification with her. And I can’t say that I chose the design for any other reason than I found it aesthetically pleasing, and like a lot of people, I find female nudes to be rather nice to look at. I definitely didn’t get the tattoo seeking some sort of feminist power amulet I could thrust in the face of hater dweebs, but somehow, it makes me feel kind of powerful– a little bold, maybe, when people stare at her as if she’s a monster covered in swastikas.
Cesarine seems to have similar feelings about the female nude. “As an artist, it relates to me and my body,” she explained. “I feel far more comfortable working with a female nude than a male nude because I’m a woman. As a female artist, I’ve always seen the female nude as this brilliant canvas.” Something about a woman’s body, she explained, captures “the significance of the human condition, the emotion of the human body– it represents so many things.”
But maybe more importantly, as Cesarine pointed out, the female nude represents “the experiences that we go through as women.” While the body is a place that holds so much potential for the special violence, pain, and insecurities women are at high risk of having to deal with at some point in their lives, even just being able to look at it with admiration and pride is actually kind of moving and endlessly fascinating. It’s no wonder we’ll never quite get over the nude. Even though it’s the most familiar terrain possible, a naked body still manages to maintain a mysterious pull on us. And with the new stories told by the women of “In the Raw,” the nude’s been given new life and clearly has a lot more to teach us.
“In the Raw: the Female Gaze on the Nude” is on view at The Untitled Space, 45 Lispenard Street, now through Saturday May 21.