Pardon my boldness, but are you going to Get Naked? I did, and it was exhilarating … and a little uncomfortable. “Get Naked” is the provocative title of the new exhibition at the recently (re)opened Bryan Ohno Gallery. The exhibition features eight artists — all women — who explore the sexual, female body.
The nude female form has been an aesthetic and symbolic presence in art since, well, the beginning of art. During the feminist movement of the 1970s, artists critiqued the aesthetic objectification of women, questioning the pervasive representation of women as icons of beauty and sexuality.
Some female artists chose to take control of the way the female body is portrayed, making it the focus of their work.
The artists in this exhibition continue that line of inquiry, frankly depicting their own and others’ bodies in ways that are honest, graphic, elusive, erotic. The gallery’s website carries an “Adults Only” warning label because there are some pretty explicit images in this show. And the explicitness is important.
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When Philadelphia-based artist Erin M. Riley presents a large-scale masturbation scene, the point is to uncover aspects of female sexuality that are often hidden or idealized or pornographized.
Riley puts her own body in the kinds of scenes that are sexted — split-second digital images that show up on someone’s cellphone, sent through cyberspace in order to arouse and please. Then Riley weaves the scenes, literally weaves them, into big wall hangings. After hours and hours of handicraft, what was once a small, slick, titillating image becomes a large, confrontational object, rich with nubby texture.
Several other artists also use strategies to present the sexual body while protecting it from becoming yet another image of easy consumption. Bodies are repeated, layered, abstracted, and even enveloped in water, as in the case of the slightly surreal underwater photographs by Seattle-based Shelly Corbett.
Another Seattle artist, Amanda Manitach, creates powerfully delicate drawings that collapse distinctions between female and male, life and death, strength and fragility.
Sarah B. Whalen, a Cornish College of the Arts alum who now lives in San Francisco, creates ink drawings that call to mind Japanese shunga (erotic) prints, or even 1980s Nagel posters. The flat, impersonal stylization is beautifully combated when Whalen emphasizes the woman’s visceral expressions. The images become tense, physical and personal.
Claire Brandt, who recently moved back to Seattle, and Yanhong Ma, who lives in Beijing, present the most realistic portraits of women. Using herself as a model, Brandt starts by painting a skeletal structure, then builds up layers of musculature, tissue and skin. The resulting figures — her figure, in still but potent positions — have enormous depth even while the strokes of nuanced color flow around the surface of her curves.
Ma’s figures are equally realistic, equally strong, but the depth is built through narrative and setting rather than solely through the body. The young women in these large paintings are comfortable in their own skin, which is very much on display, but their sexuality seems to be only one aspect of their complicated, contemporary lives.
And that is another crucial strategy to retain control over representation of the female body: the “both/and” strategy. The body can be both something perceived — a pleasure to behold — and something active — a vehicle for showing and experiencing pleasure, strength, vulnerability and complexity.