Aug 24, 2011

Art Snatch

The progressive concealment of the body that goes along with civilization keeps sexual curiosity awake. This curiosity seeks to complete the sexual object by revealing its hidden parts. It can however be diverted [“sublimated”] in the direction of art, if its interest can be shifted away from the genitals on to the shape of the body as a whole.  ~ Freud
In the scopic field everything is articulated between two terms that act in an antinomic way – on the side of things, there is the gaze, that is to say, things look at me, and yet I see them. ~ Lacan

 Francisco Goya  - La Maja Desnuda - circa 1797–1800

Representing pubic hair on women was taboo for centuries in Western art. While a number of paintings did reveal a bit of bush, Goya's painting (above) is considered one of the first depictions of pubic hair because he scandalously painted an actual woman rather than one cloaked by the subject of mythology. As a result, Goya was summoned to the Spanish Inquisition to expose his model and patron for the painting. One may wonder what all the fuss was about in our current porn-on-demand culture, but clearly hair below the belt was not appropriate for representation.

 Lucas Cranach the Elder - Venus and Cupid - 1508

Titian - Venus of Urbino - 1538

In Art/porn: a history of seeing and touching, Kelly Dennis points out that "the male "pubes" referred to the adolescent growth of pubic hair that traditionally signaled the coming of age of the public male: historically, the moment that initiates participation in citizenship, property ownership, and the legal control of women. By contrast, the female "pudendum" named that of which "one aught to be ashamed" and thus that which must be hidden and kept private."   

 Jean-Leon Gerome - Phryne Before the Areopagus - 1861

Édouard Manet - Olympia - 1863

Similar to Goya's painting, Manet's Olympia depicts a real woman who exposes herself without modesty and fixes her gaze onto the viewer. Despite her hand covering her beaver, Olympia was condemned as ‘immoral’ and ‘vulgar’ by its contemporaries. Baudelaire wrote to Manet regarding Olympia, stating "you are only the first in the decrepitude of your art." 

But Goya and Manet were still painting within a tradition of idealized nudes and odalisques. It would be Corbet who opened the door to the graphic representation and revelation of pubic hair and its power to shock with L’Origine du monde, 1866. The painting had been commissioned by a Turkish diplomat, Khalil Bey, for his own private viewing who, understanding the power of the image, hung the painting behind a green veil. When the diplomat went bankrupt, the painting was sold and went missing for a time. It was later discovered hanging in the country home of Jacques Lacan, also veiled, although this time by a sliding wooden panel constructed and decorated by the artist André Masson. However such covering, with its implicit revealing, is itself an erotic device.
Why does a man paint a fragment of a woman’s body? Why the vagina? Why does he repress her name? It is not easy to represent in painting a loved object; it produces anxiety. It seems likely that Courbet split her body, cropped it in order to represent her. Removing her name seals the objectification. Here is a psychotic moment. On the one hand there is beauty in the rendering of the flesh. On the other hand emotional intimacy is denied by the erasures. ~ Juan Davila - Courbet’s “The Origin of the World Renamed”
Gustave Courbet - L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World) - 1866

While the Japanese woodblock prints imported to the West after the opening of Japan to trade in 1854 did not directly influence Courbet, it is known that Hokusai's work in particular was available and relevant to many of Courbet's contemporaries (James Tissot, Camile Pissaro, Monet, and Manet). Baudelaire wrote in a letter in 1861: "Quite a while ago I received a packet of japonneries. I've split them up among my friends.." The visible pubic hair in Dream of the Fisherman's Wife (along with the advent of photography) cannot be ignored as influencing a shift away from the hairless snatch.
 Hokusai - The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife - 1814

And so followed others...

Egon Schiele - 1910
 René Magritte - Le Viol - c. 1934

 Jenny Saville - Plan - 1993


Aug 9, 2011

Technological Reliquary

Paul Thek - "Untitled" - 1966-67, from the series Technological Reliquaries.
Credit: Watermill Center Collection

“Afflict the comfortable; comfort the afflicted” ~ Paul Thek

The Brooklyn artist Paul Thek (1933-1988) was a sculptor, painter, and one of the first artists to create environments or installations. As he frequently used perishable materials, Thek accepted the ephemeral nature of his art, and was aware, as writer Gary Indiana has noted, of “a sense of our own transience and that of everything around us.”

 Paul Thek - "Meat" - 1964 - from the 1966-67 series Technological Reliquaries.

In the mid-1960s, Paul Thek began a group of artworks that presented meat in vitrines. He followed these sculptures with ones utilizing casts of his body parts. Both sets of works he called Technological Reliquaries.
“The mold castings, also those of his own body parts, wax replicas of human tissue, hair, teeth, and bones in Plexiglas cases, which he produced between 1964 and 1967 as Technological Reliquaries, in their mixture of desire and repulsion, decay and pathos, held up the truth of the body to the world of commodities and the transfiguration of the everyday, as well as the idealization and dramatization of corporative minimal art.”
    ~ From the exhibition catalogue for Paul Thek in the Context of Today’s Contemporary Art
        Sammlung Falckenberg (May 31 - September 14, 2008)

These works were a direct critic of the commercialism and the cool detachment of Minimalist and Pop Art, movements that removed the visible hand of the artist. Thek was also protesting the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
"I was amused at the idea of meat under Plexiglas because I thought it made fun of the scene--where the name of the game seemed to be 'how cool you can be' and 'how refined.' Nobody ever mentioned anything that seemed real. The world was falling apart, anyone could see it." ~ Paul Thek, 1981 

Enshrining his work in reliquaries, objects designed to hold and make precious, sacred objects, Thek used both the literal entropy of meat and the suggested decay of the body to ask viewers to contemplate the fragility of life that is our shared human experience.
He began to do these glass and steel vitrines but they were filled with corrosive flesh, which he was sculpting out of something called dental moulage, which is a very quick setting wax, and putting these horrifying lumps of flesh or in some cases beautifully crafted arms and legs that were sheathed in things like butterfly wings. So, it was either these limbs of heroes from this impossible mythological past or this raw flesh. It was really his response to an art world that he thought was completely incapable of responding to the urgency of the culture in which it existed. ~ Richard Flood via Walker Art Center

The piece he was to be most infamous for was his 1967 sculpture The Tomb (later refered to as Death of a Hippie by critics), a life-sized effigy of the artist laid to rest in a pink ziggurat. A full-size cast of his body lies entombed dressed in a suit jacket and jeans, painted a pale pink, and adorned with jewelry made of human hair and gold.

Fred W. McDarrah
Paul Thek Sitting Shiva for Dead Hippie (Effigy), September 16, 1967
The Tomb was destroyed after languishing in storage. Thek had grown tired of the work, saying, “I really don’t want to have to do that piece AGAIN! Oh God no! Not THAT one. Imagine having to bury yourself over and over.”

In 1979, Thek wrote to a priest, "I am OK, still trying to be 'an artist' in the secular world . . . as you know, the world is the world, very 'worldly,' etc., etc."

Paul Thek: Diver, a retrospective which opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York in October 2010, was on view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles until September 4, 2011.

Hujar's images of Paul Thek's The Tomb are featured in the exhibition Influential Friends by Peter Hujar November 1 – December 10, 2011 at John Mc Whinnie @ GBH Gallery in NYC.