On the surface, there's little overtly radical about curator Eric Minh Swenson's “NUDE SURVEY ONE,” an eclectic exhibition of sculpture, painting, drawings and photography that celebrates the nude, mostly female, form, tucked away in the Jamie Brooks Fine Art Gallery, an elegant, yet utilitarian, industrial space. Subversively, this potential status quo peep show of naked chicks takes the standard male gaze and removes its overt sexism, reveling in women's strength and not just getting off on their beauty.
If Rembrandt were alive today, I expect he'd paint Brad Salamon's chiaroscuro Girl Interrupted, with its black-haired woman sitting on a chair in an otherwise dark room, head turned to acknowledge the viewer, posture perfect, nipples erect, holding a cell phone in her hand as a suggestion of selfies to come. William Wray's threesome of pictures riffs on the same theme: The Copic marker on gessoed panel Selfie Dude's dim expression, cell extended to capture athletic abs and dangling junk, is a great piece with a wicked sense of personality—as well as, unfortunately, the only male nude on display. The remaining two images are oils of undressed women taking pictures, obscuring their faces with cameras so that our focus is on their bodies: Sexist Selfie is topless, her jeans open to reveal her vagina, the walls behind her a smeary shit-brown that offers a seedy sense of isolation to her otherwise healthy figure. The other woman, in Sexist Selfie2, is wholly nude, on a bed, tattooed sleeves holding up the camera, the picture snapped in the mirror dark and grimy, save for the touch of pink on her breasts and shaved pudendum.
The photographed women are mostly confident and comfortable in their black-and-white nudity: The two transsexual porn stars featured by Dave Naz in Jamie French & Eva Cassini disconcertingly resemble Marilyn Manson in his Mechanical Animals phase, with their defiant, mind-fucking blur of muscles, dicks and breasts. The female model in Eric Charles' Moxi lifts the soles of her feet off the ground to show off her tattoos, her ample breast exposed as it spills from her silk jacket, while she holds her sunglasses as if to get a better look at the loser trying to steal a glance at the obscured area between her legs. The half-naked model in Renee Jacobs' Café de Flore glares at the camera as if daring someone to stop her from undressing; the restaurant's patrons go about their unfazed business. Ted Meyer's Lexi takes things a step further, with his subject forbidding him from taking her picture, her hand shoved into the camera as if a celebrity annoyed with paparazzi. Things take a different turn in Victor Lightworship's well-designed dystopian Monkey Toe Push, its bald woman lying on a painful-looking metal conveyor belt in an empty warehouse, a gloved hand pushing her along. There's a deep sense of violation to Johnny Naked's Dirty, his model drawn in on herself, as the visual lines of the tile and bathtub she's perched on aim at her vagina. It's an evocative piece, tinged with moldy grout, and a sobering counterpoint to the girl power otherwise on display.
A woman's gaze, honoring and not ogling, is the point of several pieces: The 28-inch-by-34-inch woman's posterior in Serena Potter's mixed-media Inspection fills the canvas, but time with the work suggests the woman has just done a vaginal exam with the hand mirror she holds, her fingers gripping it in a way that flips her middle digit at the viewer focused on her ass. Ashley Bravin's sumptuous pen, ink and paper Sleeping With Wolves isn't a simpatico ad for PETA; her woman curled up with two lupine figures delivers delicacy and comfort, impeccably framed and drawn. Of the remaining paintings and drawings, I was enamored of Nicole Waszak's honest Self Portrait, featuring her topless against a wall of tacky majestic wallpaper, bad posture, a cruddy tattoo on one arm and visible blemish on her shoulder.
Barbie's smooth plastic crotch gets the backhand in Allie Pohl's sculpture Ideal Woman: Chrome, Silver. I was fascinated by Camilla Taylor's It Wasn't Until Then, with its two figures, burnt and shrunken to be unrecognizable, the stumps of legs like toothpicks, the unintentional spider web drifting between them eerie and appropriate. Melanie Newcombe's impressive, work-intensive Grace is a full-sized female figure with frazzled Medusa locks whirling in the air; made of aluminum screen, shiny wire ties hold the porous flesh together as though it's Frankenstein's monster.
Looking to the future and “NUDE SURVEY TWO,” I hope Swenson will treat that exhibition with the same intellectual vigor he has applied to this one. A request? More male flesh, please, especially if we're treated to the various ways that women artists look at the masculine form. That would be eye-opening. Until then, this is a great start.
Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.