Almost anything can be improved by the simple addition of a few naked women (and men), or so it seems from "Exposed: The Victorian Nude," the blockbuster show of 150 paintings, sculptures, drawings and even some photographs that debuted at Tate Britain and now makes its only U.S. appearance at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Sept. 6, 2002-Jan. 5, 2003.
Tate curator Alison Smith has put together an astonishing group of approximately 150 works made in Britain during the reign of Queen Victoria, 1837-1901. They range from the intensely literary The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania (1847) by Joseph Noël Paton, a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream teeming with naked fairies, to the resolutely modernist Woman Washing her Hair (ca. 1908) by Walter Sickert.
In between are nude gods and goddesses, nude angels, nude princesses and damsels in distress, nude bathers, nudes with snakes, nude archers and athletes, nude courtesans and sirens, nude lovers, nude slaves, even a nude queen of Hungary getting a whipping, not to mention nude life models in the artist’s studio.
That’s a lot of corn syrup, though here and there are coarse pleasures like Aubrey Beardsley’s ithyphallic The Impatient Adulterer and J.M.W. Turner’s sketchy but realistic A Copulating Couple (ca. 1834).
In the catalogue Smith notes that English art didn’t have much taste for nudes until Queen Victoria came along. She gave Albert nudes as birthday gifts and welcomed comparisons of herself to Lady Godiva, metaphorically, of course, as a model of chastity and self-sacrifice (the show includes several Godivas, including a fabulous one from ca. 1865 by Edwin Landseer). British artists never really caught up with their primary rivals, the French (at least not until the 1960s), who after all could boast Edouard Manet’s audaciously modern Olympia as early as 1863.
A century past the end of the Victorian age, little has changed in terms of the nude’s place in both society and art, except as a matter of degree. The British artist Steve McQueen’s exciting film projection of two naked men wrestling in the dark is not unlike William Etty’s painting The Wrestlers, which was done in ca. 1840 (and itself inspired by the antique marble Pancrastinae, discovered in Rome in the 16th century), while Julia Margaret Cameron’s Cupid’s Pencil of Light (1870) has the same tender regard for young children as the photographs of Sally Mann.
In the end, we can ask why this show happens to have been mounted just now. Cynics may see it as a revival as well of the Brooklyn Museum’s search for yet another box-office "Sensation," but use of all this swooning sexuality to repudiate the hypocrisy of "Victorian values" appears in this corner as a celebration of the loss here of the culture wars by the noisy wing-nut right.
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Meanwhile, back at the galleries in Manhattan, the new contemporary art season is threatening to become a bigger freak show than ever before. Leading the way was Robert Melee’s exhibition of his own mother dressed like a burlesque queen, naked but wrapped in a feather boa, sitting in a chair on a platform in a giant glass box at Andrew Kreps Gallery during the first big opening night of the season, Thursday, Sept. 5. Melee's neurotic display of his own exhibitionist mom seemed harmless -- the game lady camped it up during the crowded, noisy, muggy opening -- but it's creepy all the same.
A few doors down on 22nd Street, the young Korean-American artist Michael Joo, who represented Korea at the last Venice Biennale, filled Anton Kern Gallery with 50 unpainted gray clay models of coyotes. Done life-size in a variety of animated poses, the animals have glass eyes and plastic teeth, and some are unfinished so that a tail, for instance, is only a curling strand of wire. They’re $7,000 each. In the smaller back gallery is a model of a drunken Eskimo, lying on its back on a large square plinth, arms and legs dangling over the edges, forging still another relationship of a sculpture and its base.
Around the corner at Daniel Silverstein Gallery on 21st Street, the young artist Andrew Guenther has mounted a pine coffin on an Urban Cowboy-style mechanical bull so that it bucks and spins in the center of the gallery. This exercise in rock-and-roll nihilism is $12,000, and may find a buyer soon.
Over at Greene Naftali on 26th Street, the 30-something Irish artist Padraig Timoney presents a neat row of broken beer-bottle tops on a four-foot-long shelf titled What’s So Special on Saturday Night, a work that he’s apparently saved since 1996 and which is priced at $6,300. Downtown at Deitch Projects in SoHo, the design group As Four made a giant, smoke-belching hanging carousel of outfits that looked especially funky, considering that we look to fashion for glossy shallowness. The ever-game proprietor, Jeffrey Deitch, was cutting a nice figure in a lapel-less, bell-bottomed As Four gray suit that looked rather attractive in its misshapenness.
In Midtown at Galeria Ramis Barquet in the Fuller Building, the estimable artist Ray Smith, who was born in 1959 and lives part time in Cuernavaca, is exhibiting a 26-foot long bilaterally symmetrical oil painting on 12 wood panels of a pair of aircraft carriers, their decks empty of planes (price: $100,000). Across the street at Pace/Macgill, Dieter Appelt has an eerie, black and white film on DVD in which the 67-year-old Berliner seems to slowly strip a cord out from his own skin, opening a black crevice up and down the vertical axis of his body. Hellraiser couldn’t do it better.
At Mary Boone Gallery in the Crown Building on Fifth Avenue, the 33-year-old SVA-grad Tolland Grinnell has something of a tour-de-force on his hands: a complete luxury "mobile home" for today’s ultra-stylish art collector, i.e., a library, study, kitchen, bedroom, fireplace and more, all designed to fold up into fancy wicker suitcases. In all there are 34 separate pieces (including a "water bottle caddy" with 70 liters of Evian) in nine pieces, priced between $6,000 and $18,000 (three were already sold). "He made it in three months," said an enthusiast. "The bolts are gold-plated!" In Boone’s smaller gallery, two wall pieces and one floor work are fancy storage units for . . . rolls of toilet paper, the latest in contemporary art's long interest in the subject.
At Mary Boone downtown, the painter Will Cotton unveiled his new figurative paintings, sumptuous fantasies of slumber-partying young girls in bra-and-panties feasting on cakes and custard. Done this summer at a residency in Giverny (and using some of the interns there as models -- for another, titled Chocolate Bath, Cotton convinced his girlfriend Rose to pose), the dreamy, soft-focus images include one of a nymphet kneeling in a puddle of creamy custard cupping her hands full. Type-2 diabetes, anyone? The pictures are priced at $45,000-$55,000 (three were sold by the opening).
The only thing odd about new paintings at PaceWildenstein on 25th Street by Georg Baselitz, who seems to have entered a more lyrical stage some time ago, is that they're upside-down. Two of the large tondos, called Couple from Photograph, seem to depict older people standing side-by-side in the bathing suits, as if the great Neo-Ex had decided to do his own "Great Bathers."
In contrast to the contemporary art circus are the abstract painters, but even they're beginning to look a little agitated. The stripe paintings by Miki Lee, who has showed at Klein Art Works in Chicago and is now on view at Lyons Wier Gallery in 511 West 25th Street, have stripes that waver back and forth as if in the throes of delirium tremens. Down the hall at McKenzie Fine Art, the new space opened by former Graham Gallery director Valerie McKenzie, the stripe paintings of the 40-something New Yorker Chris Gallagher are fast, body-gesture strokes drawn freehand, as if in a race with an inhuman, machine-made geometry. Even the systemic wall paintings of Sol LeWitt, on view up at PaceWildenstein on 57th Street, seem almost imperial in their massive 3D geometry and triumphant, pennant-like colors (price: $150,000 for 58 feet; $65,000 for 12 feet).
Is the art market going soft? Not for the eerie, looped-line abstractions of Elliott Puckette, currently on view at Paul Kasmin Gallery on 10th Avenue. The artist first puts down a Surrealist-style ink-wash ground, all clouded and mysterious, and then scratches an idiosyncratic arabesque into it, revealing the white gesso ground. Most of the nine paintings, which range in price from $20,000 to $40,000 (for the largest, measuring over five by eight feet), are marked as either sold or on reserve.
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Congratulations to Peter Campus, the veteran video artist whose pioneering work from the 1970s as well as some more recent works is wowing them in a mini-retrospective at Leslie Tonkonow Artwork + Projects on West 22nd Street. The early color video projection pieces, with their harsh red-green-blue color format, seem like Art Brut compared to the sophisticated high-tech video installations that younger artists are doing today. One projection shows the artist standing against a screen while a hand gradually "breaks" chunks of the image off -- a classic metaphor for a schizophrenic (or otherwise assaulted) self.
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Need a plan to get rid of someone? Write their name in pencil seven times on white paper and put it in the freezer, leaving it there until the paper dissolves. So say the Brazilian farmers photographed by Fazal Sheikh, now on view at Pace/Macgill. His beautiful black-and-white photos of village life are accompanied by Simpatias, instructions for rituals to cure impotence, calm a rebellious son, make your husband tender and the like.
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Manfred Baumgartner abruptly closed his spacious gallery on West 15th Street, neglecting to inform British artist Sarah Staton of his plans, leaving her in something of a stew when she arrived unknowing to arrange the shipment of her work for her show, which had been scheduled this month. . . . Speaking of closings, Colin DeLand has shut his gallery on lower Wooster Street, leaving him with the former Pat Hearn space on West 24th. . . . You need hubris to be a developer. The new luxury rental building that has gone up across from gallery row on West 24th Street has named itself the Tate.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.