Inka Essenhigh called the other day. She's started smoking cigarettes again, she says, and needs a vacation. It's been a very busy year since she began getting attention for her paintings of truncated figures engaged in struggles with sex and other natural forces like tsunamis, fireballs and volcanoes.
Just last spring, Essenhigh's paintings in an Exit Art group show caught the eye of dealer Stefan Stux, who offered Essenhigh her first solo show at his Chelsea gallery. Fellow painter Cecily Brown was so impressed that she lobbied her dealer Jeffrey Deitch to offer the 29-year-old artist a show at Deitch Projects last January. The large-scale apocalyptic paintings Essenhigh displayed there landed her a solo show this fall at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y.
Her newfound success has led to long hours in the studio and a passing acquaintance with art-world power struggles. Mary Boone recently prevailed on Essenhigh to sever her ties with Deitch and join her gallery. Deitch was annoyed, which is understandable. Cecily Brown has recently decamped to Larry Gagosian, and just last fall Damien Loeb defected to Boone before his much-anticipated Deitch Projects show was to open. Loeb's Photo Realist paintings of violated women, explosions and Klansmen proved to be a bomb with critics but sold well, making his debut a mixed success.
Some may speculate that Boone is looking to reinvigorate her stable of artists, but Boone says she's simply doing what she's done for nearly 30 years: looking for "painters with courage." Boone adds that Essenhigh the lion-hearted may be the artist to launch her new space in Chelsea in early 2000. "Inka's best years are ahead of her," Boone told me. "I'm looking forward to a long life together."
Meanwhile, Spencer Tunick fears he may be looking at jail time. The 32-year-old artist is best known for his photographs of nude groups in public spaces, as seen at I-20 Gallery last fall. Tunick says his photos have more to do with form than eroticism, but -- as they say on cop shows -- he can save that for the judge.
Tunick was arrested at sunrise on April 25 as he prepared to photograph 150 nude volunteers splayed on a street in Times Square. It seems that while he had arranged for all the proper permits for a public photo shoot, Tunick failed to mention that his subjects would be nude.
Unfortunately for Tunick, New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani is on something of a morality crusade. Tunick faces charges that include unlawful assembly, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. It could encumber him with serious jail time and fines.
Still, Tunick plans to go ahead with a series of scheduled photo shoots around the city this summer and fall. On the advice of his lawyer, Ronald Kuby, the permits for these shoots will specify that the models will be nude.
Tunick spent 18 hours in jail after his arrest, but as he sees it, "The worst part is that I-20 Gallery wanted to take these photos to the Basel Art Fair." Instead of his planned panorama of nudes, Tunick will be showing a video and stills of his arrest. Europeans seem to respond favorably to tales of American Puritanism. The director of the Vienna Kunsthalle has invited Tunick to photograph outside the Austrian museum in late September.
Also at Basel will be another artist interested in public nudity, Noritoshi Hirakawa. For his most recent exhibition at Deitch Projects, the 39-year-old sociologist-turned-artist photographed young women as they straddled cameras on city streets. Using shutter releases, the women made simultaneous photos of the view up their skirts. Hot stuff, but at Basel Hirakawa is exhibiting a videotape that he says was deemed too risqué for the Deitch show.
Entitled The First Citizen of Geneva, the video records his encounter with a statuesque 21-year-old blonde woman who agreed to piss on the street for his camera. At the time, she was walking a black dog that is visibly perturbed by the puddle of urine that gathers at her feet.
When I asked how he found his willing models, Hirakawa replied, "I talk with people and explain my projects. Usually, they are interested. Sometimes, it is not so easy. Sometimes, I have to make sex with the women I photograph." That's why they call it work, right?
When I mentioned that Tunick might be staging one of his photo shoots in Vienna, Hirakawa winced. "Vienna? It is so hard to get models there. Too much Christianity."
Tunick and Hirakawa have nothing on newcomer Kevin Landers, whose exhibition at XL gallery in Chelsea closes June 19. Landers' photos revive the old tricks of Dirty George, a video pioneer who roamed the city in the 1970s asking women to "show your tits" for his cable access program.
Landers demonstrates the same licentious disregard for propriety in his new photographs of young women flashing his camera on the Lower East Side. The photos range from a discrete woman in a bodega posing with an exposed breast and a pineapple to two hipsters in summer dresses exposing themselves on a park bench.
In the Giuliani era, sex and nudity may have been forced from Times Square only to wind up in cutting edge art. Essenhigh and Tunick keep an eye on the elegance and vulnerability of the human form, while Hirakawa and Landers push the boundaries of social restrictions on the body.
Recently, the New York Times reported plans for a sex museum in the city, organized by academics including Camille Paglia. If the museum is realized, it may face formidable competition from this up-and-coming generation of artists.
GRADY T. TURNER is a critic and curator based in New York. His column on emerging artists will appear regularly at Artnet.com.