Portraits of naked women litter gallery and art fair walls; but spotting the contemporary male nude, in contrast, seems to be as rare as sighting the yeti. The male gaze is still alive and kicking—evident across every visual medium, from film to advertisements, where women subjects are little more than objects shaped by desires and idealization not their own. We've seen conversation-starting work come from women artists who turn the camera on themselves (Arvida Bystrom, Annie Leibovitz, and Pixy Yijun Liao, to name a few), but taking it further is a new exhibition at Bushwick gallery OUTLET Fine Art. Cheekily titled "NSFW," it will feature male nude works by women painters, and more importantly, a variety of depictions that go beyond celebrating the naked man's virility, masculinity and power (a too-common result of "male objectification").
"I knew that as I made the show I wanted it to be limited to only paintings for the weight that they carry as 'legitimized' fine art objects and because photography is much too related to porn, at least given this subject matter," exhibition curator Julian A. Jimarez Howard tells CH. "With these stipulations, it was at first very difficult to find artists working with this subject matter. There are of course some amazing older artists like Joan Semmel or Alice Neel who really paved the way for this kind of work, but it's still very rare. I was looking for work that felt sincere to me, but that at the same spoke to the kinds of power dynamics at play in representation. Martha Hipley's work, for example, assumes the perspective of a teenage girl going through fashion magazines with a sort wistful admiring gaze, while Helen Selsdon's paintings of her husband have a much different but equally tender aura about them, something that isn't very common in popular depictions of the male body. Brenda Zhang's, Margot Bird's, or GaHee Park's works, on the other hand, have more ominous tones about them; they're a little bit more surreal, but point to the cultural subtext of power dynamics very real in the lives of women. These are the kinds of things I tried [to] pick up and highlight for the show."
Philadelphia-based artist Brenda Zhang expounds further on her personal motivations. "As a female artist of color, I first painted female nudes for some time as an exercise in reconceptualization and reclamation. A few years ago, I began to paint emotional wounds in order to confront them with honesty and compassion. Painting a male figure, then, came from a place of kindness toward oneself and others, emotional precision, and thick layers of personal history and context," she tells CH. Her painting "But it will be the end of something significant within it," pictured above, takes its title from someone's response to her words, “It won’t be the end of the world.” Intentional drips—a recurring trait in her works—offer therapeutic meditation and also "disrupt any semblance of spatial logic within a painting, which challenges the eye," she says. "NSFW" promises to do the same—and asks the viewer, when we come face-to-face with these painted penises, do and should we feel turned on? Embarrassed and giggly? Uncomfortable? (Perhaps the latter feeling for traditional art establishment's dismal representation of women artists.)
"NSFW" opens this Friday, 18 March and runs through 17 April 2016 at OUTLET Fine Art's intimate Bushwick space located on 253 Wilson Ave, Brooklyn.