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PASATIEMPO - APRIL 10TH 1998

 

THE MISSING NUDE
By Hollis Walker

 


The exhibit at Turner Carroll Gallery of figurative works by members of Santa Fe's John Sloan Drawing Group makes clear one pertinent idea: Of all the elements missing in Santa Fe's arts scene, perhaps none is more sorely lacking than the nude.
It's true that naked figures are here and there in galleries, but few, if any, of the city's galleries actively promote an artist who works primarily with the nude human figure.
One local gallery won't show nude work by one of its regular artists, except for occasional paintings he does of a back view of a demure female figure. A private agreement with a business associate precludes another gallery from showing nudes. Yet as artist Carol Mothner points out, "There's not a painter or sculptor I know, whether they're objective or nonobjective, who doesn't have stashed somewhere that precious stack of nudes."
The works aren't just leftovers from art school, either. College of Santa Fe art professor Ron Picco noted that there are at least five Santa Fe groups of artists who meet weekly to draw the human form from nude models.
So where's "the beef?
Artists and gallery owners say they think the main reason nudes aren't seen much in Santa Fe galleries is that nudes are difficult to sell. But gallery owners who do show nudes ‑ good nudes ‑ do sell them.
Last year, Arlene LewAllen showed a group of more than a dozen male nude drawings by landscape painter John Fincher; all sold.
The first painting to sell in Fred Kline Gallery's recent show of works by Geoff Laurence depicted a naked man sitting on the side of a bed, looking directly at the viewer through the fingers of one hand.
Gerald Peters Gallery showed a series of Carol Mothner's paintings 's of nudes, including some honest, realistic depictions of elderly women They did not sell while on the wall, but Mothner said that a gallery visitor later bought the painting Mary and that a South Carolina museum bought another.
Turner Carroll's top‑selling artist isMichael Bergt, who often depicts nudes, both male and female, in sculpture and paintings. "Michael Bergt's nudes fly out the door," Tonya Turner Carroll said.
A collector recently saw two unfinished, unframed Bergt nudes in Turner Carroll's office and bought both works on the spot. Another admirer of Bergt's nudes called the gallery every month for two years until a Bergt painting that suited the buyer's needs became available.
Yet the notion that nudes won't sell persists, and many people have theories about why that is.
Fincher, a former art professor, noted that there hasn't been a serious school of figure painting in the country since the Bay Area Painters of the '50s.
"Since the advent of abstract expressionism in the '50s, the figurehas been sort of declasse," Fincher said. "There hasn't been "ism" connected to it in 40 years" In fact, since the '50s, most American art schools have decreased emphasis on figurative drawing, painting and sculpture.
Bergt thinks some galleries' resistance ii showing nudes is sound. Much art of the nude simply isn't evocative, and looking at a poorly rendered nude ‑perhaps the single 'object' every viewer
is qualified to assess ‑ "almost hurts,' Bergt said.
The New York Academy of Art, which continues to offer a graduate degree infigurative work, remains the nation's most important bastion of appreciation for the nude. Yet even that school's graduates do not always make the necessary leap from the ability to draw a well‑rendered nude form to the talent to create a good contemporary nude.
I do think there is a contemporary culture," Bergt said. "We have an idea of who we are today, as the ideal, that is different than in the past." In other words, it's great if you can draw or paint the figure as well as an old master, but that's not enough. Mothner agrees.
It is a near‑impossible task to make a nude that does not feel like it was done in another century," she said "Most of us want to be contemporary". Bergt, in Mothner's estimation, is one of the few artists who achieve that aim. Many artists who don't necessarily sell their work themselves do sell their nudes precisely because that is so dificult. "It is really the most demanding discipline you can negotiate on a piece of paper," Fincher said. Though his LewAllen show last year was the first time he'd sold his nudes at his gallery, the work informs his landscape painting, Fincher said.
But even the best nudes can be tricky for galleries to handle. Kline said he thinks the nude "probably shocks the sensibility of people coming to Santa Fe to see 'cowboy and Indian' art." Kline, like others, said Santa Fe remains a very conservative art town, "though that is changing."
Acceptance of the nude as part of the vocabulary of art and art history is a rest, as it were, of the sophistication of the potential client.
The nude is a classical subject, and one need not be afraid of it," Kline said. Former gallery director and artist adviser Geoffrey Gorman agreed. "For the serious art collector, the nude is not an issue, because you're going to negate the whole historical context (without it), aren't you?"
Michael Carroll of Turner Carroll Gallery said some visitors to the gallery, when confronted by nude work, walk briskly past that art into a room of the gallery where nudes are not displayed. One client requested a Bergt painting but specified he didn't want a nude, "because we have children."
Most in the art community agree that objection to the nude comes in degrees: Least likely to offend is the sculptural nude that is nonspecific, in which the artist renders genitalia without great detail and in a stylized manner. (Bergt's bronzes are good examples; though they often include genitalia, a Bergt male nude is often a whimsical Everyman that hardly is offensive.) The more detailed the rendering, the more likely it is to offend. Female nudity usually is more acceptable than male nudity, as generally has been the case in American art. Male figures that include genitalia are most likely to shock the conservative Santa Fe viewer. Ironically, most artists and gallery owners know that there is a longtime strong niche market for the male nude.

Many of the people interviewed for this article asked about The New Mexican's policy on using nudes in editorial and advertising content. The newspaper has no written policy, but prior to publication managers do sonictimes discuss the use of nudity in the paper.
Associate editor and publisher Billie Blair said assistant genera! manager/advertising director Ginny Sohn‑Shahi "occasionally runs ads by me on issues of appropriateness for publication."
"Decisions are made based on the significance of the art to the story or advertising message,' Blair said. Asked whether she ever discussed the use of a nude in editorial or advertising with the newspaper's owner prior to or after publication, Blair said she could not recall such a discussion.
Pasatiempo editor Denise Kusel said she has used photographs of art showing frontal nudity in the past, but none showing genitalia. "I try to consider the mores of the community, which in Santa Fe are quite provincial," Kusel said. "When I know we're going to run a photograph that may offend some people, I alert the managing editor ‑ not to ask permission, but to let him know we might be getting phone calls. I have never been told not to use a photograph (of a nude). "Pasatiempo has run photographs of men kissing other men and of a woman with a radical mastectomy But I'm not looking to shock anyone. It just happened that that was the art that best told the story"


Ed. note: Pasatiempo asked specific artists and galleries to submit a selection of figurative work. The art used was selected by Kusel and staff writer Hollis Walker based on the quality of the work, its capacity for accurate reproduction and its relationship to points made in the story The art selected was shown to managing editor Rob Dean, whose only question was whether Mothner's Mary ‑ the most explicit piece here ‑ specifically illustrated the story.

 
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