Thursday, October 15, 2009

Culture Shocks and Naked Truths

Culture Shocks and Naked Truths

By Tom Wachunas

There’s nothing quite like encountering nudity for bringing us back to…Eden. It’s in our genes. It’s under our jeans. One way to appreciate the history of clothing is to think of it as the unexpected evolution of the fig leaf all the way up to modern fashion design. Genesis 3 tells us that Adam and Eve were the first seamsters, sewing together fig leaves to cover themselves after noticing for the first time that they were naked and embarrassed by it. Shortly after reading them the riot act of all riot acts, God further obliged his errant children by providing sturdier animal skins (arguably making him the first beast slayer?) to more effectively hide their shame. And the rest, as they say, is haute couture.

Hiding shame is one thing. We’ve made an art of it. But guilt? If there’s one animal, other than that pesky snake, that followed Adam and Eve out of Eden, surely it was an elephant…the same one that has occupied the living room of our souls ever since. Guilt. I often wonder if that isn’t at the heart of the many issues that get stirred up when considering nudity, including its presence in our art.

Very often the whole notion of the unclothed human body seems to trigger controversy, discomfort, angst both intellectual and spiritual. Nude, we are found out, vulnerable, exposed for the flawed, imperfect and indeed failed creatures that we are. Genesis is fairly clear on this point: we, by our own choice, fell from grace. We didn’t measure up. Nudity, when considered in the negative abstract, then, might not be so much a symbol of our original, glorious state of being as it is an unwelcome reminder of paradise lost and our species’ innate guilt.

Of course art history is replete with images and sculptures of the undraped human figure, some of them unabashedly frank and accurate, others more “tasteful” in their rendering. Donatello’s “David”(1428) presents the giant killer as a smirking, weak-muscled boy wearing only boots and a “helmet” that looks more like flowered bonnet, his pose more cocky than demure. Michelangelo’s “answer” (1501) was to present the hero as a svelte young man (no boots ‘n bonnet here) poised for the kill. Artistic nudity in the Renaissance was a revival of classical Greek ideals and esthetics, largely regarded as representing mankind’s nobler aspirations. But even Michelangelo had his detractors, mortified at the sea of nude (frontal and otherwise) figures on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. One of the “disturbing” images of God the Father, though not rendered as a nude, shows him from the back as he creates the planets, his clingy white garment just sheer enough to show us ample evidence of a very muscular, round butt. Oh, the affront (or in this case the a-back) of it all!!!

And so it is that today, in the world of art, exposed flesh can still raise the ire and eyebrows of some viewers. Case in point: the current show, called “The Digital Cloth: Images That Make You Go Hmmm…,” at Kent Stark’s Main Hall Gallery, on view until October 23. The work is by Vince Quevedo, associate professor at Kent State University’s School of Fashion Design and Merchandizing. There have been concerns as well as outright complaints about the full-frontal (male and female) nude images. Some have called it pornographic, which I find to be a gross misunderstanding of the term. Call it vocabulary abuse. A word is a terrible thing to waste. Viewer discretion, and more important, viewer concentration is advised.

On both technical and formal terms, these are fascinating, poetic and at times utterly beautiful images. Professor Quevedo has transferred computer-manipulated digital photos, via bubble jet printer, to quilts and wall hangings made from silk organza and cotton. All of the images are based upon his interpretation of biblical themes, many from Genesis. His “Adam and Eve” is a simple, frontal view of the couple that in no way conjures anything remotely pornographic. In fact, it is a straightforward consideration of created, not “born,” humanity. As the artist noted during his gallery talk, you’ll notice they have no navels.

There are several pieces here that are comprised of two pieces of fabric hung just inches apart, one translucent image lined up directly in front of the same image printed on opaque fabric. The resulting effect is like a shimmering hologram that shifts and changes as you move around it. And it is that shift in appearance that points in a larger way to the very process of how we might interpret art. “Meaning” and indeed the “truth” of a work is as much dependent upon what we bring to it (cultural, social, and/or personal pre-dispositions or education) as what the artist has provided in terms of visual information. In a sense, then, the Biblical references here may or may not be necessary (though I find them compelling just the same) in appreciating the visual impact of these pieces. So, aside from specific narrative content or “message,” this is art about seeing art.

I admit to struggling with what photo I would attach to this posting. I could have shown you one of the frontal nudes. That, I at one point had convinced myself, would be a demonstration of the courage of my aforementioned convictions. Then I thought that such a photo might be regarded as prurient by those who, ill-disposed to nudes in general, might chance upon this blog and find it somehow sensationalist, or worse. Then I thought I think too much. In the end I chose “On the 7th Day” because it speaks so powerfully to me of the spirit of this show. It’s a stunning, even electrifying quilt. It reminds me that God is God. His created world is an entity separate from himself, and one that can choose to resist his restful embrace. And of that resistance, I don’t mind telling you, I am often, you guessed it…guilty. Hmmm…

Photo: “On the 7th Day”, digital photo on quilt, by Vince Quevedo

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