Thursday, May 26, 2011

Redressing Naked Realities

Redressing Naked Realities
By Tom Wachunas

“It is what is painted between the outlines that makes the difference between merely competent painting and meaningful art.” - Philip Pearlstein –

“Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.” - Genesis 3:7 –

At the tender age of seven I was taught by a nun, as all Catholic children were back then, to “examine my conscience” every Friday afternoon in preparation for Saturday’s visit to the confessional. With eyes closed, our heads sunk into the pillow of our folded arms on our desk tops, the dutiful Dominican would recite an inventory of sins we were to consider. One of those sins mystified me then, and for several years thereafter: “Have you had impure thoughts this week?” Of course the exact definition of such thoughts was always couched in the vaguest and cutely poetic of terms. Heaven forbid that a seven year-old boy should dwell too long on an art book picture of Titian’s “Venus of Urbino” or Manet’s “Olympia”. It wasn’t until about sixth grade that a priest first asked me to really elaborate after I had muttered, “I had impure thoughts three times this week.”

This was at least as unnerving for the priest as it was for me. I doubt he’d ever heard one so young (or anyone else for that matter) describe Rubens’ “Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus” in such vivid detail. Never mind that it was all a bold-faced lie (in the hallowed darkness of the confessional!) to cover up the real source of my impure thoughts – discovering my older brother’s stash of Playboy magazines. By now I’m fairly sure you’re thinking I’ve revealed far more personal information than you want to know. It’s nonetheless interesting that my memory of such confessional encounters had remained long hidden beneath a cerebral fig leaf of sorts, until I recently dwelled on the paintings by Shirley Aley Campbell currently on view in “A Celebration of Women in the Arts: Director’s Choice II” at the Canton Museum of Art.

While there is a controlled if not hesitant delicacy to Campbell’s elegant abstracted ink drawings, particularly in her six smaller linear works under the title “Ode to Piero”, her oil works on canvas are a completely different, heavier matter. Not that these nudes drove me to the abyss of prurient longings and abject prayers for forgiveness, even if there is something distinctly abysmal about Campbell’s palette. Her undraped figures from life do share a kinship with the unflinching postmodern realism of Lucian Freud (though with a less eviscerated look), and Philip Pearlstein’s non-traditional perspectives and vantage points, though clearly without his enlivening color dynamics. The unabashedly candid world in which Campbell’s nudes pose and interact can be a dark and brooding one, though certainly sensual and voluptuous, even Rubenesque in an off-kilter way. The dim settings and somber tonalities might well be expressions of what Campbell tells us in her statement: “Anxieties persist in my paintings and I am suspended between the order I see and an apprehension that everything must, and does move.”

In “The Kiss”, two lip-locked, naked women embrace each other in a wide easy chair. Their surrounds, ironically enough, are a murky and stifling interior. Are we looking at a momentary sexual pleasure, a clandestine act, or the celebration of a lifestyle? And are we as viewers simply voyeurs, comfortable or otherwise? Anxieties and apprehension indeed. A similar sensibility – an ambiguous drama - seems to be at work in “Man-Woman” numbers 1 and 2. In the first, a robust man on his knees clutches at a standing older woman clad only in a wide-brimmed hat. She looks worried, ambivalent - both resistant and on the verge of surrender. Both figures are painted as if illuminated by an unseen, devilish red fire aglow in a dark, dense void. In number 2, they’re horizontal, though not fully engaged, so to speak.

With the emergence of 20th century mainstream modernism, classical perfection and “beauty” in painting the human figure was thenceforth considered an impotent banality. In turn, the postmodern resurgence of figurative Realism, where Campbell’s work finds itself ensconced, brought with it an energized attention to image as painted surface. And in that, Campbell is a seriously fine painter. Aside from the unsettling social, emotional, or moral territories her pictures might suggest or imply, I get the sense that as a keen observer of forms, she looks at every square inch of her models with an almost clinical intensity. Her painted anatomies seethe with mesmerizing passages of small, studied brush strokes. Not impasto surfaces, but quietly sumptuous just the same.

Viewing them from that perspective is a pleasure of which I remain…unrepentant.

Photo: “Violini de Roma” acrylic, charcoal and pencil, by Shirley Aley Campbell, on view at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 through July 24.

No comments: