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ART / Cathy Curtis : Surprisingly, Exhibits of Nudes Still Cause Some Anxiety Locally

The way our bodies look is central to our lives. As infants, we explored them; as children, we were curious about the way they differed from our siblings’; as adolescents, we monitored them for signs of puberty. Even as adults, we spend a remarkable amount of time scrutinizing them for signs of age or fitness or sexual appeal.

So it isn’t surprising that the human body has occupied a central place in the history of Western art. The tradition of the nude, dating back to the sculpture of the ancient Greeks, has continued in the sculpture, painting and photography of our own time.

What is surprising--especially in an age of explicit advertising imagery, movies and television shows--is the prudishness that grips some people when they come face to face with nudity in art. But several recent events suggest an undercurrent of anxiety about the subject in Orange County.

Earlier this month, after adverse remarks by the public, a painting of a nude male figure was removed from a prominent position in Newport Beach City Hall and banished to an office. Last week, when the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art announced the June opening of its new satellite gallery at Hutton Centre in Santa Ana, the good news was tempered by Hutton Development Co.'s requirement that the art contain no nude or political subject matter.

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And during the past couple of months, teachers at two Orange County elementary schools--Meadow Park in Irvine and Stoneybrooke Christian in Mission Viejo--have decided not to allow their students to tour the David Park exhibition at the Laguna Art Museum because several of the paintings in the show are of male and female unclothed figures.

“It’s not that I don’t want kids to understand that artists paint nudes,” said Sherry Morel, Stoneybrooke’s administrator. “But we’re a Christian school and our values are such that nudity in any form, even though it might be considered art by some, is inappropriate for our students to be exposed to. . . . If children see an abstract male nude with a penis (in a museum), that does not allow us to train them in the context of character development. . . . The bottom line is, things having to do with sex education or human anatomy we’re attempting to keep in the context of family discussions.”

Aside from the special concerns of a religious school, however, the central issue seems to be how to keep the most obviously curiosity-provoking aspect of the art--the sight of naked people--from dominating a child’s interpretation of the work and crowding out its aesthetic virtues.

That is a ticklish problem, particularly for adolescents, and its implications are not restricted to art. I can remember quite vividly watching a modern-dance company perform in tights on the stage of my junior high school. My eyes were riveted to the crotches of the male dancers, revealed in surprising three-dimensionality by their tights. That unintentional spectacle frankly overwhelmed any other thoughts I might have had about the performance--which was never discussed or explained in any way by the teacher.

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Dealing with nude subjects in art in a fruitful way does not mean turning a museum experience into an illustrated lecture on sexual function. Nor does it mean prudishly pretending that sexuality was of no concern to the artist. Rather, a good teacher or museum docent frankly acknowledges an artist’s fascination with the shapes and textures and colors of the human body, and explains how this raw material became the stuff of an imaginative work of art.

For Park, the lines and curves and postures of the human body were an endlessly intriguing subject. In his painting, “Bather With Knee Up,” a boy stands in profile with his hands resting on his upraised right thigh. This stance clearly reveals his penis; in fact, Park even calls attention to it with a thick stroke of paint in a flesh-color lighter than the boy’s thighs.

Park also emphasizes the shape of the boy’s buttocks with a couple of swipes of bright orange paint. Another vertical line brings the eye to the inner curve of the thigh. Still another thick brush stroke dwells on the curve of his left hand. Deft black brush strokes delineate the recess of his left ear, the placement of his lower lip and the patch of shadow under his arm.

Although the boy is recognizable as a naked human being standing in front of a pool rimmed with trees, Park felt free to emphasize certain areas of his body and downplay others because he was interested in setting up visual rhymes and rhythms--lines and curves creating abstract harmonies that are both related to the way the body really looks and compelling for their own sake. That’s the sort of information that children--or anybody else--needs to understand what the painting is really about.

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At the Laguna museum, docent chairman Gail Waters said that children viewing the Park exhibit “normally go straight to the painting that has the nude.” But docents “simply explain that artists have been painting nude human figures since the beginning of time.” The focus of their informal question-and-answer sessions is on “art in its context, on the figure as sort of a vehicle for the artist.”

For younger children, Waters said, the issue of nudes in art is “even easier because they (aren’t aware of) the problems of their parents’ hang-ups yet.”

Fear of provocation or contamination by art runs deep, particularly in people who have little contact with or knowledge of art. Interestingly, male nudity seems to inspire even more worry and alarm than the female variety, and in any case it has come to be considerably rarer. Although there have been great representations of male nudes in the history of art (like the Apollo Belvedere and Michelangelo’s “David”), since the Renaissance, “a nude” has come to mean a female nude.

In his book, “The Nude,” art historian Kenneth Clark ventured two opinions: that the popularity of the female nude possibly has to do with its possession of more “satisfying” geometric forms, and that “the tug of normal sensuality” among male artists eventually gave pride of place to the opposite sex.

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The feminist viewpoint is, bluntly, that heterosexual men have ensured--by virtue of their power in society--that objects of their sexual desire receive primary scrutiny as such in works of art. It also seems entirely possible that the distress that male nudes cause some audiences may have to do with a homophobic undercurrent in our society.

But in an art-world context, shunning works as innocent as nudes--for any reason, at any age--is the mark of a provincial mentality. One of the benchmarks of Orange County’s maturity as a regional cultural center will be reached when columns like this are no longer written.


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