An art fee that'll make you blush

Special to The Times

AT Gallery 825 on La Cienega Boulevard, there is one piece of art that does not have a price tag.

The photograph, mounted on an easel near the entrance to the gallery, is of a naked person or persons, and it is occasionally replaced by another photograph of similar subject matter. A sign beckons in red capital letters: "Buy this art for free!"

Then comes the fine print. To claim your prize, the sign goes on to say, you must pose naked for the photographer. Your photo then becomes the next free offering -- free, that is, if it didn't cost you some of your dignity to stand in front of a camera with no clothes on.

This neat loop of nude commerce -- part performance art, part flea market barter, part laboratory for self-discovery -- is the product of Johnny Naked (a.k.a. Walter Lutz), whose artistic obsession is the human form in its unclothed glory.

"The Ever-Changing Naked Picture Project" -- his title for the 30-some photographs generated so far, as people of all ages and sizes disrobe for his camera -- began in January. The entire series went on display at Gallery 825 on Oct. 20 and will continue through Nov. 17.

The project is ongoing. Until a few days before the show's closing, Naked will accept requests from anyone willing to become his next nude model in exchange for a copy of the previous photo. Most of the models have been artists, but there have also been some who signed up after seeing the project at the gallery or online.

"It started off really slow. People were afraid," said Sinead Finnerty-Pyne, artistic director for the Los Angeles Art Assn., which runs Gallery 825 as a showcase for emerging artists. "Now that it's out there more and they can see the product, more people want to get involved. They're art, and they're becoming an object of art in an art space."

The viewer may decide that the photos are revelatory, merely quirky or a publicity stunt uncomfortably verging on pornography -- the ambiguity is part of the point.

For those who actually participate, baring it all for Naked's camera puts self-image to the test: Am I comfortable enough with my imperfect body to expose it to the searching eyes of strangers? Am I enjoying this more than I should?

One woman was too shy to do much besides curl up in a ball in a corner, while a less inhibited man flaunted his nakedness in front of people passing by the gallery's glass facade. Naked has included a sequence of self-portraits in the project, lest he forget what it feels like to be on the other side of the lens.

At the Oct. 20 opening, a local artist spontaneously decided to enlist. The resulting photo shows her striking a vampy pose -- naked, of course -- in front of startled gallery goers.

"If someone sees one of my self-portraits, they might giggle and feel they have power, because they've seen me naked but I haven't seen them," Naked said. "Part of playing with that power is that to acquire someone else's vulnerability you have to make yourself naked."

The photographer says he tries to stay within each person's comfort zone, and together, artist and subject come up with a concept for the photograph. One woman arrived with four friends, and the group posed for a series of photos, including one in which they appear to be having a raucously good time playing cards and guzzling alcohol in the nude.

Naked often uses Photoshop to create special effects that heighten his playful sensibility. In one photo, a nude man looks intently at a nude portrait of a woman. In the foreground is a video camera with the same image in the viewfinder, except that the man has his clothes on.

All the photo sessions take place at the gallery, and the art on the walls often plays a supporting role. In "J. Mehrten," Naked captures the subject's bare torso with his forefinger against the outstretched finger from a gallery painting -- an echo of the Sistine Chapel finger touch.

Jeremy Quinn, a 32-year-old architect and artist, arrived at the gallery Saturday, ready to strip off his T-shirt and jeans in return for the photo of the woman who had created the stir on the exhibit's opening night. Quinn said he was motivated less by the free art and more by the self-discovery that the experience promised.

"Instead of just being about gazing at a person and looking at someone else's body, in order to take it away and take the piece home, you have to be that person and take the risk yourself," he said.

Quinn decided to stand on a chair, then have the chair Photoshopped away so he would appear to be hovering in the air. During the photo shoot, he seemed more concerned about falling off the chair than about the several people observing him.

In a few days, Quinn's full-frontal image would be on display at the gallery, free to anyone who dared to do the same.


'The Ever-Changing Naked Picture Project'

Where: Gallery 825, 825 N. La Cienega Blvd., L.A.

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Ends Nov. 17.

Info: (310) 652-8272

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