Visual Art 5-10-2003

Too Much Skin?

Michael Fallon reviews "Skin 2003 part 2" at the Icebox Gallery in Northeast Minneapolis

1"effrontery - seconds split." Summer 2002. 35mm color photograph, Erin Buchner, Minneapolis
2"Betsy 1." 2001. Gelatin silver print, Pat Thielen, Woodbury
3"Armless Doll." 2002. Oil on metal. Mary Gibney, Minneapolis
4"Self-Portrait, SHIN Her Hotel, Taipei, Taiwan." July 2002. C-print. Tema Stauffer, Minneapolis

Hard as it is to swallow, my fellow Minnesotans, you should know, if you don’t already, that the rest of the nation sees us as a rather repressed and sexless lot. Yes yes, I know as well as you that it’s not true, but the stereotype is out there-whether by dint of our frigid winters, the Prairie Home/Lutheran hymn thing, or perhaps all the white bread and Spam hotdish and Jell-o salad we foist on each other. We just don’t get no respect when it comes to the you-know-what-I-mean.

But rest assured, all you randy, raunchy closet-cases–there is some bright news. Next time your friend from Florida or California starts up with his “Everyone knows I get it more than you do” rant, just cite this headline from the May 6 Star Tribune: “Sexually Transmitted Diseases ‘Epidemic’ in Minnesota.” Apparently, it seems, the natives have been not at all repressed when it comes to doing the nasty with someone who has the nasty; or as the story relates, in the past year chlamydia was up 21 percent, gonorrhea 13 percent, and syphilis a whopping 67 percent. And if that’s not enough to impress out of state friends, well, consider telling them about the Icebox Gallery in Northeast Minneapolis–where the sheer amount of nudity in its appropriately named current show, “Skin 2003 part 2,” will change ideas about Minnesotans once and for all. (Note: this show was open to international submissions, but fully half of the work in the show is home-grown.)

Before I go on and talk about some of the work, I should probably admit that I actually don’t mind looking at naked bodies. In fact, I pretty much relish it; I mean, this seems a no-brainer to me. Naked bodies are endlessly fascinating. (I know you agree: The above stats don’t lie). But here’s the rub: Gather some fifty-odd images of naked bodies in a tiny, low-ceilinged basement gallery, put them smack dab at eye-level with gallery lights exposing every little blemish and blush, and after a time even the most skin-loving sex-freak will begin to grow inured. Don’t get me wrong–I’m not saying I’ve lost my own sexy edge. It’s just that I can’t help but think there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing. After all, isn’t pleasure to a degree dictated by its unobtainability? This is, after all, what flirting is all about, and what makes it fun-you know it’s never going to happen, so hey, shouldn’t we just fool around a bit and pretend like it could happen (even if it won’t)?

Flirting, by the way, is something my friend and longtime scenester Doug Padilla (see “Art and Passion: Interview with Douglas Padilla”) says is a lost art in this state. Come to think of it, that could be another source of the vicious rumors about us–we’re all too serious about sex, and afraid to just have some fun.

Unfortunately, “Skin 2003 part 2” is not so fun; the show is less about the titillating titular idea (nude people, hey!), and more a formal exercise (oh, nude people). That is, at least for me, the nude figures become props for artists to work on their various artistic issues (with one major exception–we’ll get to that). The works are less about naked bodies than they are about the artists’ take on naked bodies. And in a show so dominated by nakedness (and in particular by naked women–which comprise, by my rough count, more than 90 percent of the nude figures here), the nude figure falls away to a sort of visual blind-spot. What we see instead is the artist’s style and his or her set of issues enacted upon the figure.

I can’t enumerate all the examples (there are too many) but here’s a strategic rundown of some highlights (or lowlights, as the case may be). Most of the work is photographic, though there are a handful of paintings, a video piece, a monumental sculpture, and even an animated piece. Most of the work is less than ambitious. There are a good number of uninteresting modernist figure-manipulations–a la Edward Weston or Man Ray–wherein the figure is abstracted to simple shapes and forms and curves. There are a number of trite surrealistic manipulations too, using Photoshop or some other collage technique to show the body in a state of transformation (from woman to swan, for instance, or woman to tree). If you’re looking for work in the feminist video/performance realm, check out “Worm Belly” by Colette Copeland of Media, Pennsylvania. A narrator’s voice recollects some obscure fact about 1970s runway models who ingested tapeworms to stay thin (the artist’s mother was such a person) while a close-up image of a churning, pulsing abdomen runs on screen. Deep thinking, there. And speaking of deep thinking, there are several photo images of the bondage/soft-porn sort, if you’re into that–such as Erin Buchner of Minneapolis’ “effrontery-seconds split.” This one depicts a gas-masked woman with pierced nipple who points a gun out at the viewer: maybe a comment on war, maybe a challenge for you to “assume the position.” I’m not sure I wanna know.

My favorite works are not so obvious, and have an element of mystery (perhaps even flirtiness) to them. Pat Thielen (of Woodbury) gives us “Betsy 1,” a seemingly documentary, slice-of-the-city style photograph, wherein an (incongruously) topless woman gazes at the viewer in the midst of a cluttered warehouse-type space. The figure’s expression makes me question why the figure is nude–is something interesting about to happen?–and this is good. Mary Gibney (of Minneapolis) paints a tiny Alex Katz-ey simplified acrylic “Armless Doll.” This kewpie-figure stands in a flatly colored decorative space, and seems iconic of something, though I don’t know what. And my second-favorite work of all these is by Minneapolis artist Tema Stauffer. Called “Self-Portrait SHIN Her Hotel, Taipei Taiwan,” it depicts the artist herself sitting on a hotel bed (the view of her reflected in mirror), topless, deadpan, a camera covering her face. The image is strong for the artist’s documentarian eye for detail. In the picture everything is just so; the bedcovers, the walls, the mirror’s frame, the coffee pitcher–everything is pink and kitschy in that Asian sort of way.

My favorite work of “Skin 2003 pt 2,” oddly, leaves nothing to the imagination, and is not at all mysterious. But at the same time, it is the one great exception to the programmatic use of the nude to fit an artistic intention. It is the one work in the show that is wholly and joyously simply a celebration of the sexiness of nudity, and not at all a prop for a stylistic or thematic agenda. Called “I Love Pussy,” by Coral Springs, Florida artist Lori Benson, it is, well… It is just too much for me to put into words. You’d have to see it to believe it anyway–suffice to say it is only what it is, and nothing more. Pure and simple. Just the way the creator meant it to be. Go see it.