Anyone hoping for nerve-tingling titillation or grand displays of erotic prowess from the West L.A. College Fine Arts Gallery’s latest show would do well to recall its title: Slightly Salacious. There are nudes, yes, as well as insinuations, but nothing outrageous enough to work up a good froth over. The exhibit offers no incentive to re-chart well-trod topographies in an attempt to delineate pornography from art, although I wonder to what extent the question even holds any interest in this worldly age.
What Slightly Salacious does offer, however, is a condensed and accessible overview of 10 Los Angeles-based artists’ confrontations with sex. Some are elliptical, others are forthright; most operate in a discursive space, inviting a grander meaning than what is depicted. Actress and painter Mary Woronov’s pieces are strong examples of this, featuring no nudity but nevertheless imbued with a sexuality more at home in psychoanalysis than the pages of an erotica magazine. In one piece, Ms. Woronov presents us with two figures: presumably a clothed male and a nude female. The latter is occluded, face and body, by the former whom we only see from the rear. Composed in a way to draw us closer to the couple than might be comfortable, we are further unsettled by an inability to connect with facial features. All we have to go on is the obviously sexual, albeit upright, position of the figures and their overall body postures. The uncertainty of the couple’s interaction is complicated by the piece’s title: Attack. A first reading might suggest that the woman is the victim of sexual assault…but a closer look suggests that maybe she is the aggressor. Or perhaps the notion of a sexual encounter as an “attack” is itself the subject of inquiry. While Ms. Woronov’s style is rather rough, her calculated deployment of ambiguity forces viewers to assume a stance while simultaneously questioning the stability of that assumption. It’s a fascinating sort of elliptical narrative, demonstrated yet again in her piece Smile, which puts viewers in the position of a mirror to a woman with a Joker-like smear of lipstick on an otherwise dead-eyed face. In the background, a suited man exits the frame, seen only in a fragmented profile. Draw your own conclusion.
Also among the artists with a penchant for parables is Dave Smith, a British painter who moved to L.A. in the 1990s and found work as a scenic artist. With a brightly-coloured, almost photorealistic, pop-style, Mr. Smith deploys Lynchian irony in service of commentary on the relationship between appearance and substance. In Nassau, his composition juxtaposes a romantic sunset ocean view with an interior whose décor consists of an urban painting and a television depicting a woman recoiling from a hooded man. Other than adding an under-layer of disturbance to a scene traditionally associated with life in paradise, the inclusion of a television makes the media itself a complicit player in the drama.
Joy to the Wall
Just as the exhibit threatens to become too weighty, some of the works on the display remember that sex and nudity can be joyful, too, not always affairs laced with menace or doubt. Standouts include Mauro Caputo’s unabashedly sexy pieces aptly titled Nude Based on Modigliani and Love Affair. Juxtaposing strong, bold, colourful forms and central figures delivered via Ben-Day dots, a la Roy Liechtenstein, we find in Mr. Caputo’s work a welcome dose of joie-de-vivre. For a more classic approach, in the delightful tradition of the purposely but harmlessly vulgar, we have a charming untitled piece by John Altoon that could just as well have been scribbled on the wall of a Parisian café’s bathroom as on a gallery wall.
[img]2870|right|James Scott, Hang, 1991.||no_popup[/img]There’s James Scott with his drolly self-referential Six Goddesses, a composition that draws on concepts such as telephone party lines and masks to offer a playful, but not uncritical, presentation of women in their bedrooms. His Brothers offers up a portrait of two nude men in a largely empty environment dominated by a billboard and telephone poles. Although contrived and strained, the result is nevertheless thoughtful.
To a lesser extent, pieces from Les Biller also support the cause of sexual exuberance– his expressionistic Atami depicts two nude women sharing a bath, both facing the viewer. But there’s a curious muddle going on in his Border Crossing, in which a smiling woman, on hands and knees, is composed alongside a dog. Lewd interpretations notwithstanding, the setting of a lawn and street is a detractor that suggests arbitrary – not in the surrealist’s mode of tapping the unconscious – rather than meaningful composition. One can only hope that Mr. Biller did not paint from a live model, as the question becomes how to appreciate a nude when wondering what the poor woman is doing naked on the side of the street.
Slightly Salacious has its share of interlopers. Puzzling for their inclusion are René de Loffre’s sculptures – anguished expressions of mortification, amputation, and existential contortion that seem better suited to a Nine Inch Nails video than an exhibit that aims for salaciousness, however slight. To consider their erotic quality seems entirely a contextual exercise by their inclusion in the exhibit rather than the outcome of an effort to signify, in Mr. de Loffre’s own words, “the ultimate and inevitable decay towards an Ozymandias reality, a memento mori.” While sex can certainly be offered as an existential response to mortality, the argument requires at the very least a sexual vocabulary, a language it would be a stretch to assign to the de Loffre pieces.
A similar curatorial puzzle emerges from the inclusion of the painting For Stephan Japienski. Jim Morphesis, known for his strong gestural paintstrokes and passionate evocations through studies of Crucifixion-inspired male torsos, is represented by this piece that, indeed, presents viewers with a male torso. While bursting with dynamic brush strokes expressing a complex turbulence – its spiritual quality, if any, is up to the viewer – the absence of a head and a face works against an erotic interpretation. The value of sexual objectification as an organizing concept is arguable, but when a body is reduced to its parts, essentially demoted from gestalt to constituency, the charge of objectification becomes harder to dodge. Yet all this is tangential to the question raised by the piece’s inclusion: does nudity, even as an objectified body part, inherently imply sexuality?
No answers to that particular question are forthcoming from the exhibit’s wittiest interloper, Robert Williams’ The Land of Retinal Delight. But there is a sly observation to be had on our consumption of the exhibit’s art. Consisting of a man in a business suit surrounded by a cornucopia of shapes and colours, some geometric and others organic, the surreal piece’s focal point is the man’s enormous right eye. It’s as if the painting is the exhibit’s viewer by proxy, eagerly eyeballing the delights on display on our behalf and cheekily prodding us to question our role – could we be voyeurs? Voyeurism would demand a vulnerability on the part of the exhibit’s artworks in terms of content rather than production, a frank exposure undiluted by the influence of overt commentary or an ambition for universality. Yet if the exhibit is not confessional like an Anne Sexton poem, Mr. Williams reminds us, through a piece that is neither critical nor indulgent, that playful sensualism is an entirely valid perspective.
Slightly Salacious, curated by Molly Barnes, is on display at the West Los Angeles College Fine Arts Gallery from November 17 to December 18,2014. For more information, including gallery hours and parking directions, visit wlacgallery.org.
Frédérik Sisa is the Page's assistant editor and resident art critic. He can be reached via eMail at firstname.lastname@example.org, and invites you to connect with him via social media:
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