Arts » Visual Art

Laid Bare

An exhibition shows some skin


Nudity is something the art-going public has never quite sorted out. Even professional artists will sometimes titter to diffuse tension when they find themselves with other adults in a gallery filled with images of the human form.

So it is fortunate that Loren Naji has opened up a space in his self-named gallery with the exhibition Exposed. Here, nudity can be examined in its literal and figurative senses. Naji says that he collected works from artists John W. Carlson, Ron Johnston, and Kirsten Tradowsky for a December-January show without initially seeing a connection between the three artists. However, assembling the works, he found each of their works exposed someone -- either the body of a model or the interior of the artist -- in all its vulnerability to the viewer.

Johnston's works in pastel and oil are the most traditional. His subjects are nude women in comfortable settings lined with sheets and pillows. In "Repose," a model lies with her head propped up with one arm, eyes shut in real or feigned sleep. Many of Johnston's women close their eyes, reversing the demand of privacy that would be required of us should we have met them undressed in person. In blocking out one of their chief senses, the models convey an uncommon degree of trust to the artist, and by extension, his audience.

The nakedness in Carlson's work is the starkest. He works in either oil, or mixtures of charcoal, gesso and acrylic. Some of Carlson's works exhibit strict realism in the depiction of the human figure. Others twist, elongate, or simplify bodies in ways that are impossible off a two-dimensional surface. But no matter the medium or style, the only colors used are black, white, gray, and splashes of red.

In "Cinderella Series #3," a naked woman raises her head to the sky in a silent scream. The head and the mouth are two ovals; one swirled in hair, the other in blood red. The right hand clutches or beats at the breast. Her terror seems philosophical, like Edvard Munch's or Francis Bacon's screamers. She is naked to the viewer as the viewer is bare and helpless before crisis and death.

Like the other two artists, the San Francisco-based Tradowsky paints human figures, but all are clothed. They are dressed, in fact, in the ironed gingham shirts, long-sleeved blouses, and cat glasses of the Eisenhower years. Tradowsky's models are the subjects of photographs shot in the late 1950s, many at or around an unnamed elementary school. At a passing glance, her work might seem out of place, until one looks more closely at the students.

In "Grade Four," two rows of students and teachers stand stiffly for a class portrait. Out of 18 faces, only six are recognizably smiling, and one smile, on a sharp-faced lady teacher in back, is clearly pained. The rest of the crowd is faceless, with only welt-colored smears making suggestions at noses, mouths and eyes. In "Waiting for the Bus," three girls and three boys stand on asphalt. No one is looking at anyone else. One round-headed male child makes eye contact with the viewer, staring blankly.

Not her subjects, but the artist herself is left vulnerable by the works. The students, rigid and faceless, make the viewer feel unwelcome, and convey the loneliness of a childhood spent not fitting in.

By reminding us, by very different means, of our shared exposedness, all three artists leave the viewer feeling more human.

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