The bare body has been a constant subject of representation in visual culture across all cultures throughout history. Nearly always described as nude and nearly never as naked, the unclothed human figure has both captivated and divided audiences for centuries. In their spring exhibition at Davies Street in London Sadie Coles HQ uses the work of thirteen contemporary artists to question our ideas about history, politics, eroticism and vulnerability through the recurring motif of the exposed human figure.
Historically in the west the female figure has been idealised, appearing unclothed in renaissance paintings as goddesses that are hairless, blemish-free and beautiful. These nude women were taken from myths; they were not real people but notions of what perfect heavenly deities were supposed to look like. Often they were painted lying languidly on a chaise longue alone, displaying her body proudly to her viewer, revealing what might normally be concealed up to the voyeur seductively on a plate. The closest artwork at Sadie Coles to this mode of female representation is Urs Fischer’s 4, 2014, in which a bright pink clay figure emerges from a piece of wood. Fischer’s woman is headless, and her body is partially covered by the vegetation she is placed behind. While her positioning mimics the typical renaissance goddess, it is subverted by fluorescent colours and through the removal of her face. It is as though the dated method of representing women has been given a twenty-first century makeover, with dollops of luminous pink, yellow and orange paint being splattered across the wooden ‘chaise longue’ that this unidentifiable woman has been presented behind. It is also less ‘clean.’ The woman is not inside, she is outdoors on the ground, removed from her luxurious velvet sofa and probably alone in the woods.
The female form is also exhibited sculpturally through the work of Don Brown, Paloma Varga Weisz and Sarah Lucas. In Yoko XXXVI, 2013, Yoko Ono appears as a porcelain statuette on a white pedestal. Unlike the majority of nude women we are used to seeing across western art history, Ono is not completely naked. Brown’s model is wearing knickers. She also has her hair in a ponytail and is posing in platform shoes. The woman goes from standing to on her back again in Paloma Varga Weisz’s Lying Woman, 2016, carved from lime wood. Unlike Fischer’s lady, Varga Weisz’s subject is not turned on her side for her viewer, but towards the ceiling as though she is taking a nap. She is placed on a shelf, so you may hardly notice her, keeping away from anybody’s gaze, hiding from objectification. Also lying down is Sarah Lucas’s Nude No. I, 1999. Laid across a metal table the work consists of a white vest and a pair of matching white pants. A pair of coconuts protrudes out of the vest where the bosoms should be, while a scrubbing brush is laid over the underpants. While the work is supposed to represent the female body there is something masculine about it. The garments are extremely unfeminine. They are almost clinical and there is nothing from their stark whiteness that the viewer can take about their wearer. Moreover, the very way in which the scrubbing brush has been positioned causes its appearance to look almost phallic.
It is not only the woman’s body however, that has been exhibited in a three-dimensional sculptural form, but also the masculine nude. Frank Benson presents Human Statue (Bronze), 2009, in which a full-sized unclothed male figure is positioned on a pedestal, replicating the mode of street-performance in which actors cover their bodies in bronze paint and attract tourists across many cities around the globe. Life-size models linger again in the gallery upstairs across Ugo Rondinone’s Nude Series, 2011 in which wax figures replicate the poses of both male and female dancers. While the rest of the sculptures within the exhibition leave their bodies open to the viewers, Rondinone’s figures are hunched over with their arms folded and resting their head on their hands. The characters are meant to represent the symbols of naked emotions, and their positioning humanises the nude figure, where the unrealistic stance in which the models parade their bodies for an audience is not reflective of the way the majority of people feel about their own bodies.
Besides the sculpture that dominates the show, the unclothed body is also represented through painting and photography. In Elizabeth Peyton’s Alice Neel 1931, 2007, the artist paints a black and white self-portrait made by Alice Neel in which she represents herself in a contemplative light with her legs crossed and her eyes closed. In a more sexual positioning, William N. Copley’s La Paloma, 1972 consists of a voluptuous nude woman parading her body in front of a window where a white dove is flying towards her breast.
Photographically, the nude male figure replicates Christ in Angus Fairhurst’s Pieta, 1996. The self-portrait of the well-known biblical scene sees Fairhurst being carried by a gorilla that is resting on a bed while the artist is still dragging the camera cable used to take the photograph. Male and female come together in Richard Prince’s Free Love #93, 2015, one of the few works that makes the nude erotic. The work comprises an amalgamation of a Playboy cartoon and the artist’s own ‘hippie drawings’ in which another unclothed blue woman appears alongside palm trees and various scribbles.
Sadie Coles exhibits the bare body in a variety of modern gazes, subverting dated ideas about beauty and placing the figure into contemporary narratives and situations.
Nudes is on display at Sadie Coles 1 Davies Street, London, W1 until 26th May 2018