Thursday, November 5, 2009

The story of Twelve Naked Men

The third show I did that involved bodies was called 12 Naked Men.  I conceived it after working on Scar Series.  I became tired of painting scars after 10-15 of them so I drew a picture I had taken of a friend who's a dancer and a gymnast.  It was lovely to do, so I did another one. It's the red one.  My teacher at the time had a strong reaction to it - said it looked like he'd been burned, hurt.  Another woman reacted strongly as well, was uncomfortable with it, could barely stand to look at it.  I decided right then and there to explore the topic further.  I had a lot of photographs of naked men to work from. 

That sentence probably needs explanation!  I used to do a form of dance called Contact Improvisation - it's fun and wonderful and I love it, but my daggone back is in too much pain to allow me to do it presently.  Anyway, I was at a dance weekend when I announced that during the afternoon I'd be taking pictures of anyone who was interested in posing for me and that I was working on a series of naked men.  Dancers are not shy about their bodies because they are so present to them.  They might notice every flaw of their own bodies, but they seem to be comfortable being naked, so I had a lot of people willing to model.  To get over the slight awkwardness of the situation, I would ask the men questions about themselves like what their favorite body part was or why they chose to model for me.  It was quite a wonderful experience doing the photographs.  I'm very grateful to each person who modeled for me.

One man in particular, I believe, had a profound experience.  It was a brand new thing to him to model, and he wasn't very comfortable.  He was afraid to tell his wife he was doing it.  Afraid, I believe, to let her know what crazy stuff he was up to.  When I sent him copies of the pictures afterwards, we ended up emailing back and forth for months about the experience.  He said it was the first time he'd actually realized that he was no longer living in the body of a 20-year-old.  He could see in the photos that he was 50.  I think it was not easy for him to confront the fact of his aging body.  He's in fantastic shape, but, still, as he said, he isn't 20 any more.  Powerful work! 
After I drew the first nude, I decided to use poses where the men were facing the camera but without heads.  That way people could look at the bodies without feeling confronted by the subject.  I was playing with the idea that women are usually the ones who are objectified by men, and here I was objectifying men by showing them without heads, just as bodies.  I also wanted people to have a chance to look unimpeded by faces looking back at them.  I wasn't interested in doing portraits at that time. 

For the exhibit, I built a round room where I hung all twelve pieces.  Viewers walked into the room and were surrounded by the images of twelve naked men.  It was quite powerful.  Of course there were gawkers who came to look.  And people who laughed with discomfort.  But even more people were moved by the exhibit and the power of the men and their bodies.  I'd gotten a lot of press so there were a lot of people at the opening.

At one point, a group of 5 of so kids ran in off the street.  They went into the space and giggled and gawked and laughed.  I was a little bit worried that they would be disruptive so I went in to see if I could talk to them about it - what a great opportunity to teach!  (After all, I'm a teacher by trade!)  I asked if they had any questions.  One of the girls who was about 12 asked me, "How come those guys' things is all so little and shrivelly?"  I was taken aback that she would have a clue how they would look at all, much less that they might look otherwise, but I calmed responded that they weren't always big and erect - most of the time, in fact, they weren't.  "Oh!  Well how come you paint all these naked men?"  I explained to her my reasons.  She seemed satisfied enough and told me, "Well that's really cool.  I like what you do"  then she and her friends ran off, giggling perhaps a bit less than they had when they first came in, but still with barely stifled guffaws that exploded as they left the building. 

There were several women who came in with their husbands.  I call them church couples - middle aged, well-dressed, dignified.  Several times the women would poke their husbands and point to one particular model (the brown and teal one) who has a gut and say, "Honey, I didn't know you modelled for her!"

That particular model turned out to be one of the favorites.  I think he looked most familiar to people - like their husbands or father or whomever. 

Later in the evening a young man came in with his pretty wife.  She was full of life and vitality and tried to coax him in to see the drawings.  He adamantly refused to go in.  I noticed so tried to engage him in conversation while she was looking at the pictures.  I asked him why he chose to stay outside.  He said he didn't want to see any naked guys.  He wasn't like that.  He reminded me of a high school football player, acting macho, averting his eyes in the locker room so no one would think he was gay.  I encouraged him to take a look and to let me know what he thought, but he was not willing to at all.  Too bizarre for him.  It is fascinating to me to learn more about people's perceptions and feelings about the human form.

As a counterbalance to the above incident, another man who is somewhat heavyset and middle aged went into the room to see the men.  When he came out, he came over to talk to me with tears in his eyes.  He thanked me for having the exhibition and said it helped him accept his own body more.  It was the first time he'd really been able to look at men's bodies and see what they looked like for real - I think he must have been like the previous guy who was afraid to look in the locker room.  He said that seeing real men made him accept his own body all the more.  I felt so happy that my art opened that up for him.  That's why I do this work.  It makes a difference!

After the exhibit, Madelyn Miller, The Travel Lady, came to town and saw a print I made of the Twelve Naked Men and wanted to know more so she contacted me about them.  I sent her pictures and more info which she included in an article she wrote for her website. is the link if you're interested in seeing it.  Madelyn told me they got more hits on the website every day for a while than they'd ever had before - over 100,000/day!!  I guess my guys got around!

There were other examples of people being uncomfortable:  the gallery I was showing in sent out a card I designed to announce the show.  It's shown here. It has a picture of one of the nudes that can be seen through a "keyhole" - alluding to the voyueristic side of the show.  One of the recipients called the gallery, incensed, to tell the gallery owner to take her off the mailing list!  What was she thinking, sending a naked man to her mailbox?  She didn't have children, but what if she did and her children had seen it???!!!

My response is that nudity is completely natural and it's the fact that we as Americans make it so unnatural that I believe leads to so many of our problems as a country.  In Europe, nudity is much more accepted.  Sex is perceived as natural and normal.  Children  and teens see movies with sex and naked people in them much more than movies with violence.  Violence is seen as bad and terrible and children are protected from images of violence, not sex.  I agree with that.  I don't want kids to see violent sex, of course, nor do I believe they should be exposed to images of behavior that is too mature for their comprehension, but simply seeing the nude body is quite another thing.  We all have one, for goodness sake!  What's the big deal??!!

(Did I just open up a can of worms??   I hope so!)

1 comment:

  1. first time i ever heard them referred to as 'worms'.