The Nude Now

In Issue 49, 2019, Erin McFadyen discusses the problematics and progressions of the nude in contemporary painting.

In 2019, it’s tempting to think that we’ve passed beyond the boundaries of genre. We live in an arguably postmodern period defined by Craig Owens, for instance, as ‘a crisis of cultural authority’. However, this year’s Kilgour Prize at Newcastle Art Gallery was an exposition of the ways in which figurative painting still grapples with the generic protocols of the nude.

We’ve long known that ‘naked’ simply describes a body unclothed, while the nude takes nakedness and filters it through a set of formal and conceptual conventions, politicising it in the process. Almost fifty years after its publication, I find John Berger’s Ways of Seeing remains some of the most compelling historical analysis of the nude. To Berger, the nude instantiates a concept of ‘woman’ as an object of observation, a spectacle knowingly seen by both painter and audience. Enter the notion of femininity as display, diametrically opposed to the action of masculinity: ‘men act and women appear’. Here, to be a woman is to have one’s body placed (one’s hips tilted, one’s hair swept back) under the proprietorial gaze of masculine authority.

Though there were naked bodies in this year’s Kilgour Prize, the portraits adhere only somewhat to the prescriptions that the nude deals out. Even Robert Malherbe’s Woman in Socks (2019) – the most obviously ‘nude’-like work here – treats its subject too much like a subject to conform to the complete set of generic demands. The woman doesn’t seem aware of her observer(s). Rather, she gazes into the middle distance, the warm shadow under her chin separating her face, and her ruminations come from the arrangement of flesh that the viewer accesses. Yet there’s still an awareness of the woman’s body as accessible to an audience. In thick strokes of oil, her skin is built up as much for our sense of touch as for sight. Taken together, the opulence of the subject’s body and the glittering ephemerality of her thoughts – half sensed but not laid out so easily as her limbs – feel like a Platonic complication of the nude and its vision of woman as a bodily vessel without autonomy.

We might think about the way that contemporary portraiture deals with genre following Derrida. ‘Genre,’ for Derrida, ‘always potentially exceeds the boundaries that bring it into being, for a member of a genre always signals its membership by an explicit or implicit mark.’ That is, works of art might perform some of the conventions of genres, while reaching beyond them as well. Malherbe’s work partakes of this practice, both deploying and defying the strategies of the nude.

Other works in the Kilgour do this in even more complex ways, bringing to light the differing role of the body in the identities and claims to power of women and men today. Jenny Rodgerson’s Solitary Figure (self-portrait) (2019) pushes against the shame of nakedness. Instead, the subject asserts power over and through her body. Her chin is raised, eyes closed, and hands clasped across her chest – importantly, across full, tan-lined flesh. This flesh feels assertive, active, not least because it’s rendered in a way that denies the ideal object-standards of feminine beauty: hairlessness, sleekness, evenness of tone. The gesture of the figure’s hands feels like a declaration of self-ownership. Such a self-conscious anti-nude works with conventions insofar as it contradicts them. It knows the rules, that is, in order to break them.

In a way, too, Michael Lindeman’s Midlife Report Card (Selfie) (2019) defies some conventions of the nude, as there is no actual body pictured. Instead, parts of the subject’s body are labelled and their function described: the mouth spurts ‘too many wisecracks’, the heart is ‘a bit vulnerable’, and an ‘x’ where ‘penis’ should be (is this defiance, or shame?) has an ‘exceptional work ethic’. It’s funny, but troublingly so. Berger’s formulation of woman as appearance and man as action couldn’t be more literally reiterated. Here, the masculine subject is defined by how he works in the world, where even Rodgerson’s self-defining figure aims at a vision of feminine selfhood grounded in the bodily form.

Painting that references and shakes up the nude – especially as we eschew essentialism, and re-evaluate a binary model of gender – has a complex task in thinking through the relationship of the gendered body to power. Masculine power is already pictured as a function of men’s actions, or their performances of self in the world, rather than of the body’s form. Is it more useful for women to follow a similar route in self-representation, disavowing form as the locus of identity and authority, or to continue the trend of reclaiming ownership of – and celebrating – women’s corporeality? Should we keep painting (or, indeed, taking and sending) nudes, or does a picturing of women’s power that focuses on action rather than form need to develop? I’m not sure I know the answer, but these portraits are where I turn to ponder the question.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 49, 2019

The 2020 Kilgour Prize
1 August – 15 November 2020
Newcastle Art Gallery, NSW

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