LONDON - From antiquity to the Renaissance, and from saucy late-19th-century postcards to the ubiquity of online pornography today, multiple representations of the body have been rubbing up against plain old nudity. Where does the former end and the latter begin? The politics associated with our naked form – something we all possess – and with its depictions are the object of endless fascination.
These questions are at the centre of The Nude in the XX and XXI Century, a selling exhibition of works by contemporary and historic artists at Sotheby’s S|2 gallery in London. Curator Jane Neal emphasises the nude’s ability to be both “a target and a weapon,” and the participating artists are conscious of the tensions within their chosen subject. Caroline Walker’s paintings question the gaze – what are her women doing, and why can’t we stop looking at them? Martin Eder’s portraits walk the line between the sensual and the symbolic, reminding us that we are seeing pictures rather than a life-drawing model in a gallery. But what does the distance that a canvas creates mean for us? Hugo Wilson explores the symbolic aspects of the nude by investigating the relationship between corporeal ideals and ideological ends. Tim Noble and Sue Webster turn idealised notions of the nude on their heads, showing the human form as blood, sweat and tears.
IN A WORLD WHERE NUDITY HAS BECOME COMMONPLACE, BERLIN-BASED MARTIN EDER SEES THE VALUE OF THE NUDE IN ART. © STUDIO DAVID FISCHER.
Martin Eder is famous for his nudes – infamous, perhaps. Is good art allowed to be sexy? “Nude paintings are an illusion like any other,” he says. “The nude is a symbol, and I see symbols.” Eder, a rangy German with a lightning-quick mind and a tendency to free-associate, celebrates flesh on canvas. “People who grew up with Internet porn have a completely different relationship with the nude,” he says. “That idea of nudity has become unspectacular, but the idea of the nude has become something valuable again.” The artist and sometime hypnotherapist works in a Berlin studio reminiscent of an 18th-century laboratory. Here Eder photographs non-professional models. “I use real-life subjects because it’s more fun,” he explains. “I work with a lot of people from the street.” Full of metaphor, analogy and wide-eyed wonder, he is certain of the symbolism in his work and observes that “there is a big social difference between being naked, being nude and being pornographic.” Does Eder seek to provoke? “No, I don’t, but I’m not seeking beauty. I’m seeking reality.”
MARTIN EDER’S BLESSED ARE THE DREAMERS.
CAROLINE WALKER IN HER LONDON STUDIO. PHOTOGRAPH BY PAL HANSEN.
“My favourite paintings and pictures are images of women, and I’ve always been fascinated to know why,” says Caroline Walker in her canvas-stacked Islington studio. “Throughout history, most of these images have been made by men. So what is it to be a woman and be looked at by men?” A good question – and one that the young Scottish artist intends to answer in her own paintings, which turn viewers into voyeurs and subtly play on the behaviour between her protagonists. These could be variously engaged in washing the windows of a modernist house, undressing in a hotel room or gazing through the steam of a public bath in Budapest.
Walker’s world is a strange but beguiling one, conjured from familiarity with surveillance and horror-movie camera angles, as well as “rubbish TV,” according to the artist herself. Her working practice involves choosing a building as a backdrop, booking models, opening her “giant suitcase of disgusting clothes that become strange uniforms for some sort of undisclosed job” and then taking hundreds of photographs before making dozens of oil sketches. Then come the canvases proper. “We know how to read a full nude,” says Walker. “But if someone is half-dressed, you’re looking at a transitional moment, and it becomes something else.” Perhaps the strange danger and allure we find in Walker’s work come from our own gaze. “There’s a sense that these women aren’t ready to be looked at,” she says. That may very well be the most naked moment of all.
CAROLINE WALKER’S CHOREOGRAPHY, CREATED FOR THE S|2 EXHIBITION.
Noble and Webster
THE ARTISTS USING THEIR FEET TO PAINT THE PORTRAITS. PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF TIM NOBLE AND SUE WEBSTER.
What does the nude make Tim Noble and Sue Webster think about? “Layers of pink, juicy, glistening flesh rippling one on top of the other. Benefits Supervisor Sleeping by Lucian Freud. Leigh Bowery contorted into impossible positions. Stretching flesh over the canvas like Francis Bacon. Or slices of Danish bacon,” says Webster. “We are all bits of meat on a slab,” adds Noble.
Throughout their two-decade career, the British duo has amply illustrated precisely which bits of meat we are. For the Sotheby’s S|2 show, the pair set about depicting each other as nudes in their characteristically quirky styles. “If I just put a paintbrush between my toes and painted her, how would that look?” Noble recalls initially wondering. “For a while it was liberating to feel completely out of control.” How long did it take to pick up the brush and run with foot painting? “Well, at one point I got so good at it that I had to blindfold myself too,” says Webster. The results might be strangely sexy, but should sex come into discussions about the nude? “I never think of the nude as anything sexy,” says Webster. As usual, the duo’s imagination and practice have them jumping in feetfirst.
NOBLE AND WEBSTER’S TWO DECLINING NUDES, 2014.
HUGO WILSON IS KEEN TO EXPLORE WHY WE SEEK TO CREATE IMAGES OF OURSELVES. PHOTOGRAPH BY JASON ALDEN/EYEVINE/REDUX.
As expansive and philosophically inclined as Hugo Wilson may be, his London studio, once a repair shop, is decidedly workmanlike, with its garage door, hydraulic car-lift and the sound of the Tube rumbling nearby. “Sorry for the chaos,” he says, sweeping a broad hand around the works in progress.
A squint at the walls reveals some nude-y pinks: “I’d love to have my work described as ‘balls out,’ but if there is human form in there, it’s never quite what it appears to be,” says Wilson, lighting a cigarette.
On the wall hangs a circular piece that looks dinstinctly fleshy. “That’s something that might end up hanging on the ceiling. It’s a take on a religious tondo,” Wilson observes, as if he were describing an everyday lampshade. “But these are bodybuilders’ muscles.” Elsewhere sit quasi-figurative terracotta sculptures that embody the Classical but suggest the random aesthetic of driftwood; they also look as though they are fighting – or is it fornicating? Wilson grins broadly at the associations of this amateur sleuthing: “We all see what we want to see.”
HUGO WILSON’S TONDO (NUDE), 2015.