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Stripped BareReview - Stripped Bare
The Body Revealed in Contemporary Art
by Marianne Karabelnik (Editor)
Merrell, 2004
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Sep 4th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 35)

Stripped Bare is a magnificent assortment of contemporary photography, painting and sculpture, organized around the theme of the body.  All works are taken from the collection of Thomas Koerfer, who possesses a remarkable number of pieces by major artists.  It is a large book, with 254 pages, most of which have color photographs of the art.  The paper quality and color reproduction are good.  The book contains an introduction by the editor, with four essays by Victor Tupitsyn, Thomas Koerfer, the editor, and Juri Steiner.  The essays are closely tied to the artworks, referring to them by name and page number, making them far better illustrated than most other discussions of the body in art. 

The work collected contains both familiar and less well-known artists.  There are photographs by Nan Goldin, Robert Mapplethorpe, Sally Mann, Andy Warhol, Man Ray, Edward Weston, Larry Clark and Cindy Sherman, and readers will recognize many of these.  The photographs of Nobuyoshi Araki, Noritoshi  Nirakawa, and Boris Mikhailov, many of which are reproduced here, will probably be new for most readers, however.  Also included are one or two works of many other lesser-known photographers and artists.

One main feature of this collection is its difference from other photography and art books that focus on the body and the nude.  Most, and certainly those that are aimed at a wide readership, have beauty and eroticism as their central theme.  They aim to capture some essence of desirability of the human form, from different perspectives.  In contrast, the works in Stripped Bare have different aims, and often avoid or even disrupt ideas of beauty.  Some may still be attractive or visually engaging, but that feature is generally secondary to their main aim.

This is obvious in a piece by Robert Mapplethorpe, for example.  In "Untitled (Self-Portrait), c. 1973", we have a small black and white image of his erect penis with a thin black strap tied a couple of times around it and around one of his testicles.  On his wrists, he wears a couple of studded leather and metal wrist-bands.  Clearly, this is about S&M gay sexuality, and represents an act of deliberate shock, self-revelation, experimentation, and playfulness.  These themes appear in other pictures by Mapplethorpe and are what made him notorious.  Comparing them to the Polaroids of Andy Warhol (Nude Male, c. 1970-1977), which also show a male erect penis, one with a leather thong tied around it, there are very obvious similarities. Neither artist endorses conventional ideals of beauty.

The rejection of beauty as an ideal is less obvious in some of the work of Nan Goldin, whose photograph "Amanda on My Fortuny, Berlin, 1993" is featured on the book cover.  To understand Goldin's work, it is important to see individual works in the context of her other work, all of which shows her friends and acquaintances, often at crucial points of their lives.  The photograph shows Amanda as a young woman, thin and small-breasted, naked apart from a necklace.  Her hands are thin, even bony, and are prominent in the image.  Her eyes are open, and she is resting her head on her right upper arm, with her hand draped around her neck at a rather surprising angle.  She looks still and contemplative, maybe even depressed.  It is not posed, but rather seems to capture the friend resting naked, and so raises the question of Goldin's relationship to Amanda.  The image is intimate and sensuous, like a great deal of nude photography, but it is not an exhibition and it does not even feel voyeuristic.  It captures something important about Amanda, and while she is beautiful and naked, and these are important features of her in the picture, the image is still more about her as a person rather than a fetishization of her body. 

One of the great revelations of the book is the work by Boris Mikhailov.  For example, his series Case History, 1997-98 shows homeless people in Kharlov, Ukraine, posing naked for the camera.  In his essay "Canny Uncanny," Tupitsyn says that Mikhailov's representation of uncanny sex organs "balances on the edge between social text and eschatological voyeurism."  In the image on the facing page from this series, we see two young girls, probably on the edge or puberty.  One is topless, and scrawny, grinning at the camera nervously, while the girl also smiles, a little more playfully, while she squeezes her friend's small breast.  Both girls have closely cropped hair and wear old ill-fitting clothes.  As Tupitsyn says, this is a very odd image, prompting a difficult feeling in the viewer, torn between the plight of the girls and their odd pose, aware of the potential eroticism and even fantasy of young girls being sexual together.  In Mikhailov's earlier work, from the late 1960s to the 1990s, we see people living hard lives in the Soviet Union, but often engaged  in the moment, oblivious of the photographer.  Some of the photographs are artificially colored, lessening the sense of a documentary project.  Even with several pages of his work, it is hard to get a strong sense of the meaning of his work, but it is certainly fascinating and deserves more recognition.

Similarly, the black and white images of Nobuyoshi Araki are arresting and memorable.  He is one of the most represented artists in the book, with many pages of his photographs.  Often his pictures include sex organs or sex acts, and in her essay "The Voyeurism of Art," Karabelnik says that he is the "undisputed king of voyeurs," but apart from that, there is disappointingly little discussion or explanation of his work. 

This points to one of the difficulties of the book, that it generally does not say much about the projects of individual artists.  The essays are thematic, on the uncanny, the influence of cinema of the depiction of the body, the voyeurism of art, and the relation between modern art and pornography.  There are no short biographies or the works of the artists included, or lists of their books.  So the book can leave the reader wanting to know more, with little guide about where to find further information.  This is not a major flaw, but it is a little frustrating. 

The essays themselves are quite interesting, although not necessarily easy to follow.  Tupitsyn addresses the important idea that a nude is generally as constructed as any clothed model, and we should be wary of any suggestion that lack of clothing gets us closer to some real essence.  But he lapses into jargon and gestures rather too frequently.  For example, in discussing a famous photography by Man Ray, "Noire et blanche, 1926," he writes, "The beauty of the exotic black mask is no less than that of the white face, shoulder and hand.  The presence of this common denominator levels the colour contrast, and with it the opposition between the aesthetic of the live and the aesthetic of the dead.  As a result, the distance between de-reified aesthetics and the culture industry that Adorno regarded as the funeral home of art is lost."  Not all readers will be familiar with Adorno's critical theory, and even those who are may well be puzzled as to the connection between the beauty of the white face and the black mask on the one hand, and the distinction between high art and popular culture on the other.  Skeptics may conclude that this is pseudo-intellectual nonsense, and even those who are sympathetic to the philosophy of aesthetics may finish the essay unsatisfied. 

Koerfer's essay on the influence of cinema is more grounded with concrete discussion of images, but it is quite demanding, assuming a knowledge of a great deal of cinema.  Furthermore, this main thesis is difficult to locate, and one gets the sense of a number of points being made without a strong thread bringing them together.  His main claim seems to be simply that there has indeed been a strong influence on modern art from cinema.  Similarly, Karabelnik in her discussion of voyeurism makes several insightful comments about the role it plays in particular works, but one is left wondering what general claim she is trying to make.  Steiner's discussion of pornography leaves one unsure exactly what question he is addressing.  He mentions the influence of pornography on art, the distinction between art and obscenity, the nature of pornography, the need for art to be shocking in order to be revolutionary, and the distinction between sex and gender, among other points, but his conclusion seems to be banal or stupid, that sex is one of the most artistic of all acts. 

The main advantage of the essays for the book is that they provide a way to set out the images with some thematic justification.  They also at least provide a starting point for those who want to think about the meaning and value of the images.  The themes of voyeurism, obscenity, objectification, eroticism, and popular culture are certainly all important here, and can lead one to other important issues, such as gender, beauty and the artist's responsibility. However, one is likely to return to the book much more for the pictures than for the essays. 

Stripped Bare is an eclectic assortment, which is natural, being from the collection of one person, but it is rich and provocative.  Indeed, it suggests that the examination of the body in modern art has been exceptionally interesting, and so belongs centrally in any serious discussion of sexuality and self-consciousness. 

 

© 2005 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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