Monday, September 20, 2010

Preliminary Notes on Male Nudes

Well, here's a bit of a format switch-up for you. I bumbled my way (with the generous help of Fedele Spadafora) into a group show of male nudes at Gitana Rosa Gallery in Brooklyn on September 10th, and the show opened last Friday, the 17th, at 7 p.m. I've somehow gotten a reputation as that one guy who can write words, so the gallery owner, Vanessa Liberati, asked if I would write a page of text about the show for the thing in the lobby where galleries tend to put a page of text about shows.

So this post, also at the request of the extremely clever, attractive, effective, charming, and well-dressed Vanessa, is that page of text. The show opened, as I said, at 7 p.m. on Friday. When did I get to see the pieces and sit down and write the text? 6:35 p.m. This bit of writing amounts to about 10 minutes; it doesn't have the extravagant 45 minutes I usually lavish on my well-thought-through blog posts, and I'm worried it might not be up to my standards. It's definitely more art-speaky.

Let me make a deal with you - if you can scrape off the art-speak and find there's something worthwhile in there, let me know, and I'll feel free to post this kind of thing once in a while if it comes up in the future. If, on the other hand, you feel I'm abusing, for self-promotion, the time you give this blog, let me know that too, and I will apologize to future gallery-owners under the heading the readers have spoken.

So here's the text, with the amusing name of the show first:
Daniel Maidman

Let’s agree, for a minute, that we can see a point to the nude as a subject for art. Straight out of the gate, then, we will be biased toward the female nude. Naked, or nearly-naked, women surround us: in our advertising, our television, our Internet. Our perception of women and their bodies is extraordinarily integrated – or fragmented, depending on your point of view. Either way, this perception reflects constant exposure.

The male nude still produces a shock of the forbidden, of the unknown; in fact, it produces the same shock that the female nude produced a century ago. This is a surprising effect, but as you browse around HUNG: Checking Out the Contemporary Male, odds are better than even that you will find yourself thinking – Holy crap, this is a lot of penis in one room.

And this brings up an interesting question: just what is it that makes the male nude special and distinct, that makes it different from the female nude?

I would offer you two loci of difference, one physical and one pertaining to gender and the spirit. The physical difference is the penis and the hair. Hips and waists, asses and faces – all of these can make a transit between the sexes with their forms more or less intact. But when you spot the penis and the hairy chest, you can only be looking at a man. Body hair and penises dominate this show, denoting the specificity of male nudity and producing the initial sense of shock. They define the playing field – they piss on the tree, so to speak.

More subtly, the second locus of difference is the concept of masculinity. This is more elusive, more difficult to define. We know more or less what we mean by the feminine, but we have lost that clear sense of the masculine, the unselfconscious, swaggering, strong masculine, which characterizes, for instance, the men of Rubens and Velazquez.

It is in respect to identifying and expressing this sense of masculinity that I think that HUNG goes beyond being merely a stunt-show, a concept-album, and enters into the realm of artistic synthesis and progression. A variety of ideas and approaches to the problem is expressed here.

We have visions of girlish waifs, of S&M musclemen, of ambivalent hipsters. Several pieces ironically regurgitate old ideas of the overpowering masculine, and it seems the artists have surprised themselves with the sympathy they found with these ideas once they tried them on for size. Other pieces identify masculinity and homoeroticism, both as a lived experience and as a fantasy ideal. Some pieces see masculinity as a threat, others as a joke. And some of the pieces see masculinity as simply one part of a personality, a kind of background condition out of which individuality emerges.

All of these pieces, in tackling a subject that still makes us cringe, work hard to reclaim a lost territory, a part of our humanity which has gone wanting on the contemporary American scene. I hope that in exploring the show, you will find yourself reawakened to slumbering resonances, enriched in your appreciation of yourself and the people around you, men and women alike, without whose differences from one another, life would be much poorer and more boring.
These are, to me, preliminary notes, because I think there's a lot to be said about the category of the male nude, and also, I didn't really think this through when I wrote it.

Here are a few pieces from the show, mine first, because who's in charge here? That's right.

The Rest, Daniel Maidman, 2010, oil on canvas, 48"x36"

Mad Max, Melissa Carroll, 2010, oil on canvas, 60"x48"

Self-portrait as Satyr, Adam Miller, graphite and chalk on paper, dimensions unknown by me

I can't seem to find Fedele's painting anywhere on the Web.

Here are a couple of really mediocre snaps of the opening:

the whole room

your humble narrator

And finally, a happy ending to this little story - my piece sold! A couple came in, sat themselves down on a sofa facing my painting, looked at it for a good long while, chatted with me for a bit, and left. They seemed like pleasant folks, and I thought, "Well, you know, at least they're thinking about it." Then Vanessa came over and told me they had bought it. I had a chance to chat with the couple again - they came in at the end of the evening, and were very enthusiastic about the painting.

Let me tell you what this is like, a bit, from the perspective of an artist who is interested in selling work.

First of all, money is nice. My work is terribly expensive to make, and I'm glad to have it start to pay for itself. Getting the attention of Vanessa and my painter friends is nice too.

But what's really nice is to make something, out of nothing, which people you do not know would vote to make a part of their lives. And not with a vote that costs nothing; they had to work to make the money they are trading for my painting, and they like the painting enough that that's worth it for them. I kind of got teared up about it, as I do about all of my art sales. I think my work is beautiful, but who cares what I think? To have other people think it's beautiful enough (in whatever broad way you want to define beautiful) to live with, is very rewarding for me. This is why I am grateful to all of my collectors.

So those are my feelings.


  1. first, as to your writing for the works. really works. just the right amounts of intellect and art-speak, and, most importantly, humor, which, i hope you intended! if you didnt its probably just that, i am sorry, but i think the word penis is still funny, :)

    second, i GET what you mean about the emotions of selling art. it never EVER escapes me that someone makes the hard, important decision to part with their hard earned money to live with my drawings. i get the tearing up! and while i hope it happens more and more frequently, i also hope to never lose that intense gratitude.

    great post, daniel...:)

  2. Erin -

    Thank you so much! I'm glad you felt like the essay had something to say, and that you identified with the personal description. And yes, the essay was supposed to be funny - I figure if you are asking people to read a bunch of analysis or criticism, throwing in a joke can't hurt. I nearly went with "wang" instead of "penis," because it cracks me up every time a urologist friend of mine (who is an attractive woman) says it during a funny urology anecdote.

    Anyone else reading this - well, first, if you're Fred or Ed, I promise I will reply to your comments, but they're going to take more work, and I like to do the easy ones first. But the point - Fred, Ed, anyone else - check out Erin's website, she does stuff with colored pencils that you would not believe could be done with colored pencils. I'm glad people are buying your work; it's very lovely and I'm sure they're happy to have it in their lives.

    Thanks again,


  3. Well you're right about this: I would not have believed what Erin does with colored pencils is even remotely possible. I'm blown away.

    As for your preliminary notes, I don't know what you would change. It's great. What I do know is that if I'm ever doing a thing in a room that has another room wherein there is a page of text about what's going on in the main room, I would love it if you could write the words on that page. To show my appreciation, you will not have to pay to get into the main room. Print this out and present it at the door.

  4. The editors of Artforum regret to inform you that your essay does not meet our standards of pomposity and obfuscation. Please try harder before submitting again.

  5. Ed - I'm glad you checked out her drawings. Incredible, huh?

    I would be honored to write a page of stuff for the one room describing your shenanigans in the main room. You should know, however, that my expertise is limited, so if you are doing, for instance, mixed martial arts and a beer tasting in the main room, the essay may not bring a lot to the conversation.

    Fred, I try to read them once in a while. Yoiks! Kuspit, obviously, I can get through handily. A lot of the others, no deal.

    I promise I'll be back to reply to all your thoughts on subsurface scattering!

  6. Never mind. I'll just use what you wrote here and replace "penis" with "beer."

    *Holy crap, this is a lot of beer in one room.*

  7. "But when you spot the beer and the hairy chest, you can only be looking at a man."

    You know, I think I had that essay figured all wrong. It makes more sense your way.

  8. My dear friend Caitlin has done her level best to post a comment she wrote here, but Blogger is thwarting her every attempt. So I'm just going to post it on her behalf. It's a very sweet comment, and I think it adds a really interesting angle to our menu of thoughts on male nudes:

    I’m going to second Erin in saying I love the text you wrote for the show. I actually don’t think it’s art-speaky at all. I admit a bias: I know you, and I like your voice, and I like seeing you wholly reflected in your writing, which is a rare feat for a writer, even rarer when you’re tackling a subject that can be as abstract as art. You are always very good at translating complex concepts for those of us who have never explored these ideas (me) and, if your commenters are any measure, those people who are exploring these ideas every day for years don’t feel excluded or talked down to. So if you wanna know how you got that reputation as the guy who can write words, perhaps it’s because you are the guy who can write words.

    Just saying.

    That’s not why I’m writing though. I wrote because your text led me to think about the penis: namely, its vulnerability. As you have said, it’s not at all common to see naked penises at all in polite society. When we do see penises in representation, it’s usually pornographic. Those porno penises are all tough and hard and ready for battle. Simply seeing a penis in repose is a reminder that it is a very soft and delicate organ, and it’s on the outside. We ladies put our most vulnerable parts tucked inward, not wholly protected of course, but not as available to scrutiny or attack. So the simple representation of a non-tumescent penis itself leads to questions of how masculinity represents itself.

    My thoughts are not fully developed but that is the one impression I most strongly had, looking at these images, and I thought I’d share.

    On another note we have finally framed the sketches you so kindly gave us for our wedding, right outside our bedroom door, in the hallway, away from the light. Seeing them each morning is a good thing.

  9. Caitlin I like your comments, and wanted to suggest, as I've had trouble commenting here before - if you have access to two different browsers, try the other one. Also, even though you might not need to Preview your comment, sometimes hitting 'Preview' is the only way I get that security text to show up. Not sure if these are the same problems you were having, but thought I'd mention it. Ed.

  10. Ed - thanks for helping clarify that. Obviously, as the guy writing the blog, I'm comment-greedy, and it bothers the hell out of me that people have so much trouble commenting. By the way, Caitlin is one of the smartest and funniest people I know, but her sense of humor is very, very dry.

  11. Glad you liked the comment, Ed, and glad to see I made it by hook or by crook; also gratified to hear that Dani finds me smart and funny. High praise from someone who isn't easily fooled. (But I'd go with "and" her sense of humor is dry; that "but" is worrisome.) I'm only writing now to test Ed's theory now with Browser #2. We shall see. In any case, what does it say about me that it was Very Important that I go on record with an opinion on penises?

  12. Caitlin:

    A) I am glad the Other Browser attempt seems successful!

    B) I almost gave Dani shit for the 'but' rather than 'and' as well! Honestly I almost made the identical comment but felt like I had been overcommenting so I left it alone. But you are right. Dry is an and, not a but, when it comes to humor. Meatloaf? But. Humor? And.

  13. This is wonderful news. Congrats on the sale. So glad things are coming together for you. Your work deserves it, no doubt.

  14. Chris - thanks!

    Caitlin and Ed - argh! OK, first of all, it's not like, "Oh, we can't really sort out this issue until Caitlin, Connoisseuse of Wang, weighs in." It was more like, "Caitlin, with her typically insightful thinking, has come at this from an angle that did not occur to me."

    Second of all, the "but" referred not to Caitlin, but to Ed. In my conversations with Ed to date, we've established that we can both account our comedy quota filled if we have seen a guy get kicked in the nuts. That is, we've established the *base* of our demands for humor, but not our *limits*. On the off-chance that Ed was not into the dry wit end of things, I didn't want to imply, when I said that Caitlin was really funny, that if you signed up for the Caitlin Experience, it was going to be all nut-kickings, all the time. I've read your scripts, Caitlin. Not even once do you meet the nut-kicking crowd half-way with a good nut-kicking.

    So if I was off-handedly insulting anyone, it was Ed.

    Sorry Ed. Also, sorry Caitlin.

    I'm glad browser #2 worked though, that is rad.


  16. There ya go. I don't remember Erika doing that to Seth even once in your thesis film, Caitlin.

  17. Your subject was the Russian guy, right? I seem to remember Charlotte talking about this session. I remember her words each time I glance that art now...and smile.
    The review did have your voice. You are expecting me to mention the two colloquial phrases WITH idioms that leapt out at me, right? :) I have not an artistic fiber in my body but I am enjoying reading your posts and the post-post comments. There's one for you...a single word used as two different parts of speech...back to back.
    I cannot imagine creating something from nothing and then letting it go, never to know the reviews it receives over time.

  18. Excellent points, especially Caitlin's observations on the male organ as expression of vulnerability.

    There's a great book on the history of the male nude in art and in the evolution of human attitudes: "The Nude Male: A New Perspective" by Margaret Walters (Penguin, 1978). Lots of food for thought, and of course quite a few penises.

  19. J - Hello! It was indeed the Russian guy, a very, very funny and charismatic man. Who said Charlotte must be a witch, because she makes soap. But he said it in a funny and charismatic way. Thanks for catching my idiolectic English there, and - ha ha! - I can write what. ever. I. please. here. :) I'm glad you're reading this blog and even gladder that you're enjoying it, and also finding opportunities to get creative with the language. I knew you were an ace oceanographer, but it is only recently I have learned you are a ninja grammarian as well!

    Letting go of artwork is hard, at the beginning, but it gets easier.

    Fred - I'm glad you enjoyed this, and particularly Caitlin's take. I love comments, and am lucky enough to often get them, that introduce new ideas to me. Thanks for the book recommendation - I may have to hunt that thing down!

  20. Daniel, I think that writing the notes for this particular show took a lot of balls. Personally, I found the title of the show somewhat limp. It immediately placed the focus less on masculinity and specifically on body parts. Akin to "RACK: Checking out the Contemporary Female". Although for some shows I've seen that tit-le might work, but for most it would be hard to overcome. Regardless, congratulations on the sale! What could be better for this type of show than...a happy ending.

  21. McG - Shaaaaaayzus, that's a lot of double-entendres for one comment! ....thanks for the work, I guess? As for the title critique, I can see how from one perspective, it's applicable, but from another, I think it isn't. Language is full of asymmetries; consider which racial epithets you'd feel more comfortable using, and which ones you'd feel less comfortable using. But they're all racial epithets. I think this is one of those cases. Moreover, the title catches the attention, doesn't it? I'm not going to pretend that catching the attention isn't a game that needs to be played - I think Vanessa did good work on that. Anyhow, thanks for the congratulations! And for bringing the Macchiaoli to my attention.