Throughout history, the nude human figure has been a central obsession of artists and a central focus of their art.
Remove the nude form from art history – remember when former Attorney General John Ashcroft once attempted to do that by clothing a statue of Lady Justice? – and you would have a lot of empty rooms in museums, vacant frames and allegorical narratives missing their central characters. Naked people are as integral to Western art as religious figures, as inseparable from art history as oil paint or marble are from the artworks themselves.
That’s the way it’s always been and the way it will always be. But why?
A new exhibition of oil paintings by Bruce Adams on view in the Castellani Art Museum, among them many nudes, asks exactly where this obsession with the nude human figure comes from. In addition to being visually stunning, the work succeeds both as a tongue-in-cheek send-up of the supposedly noble historical arguments for the use of the nude form and as a worthy contemporary entry into that grand historical tradition.
Though it makes itself accessible on many levels, from the sensual to the mythological to the art-historical, there’s nothing particularly complicated about Adams’ work. In this case, that is a great virtue.
He is simply obsessed with the human body – particularly the female body – and with his chosen medium of oil paint. And he is unashamed of that obsession. Each of the paintings results from a session during which Adams takes up to 400 pictures of a model, chooses one, and then retrofits the painting and its title to mythological information he looks up on Google.
He enters each session with no grand notion about a mythological story he’d like to tell. He simply lets the session unfold and then invents a series of symbols or a setting that evokes mythological overtones to which he has no deep personal or conceptual attachment.
Hence, we have one stunning and seductive portrait of a hefty Helen of Troy laying prostrate under a bright full moon, a red candle illuminating her chest and face. Upon closer inspection, we see that the moon is actually the searchlight of one of a fleet of Navy ships materializing in the background as if out of a thick fog. The ships are meant to evoke the story of Trojan War, set off after Helen was carted off to Troy and 1,000 Greek ships set off after her.
Among other functions, the portrait asks you to consider the possibility that this face and the nontraditional body to which it is attached contains the same stirring power as the more classically beautiful vision of Helen with which we are familiar.
Adams’ use of male and female models whose body types defy our notions of classical beauty lends some progressive heft to his project, but what’s most interesting about the work is how brazenly contrived it is. He makes no secret of the way he retrofits his paintings to mythological information he stumbles across on Google. The whole mythological conceit of his series seems to me a cheap wire hanger sagging from the weight of his love for the figure and for painting.
In other portraits, references to art history crop up, from the Renaissance practice of showing a subject admiring oneself in a mirror to a background inspired by abstract expressionist Barnett Newman, but these are just little art-historical keywords that Adams seems to drop into the work almost blithely.
A conceptual artist is someone who uses a painting, sculpture or performance as an idea-delivery system. Adams, instead, uses ideas as a delivery system for paint and for the figure, his two prime obsessions. There’s something equally reckless and noble about that approach, which is made enthralling by his skill with a paintbrush and his affinity for the way light and shadow play on a model’s features.
In a recent interview at the Castellani, Adams talked about his approach to the current series and about the way his work consciously tries to fit into an art world that remains in the thrall of academic conceptualism.
“I could have taken any number of paths if the world was a different world. But this is the world we live, in so this is path I’ve taken. I hope I make my love fit the world we’re in,” Adams said. “On the other hand, I don’t really compromise because there are ways I could make my art fit even better into the contemporary art world. But I insist on doing what I want to do and doing my best to make it interesting.”
In “Myths and Lies,” Adams achieves that and more.