Alive and Well

TMA’s giant Body Language show proves that body art is thriving

In 1986, Arizona artist Ardyth Bernstein made a gorgeous pastel called "Having It All."

A bold depiction of no fewer than 24 naked women, the work rejoices in freedom. Bernstein has attacked her surface—black sandpaper—with abandon, slashing every possible pastel color across it. Hot pink, canary yellow and fire-engine red color the bodies of her dynamic women.

This happy piece, in the giant Body Language: Figuration in Modern and Contemporary Art exhibition now at the Tucson Museum of Art, embodies a particular moment in art history. Bernstein's exuberant expressionism erupted not long after a period when artists lionized minimalism and conceptual art. Depictions of the human body, a staple of art at least since the days of the ancient Greeks, had come to seem old-fashioned.

But art has a way of coming around. The 1980s saw a resurgence not only in painting but in art of the body. In a new art phase called neo-expressionism, Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat and others not only luxuriated in the sensuality of paint and color, but in making images, wildly different though they were, of the human figure.

Feminist artists like Bernstein and Miriam Schapiro (also in the show), charged up with "having it all," were out to topple art conventions. They took a fresh look at the old "male gaze," the practice of men painting the naked bodies of women, and replaced it with women making images of women. Bernstein may have placed her figures in traditional art-school poses, but these women are not reclining, languorous sex objects: they're powerful movers and shakers, standing, sitting, bending and twisting like dancers.

And Bernstein's work upends another art hierarchy: her two dozen women are lined up in a grid pattern drawn from quilt-making, a traditionally female art that had long scorned by the art world. Subtly honoring centuries of needlework artists, Bernstein arranges her high-art figures in a quilter's squares, six across and four down. Challenging still another convention, Bernstein deliberately uses a non-art material, gritty black sandpaper normally used for polishing cars, as the platform for her fine-art pastels.

The sprawling exhibition, drawn from the museum's own collection by chief curator Dr. Julie Sasse, features some 73 artists and 80 artworks.  

"I found an incredible variety and number of works that depict the expressive body," Sasse wrote in her curator's statement. "Figurative art is alive and well in contemporary art ..."

Body Language is a potpourri of themes and styles, with everything from video art to feminist art to so-called identity art, from classically influenced sculpture to large-scale narrative paintings.

Photographs are in short supply, though the ones that turn up are great. Fritz Kaeser's 1940 black-and-white portrait of a beautiful dancer in full flight, "Harriet Ann Gray—Humphrey Weidmann Dancer," is magical. And Tucson artist Chris Rush's poetic "Stag" from 2009 pairs vintage tintypes of 19th century men, long dead, with his own fading portrait in oil on copper.

Picasso and Andy Warhol are among the big names, but happily there are plenty of local artists as well, including the late James G. Davis and Robert Colescott, both of them painters of grand-scale narrative canvases.

Most of the works are from the 1970s onward, reflecting art world trends, though a sprinkling hail from the '40s, '50s and '60s. A tiny Picasso litho from 1959, "The Flute Player," shores up Sasse's point that the human figure in western art hails back to the classical world, to the sculpture of the Greeks and the Romans' later copies of those works. Late in his life, Picasso, a giant of modernist exploration, reworked ancient myths, and this deft little piece in black on white features an old-word dancer, a flute player and a goat.

Several sculptures have both ancient roots and a modernist aesthetic. Stephen de Staebler's 2003 "Winged Woman on One Leg 2" is an 8-foot tall bronze that looks like an archaeological find just pulled out of the dirt. The goddess's head is missing, her metallic flesh is fractured and her back is burnt. Though the work is inspired by classical beauty, it revels in its brokenness. Nowadays we find pleasure in art that's partially made—or partially destroyed.

Tucsonan Curt Brill's little bronze "Seated Pamela," a gem from 1999, works the same vein. Its textured surface, indented with Brill's fingerprints, permanently records the touch of the artist's hands, and the figure's proportions are deliberately out-of-kilter.

Much of the recent art pictures the travails of life, rather than the glory of the body. The über-gifted Alice Leora Briggs, who's chronicled the violence of the drug cartels, pictures an evil-looking man in the 2006 "Voladores." It's a virtuoso drawing in sgraffito, a reverse scratch technique.

Bailey Doogan, emerita professor of art at the UA, has long chronicled the aging of her body, in defiance of art norms that favor young flesh, lovingly painting every fold and crease in her skin as the years grow on. In "Five-Fingered Smile," 2010, she's created a large-scale, luminous charcoal drawing of her own wrinkled face, greatly enlarged.

Two brothers, Jamex and Finar de la Torre, born in Mexico but brought to the U.S. as children, mostly work in glass and found materials, using everything from beer bottle caps to plastic jewelry to make intricate sculptures. Their "Crossing the Desert," a multi-media piece in cast glass, laments the agonies of migrants in the desert. In it, a dead migrant has been crucified, Christ-like, on a glass saguaro.

Larry Madrigal, a talented young Arizona artist, similarly borrows from religious art of the past in his heroic 2014 portrait of Jason Petty, an African-American hip-hop artist, poet and "urban theologian." Titled "St. Propaganda of Los Angeles, (Jason Petty)," it show Petty from below, his dreads tumbling down his muscular chest, his kindly face posed against the heavens. He looks for all the world like a prophet for tomorrow.

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