When I first saw Tiffiney Yazzie's large-scale photographs on the wall at Louis Carlos Bernal Gallery last week, I wrote three words in my notebook:
Exciting. Wonderful. New.
Just 27 years old, Tempe photographer Yazzie makes a momentous Tucson debut with six beautifully lit color photos of a human figure—or parts thereof—placed against lush white sheets. The three biggest pictures are maybe 5 feet wide by 4 feet high, and the hands and hair and shoulders in the photos are also big—floating almost like still-life objects in front of the creamy backgrounds.
"Connected" has two hands clasped together at the top of the picture. The image is sharply focused at the front—the whorls of the fingertips are clear and distinct, and so are the fingernails—but the wrists and forearms fade dreamily into the sheets.
In "Embrace," we see the figure's head from above, and the hands reach back to grasp locks of black hair. It's not until the third photo, "Rosita III," that we even know for sure that the figure is a woman. We see more of her, but not all of her—just her head, shoulders and hands. Rosita lies on her side on the bed, with her back to the viewer. Her black hair tumbles out over the sheets; in a lovely gesture, she clutches her neck with one hand.
Nudes in sheets generally give off a sexual vibe, but these luminous pictures are not erotic. Instead, they quietly honor the woman's beauty. The compositions, simple but monumental, manage to convey her strength.
In the three smaller photos, Yazzie seems to be moving closer into her subject. The pictures are sharper, and the woman literally comes into focus. The gray strands of hair that now emerge from her mass of dark tresses tell us that she is middle-aged.
I didn't know it when I looked at the photos, but I learned later from Yazzie's artist statement that the woman she so lovingly pictures is her mother; surely no mother has ever been as tenderly portrayed by a grown daughter.
A photography graduate of Arizona State University, Yazzie is Navajo, from Chinle, just outside of Canyon de Chelly. Her mother had to leave the Navajo Nation to work when her daughter was young, and Yazzie was raised partly by her grandparents. Through her photos, Yazzie helped seal the relationship.
"Through the process of capturing and creating the images for this project," Yazzie writes, "it has become clear to me that despite the early detachment from my maternal root, I am who I am through my mother."
Yazzie's dazzling works are just one part of the knock-your-socks-off show P.O.V.: Interpreting the Human Figure. Curated by the Bernal Gallery's David Andres, this museum-quality exhibition showcases six artists who offer refreshing takes on the human body. (Andres selected four artists from Arizona, and two from elsewhere—New York and Colombia—whose work is in the collection of Tucsonan Dan Leach.)
Overturning the art historical tradition of the male gaze—men looking at women—this show subverts the standard P.O.V., or point of view: It has three women portraying women, and three men portraying men.
Like Yazzie, masterful Bailey Doogan looks at women past the first beauty of youth. Now retired from the UA, she has for years documented the aging of her own body. Here, she shows four giant charcoals on primed paper, from a series with a cleverly punning title, Self Exam in Nation. In all four, a nude woman stands in a brightly lit modernist space, intently examining one of her body parts: a thigh, a breast, a hip. We never see her face, so absorbed is she in looking at her soft flesh, and poking and prodding its folds. Beautifully rendered in deft charcoal lines, with the white gesso shining in between, the creases of her body are celebrated as a record of a long life well-lived.
Judith Stewart, a Rancho Linda Vista artist who shows frequently at Davis Dominguez Gallery, creates sculptures of young bodies interrupted. Her young women are patched and cracked, with swaths of bronze or clay sliding over each other, but not always meeting. Though these pieces have a little bit of the air of ancient artifacts, their apertures and gaps also suggest something else: the promise of young lives yet to be lived, of openings still to be filled in.
"Girl With the Spiral Hair" is clay and steel, a figure of a young woman with hair both punked-out and Medusa-like, both new and old. She stands jauntily, one foot on the verge of stepping out, ready to walk into her future.
Vincent Desiderio, like Doogan Philadelphia-born and -trained, is a 50-something artist living outside of New York City. And his "Study for a Pathetic Rumor of Freedom" is also a virtuoso large-scale charcoal. Created way back in 1988, "Study" uses old-master drawing techniques to create a modern allegory.
A man in a business suit is taking a tumble in his office. He's upside down, like a fallen Icarus, his head and arms on the floor, his legs somewhere up above the picture plane. His jacket and shirt have puddled on the floor, and his inverted torso shines nakedly in the fluorescent lights. His old-fashioned wooden office chair, in the shadows behind him, puts us in the era of sad Willy Loman, failed hero of Death of a Salesman.
If Desiderio takes a clear-eyed view of the perils that can befall men as they strive for success, Keith McElroy rejoices in gifts they get without trying—youthful beauty and strength. McElroy, another retired UA professor, also is showing work from 1988: three detailed charcoals and pastels on paper. (The high quality of the drawings in this exhibition is another of its many pleasures.)
Two are three-quarter nudes, close-ups from the chin to the penis, luxuriating in the young men's muscles, their tautness of belly, their narrowness of waist. McElroy draws in every hair, every sinuous ripple. The third picture, "Untitled II," is a delicious tangle of four legs and two torsos on a rumpled sheet. Even so, it seems more a celebration of the pleasures of strong lines and inventive composition than of the joys of sex.
Luis Caballero's two paintings of young male nudes leave no doubt about their erotic charge. The Colombian painter, who died in 1995, has painted poses right out of figure-drawing class. One of them, colored in the red-rust of the art classroom's ubiquitous Conté crayon, is a classic side view of a torso, with arms raised and out of the way. The other, in black, looks at a seated man from the back. Both paintings luxuriate in the allure of the young men's bodies. Painted with swift and sure strokes, these celebratory works embody the explosive energy of unbridled sex.