The Greeks did it. The Romans did it. And so do contemporary artists.
The nude has been a mainstay of western high art at least since the fifth century B.C., when the ancient Greeks created idealized bronzes of athletic youths and shapely women. We know about these sculptures primarily from the marble copies that Roman artists began crafting some 400 years later.
The Renaissance reignited artists' devotion to the human body, and ever since art students have done their time in the figure studio, drawing nudes from live models.
But how is the nude faring in a contemporary art world of abstraction and minimalism and appropriation? Pretty well, actually. This summer, MOCA-Tucson showcased three women making up-to-minute erotic art about the body; one's work harkened back to the Venus of Willendorf and another dissolved the body into near-abstraction. (See Tucson Weekly "The Joy of Sex," August 1, 2016)
Now Davis Dominguez is surveying the scene, in a big show of sculpture, drawings and paintings by mostly local artists. The gallery is more mainstream than MOCA, by definition, but the six artists in Undressed take some inventive paths to an age-old subject.
Susan Conaway's deft surreal drawings investigate fertility by pairing deconstructed female bodies with plants. In "All Choked Up," a standing female nude sprouts a thick mass of agave-like leaves from her shoulders, instead of a head. The pointy plant parts rise upward, but in Conaway's "Tribal," roots burrow downward from a pair of breasts. Conaway also explores the erotic, turning to color for works in which a lush female body emerges from tousled white sheets or crinkled paper.
Juan Enriquez's soft-edged oil paintings are likewise by turns enigmatic and erotic. "Playa Huivalai" plunges an amorous couple into a sensuous yellow sea. But a vague dread haunts the uneasy "Figures in Black." A helmeted man in black (a soldier? a cop?) kneels side by side with a nude figure whose gender is unclear. Their postures, and his military getup, hint at violence.
Enriquez can also be playful. Following the lead of artists from the 15th century Botticelli to the 20th century Maillol, he reinterprets the "Three Graces" of Greek myth. Enriquez has drawn the three nude goddesses at work, cheerfully rolling around on modern-day office chairs.
Other artists in the show draw on classical models even more explicitly. Judith Stewart, a Rancho Linda Vista sculptor who shows regularly at the gallery, wonderfully evokes the bronzes of antiquity, filtered through archaeology.
Her fragmented human figures, patched and soldered and nailed together, mesh at least two different aesthetics. Left deliberately unfinished and flawed, they embody modern ideas favoring the imperfect over the perfect. But they also seem like remnants of the classical world, shattered into pieces over the centuries, as they lay hidden, awaiting an archaeologist's spade.
In either case, they're beautiful. "The Evolution of Eve's Wardrobe" is a gorgeous female torso, a modern-day Venus de Milo whose twisting, energetic body looks battle-ready. The bronze is hollowed out and raggedy around the edges; the head and arms are missing, and the muscular thighs are truncated. Even so, this Eve is powerful and glorious, a testament to female strength over the millennia.
Of all the Undressed artists, George Strasburger makes work that most hews to the classical ideal. His charcoal drawings and oil paintings pay homage to the beauty of the body, semi-realistically rendered, with any flaws eliminated. He shows many more images of men than of women, a refreshing switch from the standard "male gaze" aimed at female bodies.
Working out of a warehouse on Toole, Strasburger places many of his subjects in the gray environs of his studio. It's an effective technique. The space is dark but the sunlight pouring in in measured beams illuminates the models' muscles and flesh. It also pays homage to the art historical tradition of artists making paintings of their studios.
Sometimes Strasburger brings his luminous subjects harshly into the modern world. In the joyless "Reason to Exist," a naked man who's the picture of despair lies on a mattress on the floor, an electrical outlet on the wall overhead.
"Detention," perhaps the loveliest of his pieces, also hints at despair. The title suggests a prison, whether physical or psychological. A naked man leans against a wall that's cracked and battered, his head bowed down. But his muscular body gleams in the light.
The late Bruce McGrew, best known for his paintings of landscapes near his home in Oracle, has six figurative works here. He was inspired by Titian, the gallery notes say, and a couple of his large oils are pastoral scenes, populated by classically-inspired figures and delicately colored in pastels. One, "Blue Dog," even suggests the desert near Rancho Linda Vista, with a mesquite tree spreading its branches across the horizon.
With the exception of a nice charcoal of seated female nude, the other McGrew pieces here are not really worthy of exhibition. For the best of Bruce, check out "Apache Peak," a radiant landscape that happens to be hanging in the gallery bathroom.
Jan Olsson, a Tucsonan turned Parisian, has taken over a side gallery with a joyful cavalcade of fast figurative sketches, the kind that art students turn out by the hundreds during their years of training. But Olsson has turned what's an exercise in other hands into a fine art.
Using colored pencil, she rapidly outlines her female nudes, taking them down to their essence. They're deliciously unfinished. Some are only partly drawn. Some have elaborated faces; some have no face at all, only a shadowy oval for a head.
Both art and dance, these captivating drawings celebrate the long and storied history of art's most persistent genre.