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Real Lookers

Three Artists Scrutinize What We Look At When We’re Looking At the Female Form

Christine Bailey's "Sexy Blonde Panythose Lady (An Allegory Of Giving Too Much)"

By Bret McCabe | Posted 9/27/2006

The Exhibitionists

At Gallery Imperato through Oct. 7

Resist the urge to stare at James Rieck’s large-scale, photorealistic paintings of women’s bodies in jeans and T-shirts branded with musician’s faces when you first enter Gallery Imperato. You’re not ready for that jelly just yet. The Exhibitionists, the title of the gallery’s current three-person show--Anonymous, Christine Bailey, and Rieck--is actually a coy come-on, implying that the works seek a voyeuristic relationship with their viewers. They do, just not in the conventional ways you presume when images of naked or nearly naked women are put on view.

To calibrate the brain proceed directly to Anonymous’ six photo-strip prints. Resembling photo-booth output--four vertically stacked pictures--these photos are titled with scientific trial-esque double entendres ("Photostrip 1," "Photostrip 2," "Photostrip 3," etc.) and capture young women mugging and disrobing with refreshingly unprofessional jocularity. Each shot is candidly offhand, with nothing remotely resembling a thought-out composition, and they’re inconsistently lit. Sometimes a flash whites-out everything in the frame, as in "Photostrip 6," so that all that is clearly visible is the outline of a young woman’s hair, lips, nose, and one eye in the top photo; come the bottom photo, you suspect you’re looking at something salacious, but you have no idea what. Elsewhere, a woman raising up her shirt or taking off her sweater either wanders into and out of the frame or too close to the camera so that the four-panel strip becomes a portrait abstraction, capturing only parts of body parts.

This fusion of photo-booth silliness and the nudie pic intertwines a couple of things in the brain. One, without thinking you’re creating a narrative from the top photo to the bottom one, assuming that they’re capturing a singular act as it moves through time. Two, the clumsy execution of these literal "photo strips" so acclimates your eye to seeing but this four-panel slide slow of the event that when actual nudity appears in two photos it feels like an accidental abnormality. Anonymous’ photo strips feel less about overthinking tease and titillation than dissecting your gaze through serial folly. Whatever lascivious impression is gleaned from these works is fueled by whatever you bring to them when looking.

In other words, context is everything, a theme Christine Bailey ardently explores in her small-scale paintings. The Exhibitionists includes 24 10-inch-by-10-inch panels, each including an image of a woman in a various state of dishabille against some landscape. They are hotly colored, almost garishly so, and while realistic, they aren’t aiming for realism. They’re very aware of themselves as paintings.

In one a topless woman in a short, frilly pink skirt and no underwear is seen partially from behind and set against a cloud-strewn sky. In another, a young blond woman removes her shirt, her face obscured by her arms pulling her shirt up; behind her are treetops and a grayish sky.

The curve balls are the work’s titles. Each comes in two parts--the first a purely mechanical description that reads like a hotlink from an online porn gallery, the second an august parenthetical of pop psychology. The woman in the frilly skirt is titled "Natural Hottie in Thong (an Allegory of Unconscious Anger)," and the blonde removing her shirt is "Sexy Blonde Pantyhose Lady (an Allegory of Giving Too Much)." The posed women could very well be informed by online image galleries; the backgrounds quite painterly renditions of naturalistic landscapes that may or may not exist in nature. If it feels like the paintings reek of effort, they do, but that doesn’t mean they’re not effective.

Taken as a set some leitmotifs emerge. One, Bailey prefers images of women as seen from behind (14), women in the process of taking their shirts off (13), or women cropped in some other way so as to obscure their faces. It’s a compositional strategy that highlights porn’s purely mechanical and reductive content--it focuses the mind onto searchable keyword types ("babe," "coed," "amateur," "wifey," "fetish party girl," etc.) and so-called activities ("stripping at home," "study hall slut gets wild," "gets topless in kitchen") and the eye on so-called desired objects: breasts from every angle, not fully revealed, in profile, still somewhat clad in tight shirts, ad infinitum. By choosing poses that obscure the woman’s face, Bailey highlights the utterly impersonal nature of the visual porn gaze--it’s not the who but the what. And by dropping these women in their intentionally unnatural porn poses into pseudorealistic backgrounds--framed in some of the more outlandishly ostentatious faux gold--Bailey wickedly calls attention to their blinding artificiality. The real doesn’t exist anywhere in these frames. In some ways it’s a statement of the obvious--and one that is cheaply undercut by the lay psychology of their parenthetical titles--but this obviousness doesn’t cheapen their overall impact. Bailey’s paintings don’t contain one erotic iota and--unlike much actual pornography--cling to the retina by their vertiginous peculiarity.

They also get the eye ready to consider Rieck’s large paintings. Rendered in a flabbergasting photorealism, Rieck’s six oil-on-canvas works are of a set. They’re all a tall rectangle, like a sidebar advertisement in a magazine--the imagery to which Rieck’s paintings most succinctly allude. As mentioned previously, they all feature a woman in a T-shirt with a musician’s face on it, as if silk-screened, and are titled accordingly: "Tupac Shakur," "John Lennon," "Biggie Smalls." And they’re all rendered in black and white that is really all shades of gray, like a monotone print or digital-video image with the color pulled out. The palette creates that smooth but crisp look, lending clothing a tight, textural feel and skin a supple tactility.

Such technical precision is used to create some unsettling images of nubile female bodies. Each woman is hatchet-cropped at midthigh and throat, focusing each painting on her tummy (almost always exposed and often revealing a navel piercing), her hips (clad in underwear, low-rise jeans, or low-rise jeans unfastened to reveal the underwear beneath, which often partially hides a hip-bone tattoo), and the bosom, where the musicians spread out like topographic maps over her curves.

As in Bailey’s work, Rieck’s compositional choices amplify his imagery’s subtext--in this case the crass machinations of advertising imagery. To what end is the big question lurking in the background of the show. The late, brain-bombing African novelist Dambudzo Marechera scathingly wrote about his Rhodesia’s late-1970s transformation into Zimbabwe as an advertisement stretched across a woman’s chest on a T-shirt, calling out both the sexualizing of politics and politics’ ability to trivialize something as monumental as nation-forming as a mass-produced image on an article of clothing. More familiarly, American Apparel has riffed on the visual language of ads and porn with its stylishly unstylized campaigns, in a way that both appropriates the allure of nonprofessional "amateur" models and undercuts clothing ads’ professional sheen with their relaxed candidness. Such lateral metacommentary is already a part of advertising’s--and pornography’s, for that matter--visual grammar, and both achieve the reduction of desire (sexual or otherwise) into purely market forces. This we know--what we don’t is what The Exhibitionists has to say about it.

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