Now on view in the Contemporary Art Gallery is Body of Work, which illustrates the continuing interest artists have in depicting the human body in various forms and formats. Focusing on American and European artists, and spanning the years 1910 to 2014, this selection of artworks from the permanent collection of contemporary and modern art was conceived by Jay Jensen, late curator of contemporary art.
The selected pieces in Body of Work offer an opportunity to explore connections, not only between modern and contemporary artists, but between historical artworks and movements. Artists today exist in the present and respond to their particular environment, however, they are also aware of the past and are influenced not only by methods and ideas of their contemporaries, but by earlier artists and visual styles. Studying these associations may lead to a better appreciation for how the creative process has unfolded and continues to develop throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.
These paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs and prints tend to fall within one or more of six broad themes: Works influenced by Western Classicism and Romanticism; compositions derived from art history; Abstract Expressionist painters who turned to figurative representation; artists experimenting in photographic processes; those who reference popular culture and humor; and viscerally powerful pieces that take a critical look at society.
One artist who draws inspiration from classicism is California artist Stephen De Staebler (American, 1933-2011). His Standing Woman with Open Heart (1978) is an imposing, totemic statue and one of the first works encountered when entering the gallery. Created from porcelain and stoneware with colored stains, De Staebler’s piece brings to mind ancient Greek and Roman statues excavated from an archeological dig—their sectional appearance and rough surface quality is reminiscent of geologic sedimentary layers and architectural forms. The image of a figure, including the head, torso, legs, and feet, can be seen encased in the clay and relates to concepts of fragility, decay, and spiritual transcendence. Other artists represented in the exhibition whose depictions of the human form are directly related to the idealism of the classical figure include Robert Graham, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Elie Nadelman.
Several artists who appropriate compositions from art historical works are represented and include Robert Colescott, Judy Fox, and Mickalene Thomas (American, b. 1971). Thomas’ print with collage and enamel paint, Left Behind 2 Again (2014), directly references the compositions of artists such as early 20th century French modernist Henri Matisse and New York–based Romare Bearden. Thomas is known for her paintings and prints depicting powerful women such as her mother, friends, and celebrities, and for incorporating interwoven patterns inspired by her 1970s childhood. Unlike Matisse’s exotic “Orientalist” figures, Thomas’ contemporary odalisque is a modern woman who asserts her control over the scene by looking directly out of the picture plane.
The Northern California Bay Area Figuration movement is represented several times in this exhibition. During the 1950s and 60s Elmer Bischoff (American, 1916-1993), together with San Francisco Bay Area painters including Paul Wonner (who is represented with two pieces in the exhibition), David Park, and Richard Diebenkorn, abandoned the non‑representational focus of Abstract Expressionism and turned to the figure. Bischoff’s Three Figures in a Corridor (1969) derives its style from a loose, gestural application of paint with large and dynamic brushstrokes, all elements that also appear in abstract expressionist works.
Artists have enjoyed experimenting with photographic processes ever since the practice became widely available, and those working in the latter half of the 20th century are no exception. Vik Muniz, Christopher Bucklow, Bruce Conner, and David Nyzio (American, born 1958), are related in their experimental use of photography to portray the figure. Nyzio’s interest in algae and bacteria and in the intersection of nature, science and art, led to the creation of Adventures in Articulation I (1994), part of his series exploring ideas of time, scale, and growth. To create the piece the artist suspended a large glass negative with an image of his body over a shallow tank of water containing a sheet of paper. He then introduced algae cultures into the water and suspended a light source from the gallery ceiling. Where light was able to penetrate the glass, algae grew and deposited onto the paper which was then mounted to steel plates. Nyzio has created an image which appears as both solidly permanent as well as delicately ephemeral.
The detritus of popular, consumer culture including posters, advertisements, magazines, television, and movies is a storehouse of information that contemporary visual artists have continued to mine since Pop art came on the scene in the 1960s. Two pieces by Tom Wesselmann (American, 1931 – 2004) included in Body of Work strongly represent the Pop influence on depictions of the human figure, especially of the nude female body. Wesselmann’s Great American Nude Cut‑Out (1970) is made from pencil and thinned Liquitex. Depicting a nude female figure drawn in the carefully controlled linear style associated with cartoons or graphic art and advertisements, Wesselmann’s woman lacks any detail that would individualize her. The only feature on her face is her painted lips, which match the bright pink color of her bare nipples. Her nudity is further highlighted by the tan lines from a bikini. Wesselmann presents this figure as an object to be viewed and consumed for pleasure and thereby comments on the objectification of the female body within the hyper-consumer era.
Body of Work includes a number of pieces that openly critique a variety of social issues including poverty, racism, and sexism. African-American artist Kara Walker’s (American, born 1969) The Means to an End—A Shadow Drama in Five Acts (1995) is a five-panel print that confronts the viewer with the brutal history of slavery and racism in the United States. She uses the model of cut‑paper silhouettes, an 18th‑century art form associated with drawing rooms and book illustration with which she incorporates stylized, exaggerated figures engaging in violent and cruel acts. The seemingly innocuous silhouette format and grim subject matter combine in this striking and memorable work of art. Gritty and forceful sculptures and paintings by Nancy Grossman, Leon Golub, Edward and Nancy Reddin Kienholz, and Cindy Wright also challenge the viewer to confront and contemplate the darker aspects of ourselves and our relationship to others.
Stephen De Staebler (American, 1933 – 2011)
Standing Woman with Open Heart, 1978
Porcelain and stoneware with colored stains
86 x 16 x 25 in.
Gift of The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu, 2011, and partial gift of Dr. and Mrs. William Wolgin, and partial purchase with funds given by Robert and Marcy Katz, the Shidler Family Foundation, Thurston and Sharon Twigg-Smith, and the TCM Contemporary Circle, 2009 (TCM.2000.25)
Courtesy of Dolby Chadwick Gallery, San Francisco & the Estate of Stephen De Staebler
David Nyzio (American, born 1958)
Adventures in Articulation I, 1994
Algae on paper, steel
96 x 48 x 2 in.
Gift of The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu, 2011, and purchased with funds derived from gifts of The Honolulu Advertiser Collection at Persis Corporation, by exchange (TCM.1996.5)
© David Nyzio
Elmer Bischoff (American, 1916 – 1993)
Three Figures in a Corridor, 1969
Oil on canvas
74 1/2 x 79 5/8 in.
Purchase, National Endowment for the Arts grant and matching funds from Academy Volunteers, 1981 (4940.1)
© The Estate of Elmer Bischoff