We get naked every day, physically at least. It's our natural state: "Naked I came from my mother's womb and naked shall I return."
Where it gets complicated is when this nakedness gets exposed to others – to lovers and parents, spouses, children and siblings, friends and strangers, on Instagram, TV and websites, in magazines, movies and works of art.
No one knows this better than the federally sponsored Canada Council Art Bank. Since its founding in Ottawa in 1972, the bank has bought and stored more than 17,000 contemporary creations by professional Canadian artists as diverse as Norval Morrisseau, Diana Thorneycroft, Evan Penny and Suzy Lake. Each purchase is chosen by a peer jury, then offered for rent to government departments and corporate offices throughout the country, sometimes for as little as $120 a year. Out of 17,000, an estimated 500 are nudes. Yet be damned if the Art Bank can get anyone in the public and private sector to take them off its hands. They're called, in fact, "the unrentables."
Occasionally a nude from the Art Bank finds its way into the public realm, usually as part of a gallery retrospective of an artist. But Canadians have never had the opportunity to see, en masse, a selection of nudes they've paid for as taxpayers. Never, that is, until now. On March 7, in Kitchener, Ont., a city of about 220,000 an hour west of Toronto, the former Waterloo Region Children's Museum – now called, simply, THEMUSEUM – went where others have feared to tread, opening a 12-week exhibition of almost 120 nudes culled from the Art Bank.
Big art shows can take two to five years to bring to fruition. This one, by contrast, has come together in only eight months (one of the advantages, one supposes, of relying on a single source). It was sparked by a conversation THEMUSEUM chief executive David Marskell had in Ottawa with Art Bank director Victoria Henry about the reluctance of Canadian institutions to embrace the nude as a genre as fit for public consumption as landscape and still-life.
Presented on the top floor of what used to be a department store, the Kitchener showcase is nothing less than dizzying, featuring works in seemingly every media – paint, graphite on paper, photograph, collage, silkscreen, sculpture, ceramic, textile, assemblage, installation and etching. More than 80 artists are represented, some with two, three or four pieces each. The oldest work, a drawing of a female nude by Vancouver's Roy Kiyooka, dates to 1959; the newest, a large 2008 acrylic on canvas, Fast Runners, is by Montreal's Eliza Griffiths, 50. Supplementing the Art Bank holdings are eight works from the Tom Thomson Art Gallery in Owen Sound, Ont., home institution of THEMUSEUM's guest curator, Virginia Eichhorn.
Eichhorn and Marskell are calling the whole shebang Getting Naked – an altogether fitting rubric that captures the show's many registers (erotic, innocent, whimsical, vulnerable, anxious etc.) and ways of seeing and being seen. A larger institution probably would have called it something twee or highfalutin like The Nude: The Genre in Canadian Contemporary Art, echoing the famous distinction Sir Kenneth Clark made in the early 1950s between the nude (the body as ideal, presented in art as "balanced, prosperous and confident") and the naked (the body you and I have, "deprived of our clothes … and the embarrassment most of us feel [when seen in] that condition"). "Getting naked" has a refreshingly playful matter-of-factness about it, suggesting at once the act of baring and the process of understanding that action as it is represented in art.
Appropriately enough during the exhibition's duration, THEMUSEUM is gathering a host of talks, film screenings and related events under the title The Naked Dialogues. Among the presentations: a lecture by Wilfrid Laurier University film studies professor Philippa Gates on the history of nudity and censorship in Hollywood movies; a showing of Jean Kilbourne's 1979 documentary Killing Us Softly: Advertising's Images of Women; and a talk on naturism by a member of Ontario's Bare Oaks Family Naturist Park. (Marskell adds that Bare Oaks wants to hold an off-hours event at THEMUSEUM, where members can tour the exhibition sans vêtements.)
In our ubersexualized, porn-rich age, a century and a half after the twin shocks of Manet's Olympia and Courbet's The Origin of the World, there seems something almost quaint about an art exhibition devoted to the naked or semi-undressed human form. More than 200 years ago, Immanuel Kant spoke of how the best art, the most beautiful, had to be responded to with what he called disinterested enjoyment. It's the artist's role to give the audience a work where emotion, imagination and intellect exist in a sort of equipoise, he said. Privilege one or two aspects of that formula, and disharmony – or at least Penthouse magazine and the drawings of Tom of Finland – is sure to follow. (Clark, by contrast, didn't mind a little bit of the old hot-and-bothered: "No nude, however abstract," he wrote, "should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling.")
I'm betting a 21st-century Kantian would, for the most part, like Getting Naked, largely because the sheer volume of material available for inspection militates against the spectator getting worked up one way or another. Arranged chronologically, dotted with themed clusters, it clearly fulfills what Eichhorn told me she saw as her brief – "to try to show as wide a range as possible of how the nude is used in different art forms, different disciplines and to be able to demonstrate the power of it, metaphorically and symbolically … to get a particular idea across."
Certainly, there are many excellent, engaging, even disturbing things here: Fred Ross's two tempera-on-masonite riffs on the reveries of Balthus; the ripe fleshinesss of Ernest Lindner's Summer watercolour; the shocking pinks Tom Henderson uses on the Guston-like limbs, hands and feet in his untitled works from 1985; Natalka Husar's low-rent send-up of orientalism and Ingres in the 1994 oil-on-linen Odalisque-at-Heart; Twinitron, David Buchan's parodic update of Paul Peel's After the Bath; the cheesecakey playfulness of Ohito Ashoona's stone carving Serpentine Sedna; Where I am Standing, Justin Wonnacott's photographic meditation on how porn has come to inform contemporary lovemaking and motel romance; Adèle et Yves, Frank Mulvey's Bouguereau-inflected inversion of the Adam-and-Eve myth; Dennis Burton's unsettling 1966 collage/drawing prompted by Richard Speck's hideous torture, rape and murder of eight Chicago nurses that year; the Rubin vase effect Gregory James Payce conjures with two ceramics in Parian (2007).
Over all, however, Getting Naked's effect is more encyclopedic than novelistic, a miscellany of moments rather than a synthesis. Matters aren't helped by the relatively tight positioning of most of the works, which crowds the visitor's field of vision and inhibits contemplation. It's a show that could easily have lost 30 per cent of its artifacts and gained all the more in impact as a result. Also, the lack of a catalogue or at least a booklet with an essay or three, even a curator's statement stencilled to a wall, makes what is actually a rather large and complex show seem small, half-baked, an exercise in inventory.
Still, kudos to THEMUSEUM and Eichhorn for getting these nudes out of the clam shell of the Art Bank. "I'm just glad to provoke the conversation," Marskell told me. Hopefully, other, more tightly focused shows will occur elsewhere and, in the meantime, someone at, say, Kitchener's Service Canada Centre will mosey over to THEMUSEUM and think, "Y'know, that would look good behind the counter."
Getting Naked is at THEMUSEUM, 10 King St. W. in Kitchener, Ont., through May 31.