Identifying Marks: The Tattooed Nudes of Bruce Adams
The other week in Toronto while walking along Yonge Street I noticed some religious outfit was offering “free personality tests.” It seemed to me an
incredibly quaint and old-fashioned pursuit. Here these people were still attempting to locate discrete “personality traits,” while the best minds of the age have been busy these last 100 years fragmenting, smashing and finally shredding what William James once confidently called the “central nucleus of the self.”
The concept of the personality, I wanted to inform these earnest interrogators for God, was not the thing it once was, and no amount of praying or good works would change things. What exactly did they expect to find in the way of solid identifying traits in these trendily dressed urban subjects? Something like: Finds the prominent wearing of corporate logos an amazingly individualistic experience?
It probably should go without saying at this late date in the 20th Century that a,ny belief in the individual as a trim, tightly packed cognitive and emotive universe is a concept not easy to sustain. According to
current views identity is a purely social construction subject to changes in the political, economic and cultural climate. Private lives are stirred into a big public stew that includes -among countless other things -infotainment, special prosecutors, tabloids, talk radio, news leaks, product endorsements, invasive commercials, and appalling TV confessions that heretofore the Pope himself couldn’t have
elicited. Today, personhood has about as much authenticity as Robin Hood.
This isn’t to say that the experience of the self is somehow invalid, just that it must be framed far
differently than it has been in the past. Artists have been driving hard on these points for some time now, attempting to demonstrate the mutability of identity and its ambiguous relationship with the self.
In the paintings of tattooed women that make up the present exhibition, Bruce Adams confronts these issues with characteristic directness and wit. He introduces into his painting figures whose signs of individuality are literally emblazoned on their bodies. As if to test their uniqueness against the great traditions of Western painting, he then places these figures in the context of classical portraiture and the nude, and in at least two cases creates variations on well-known masterpieces.
This engagement with art history -and history generally -is not new to Adams’s work. In an earlier series figures concocted from such sources as National Geographic magazine are juxtaposed with reinterpreted pop images in paintings that cut across historical epochs and transcend cultural difference. These paintings typically show smug archaeologists or scientists from an earlier day involved in some activity that paradoxically jolts them into the discordant present. In one riotous example two lab-coated, utterly unflappable scientists dis-
cover under their microscope that the tiny ancient fragment they are examining is actually a fully realized Franz Kline painting.
But the delightful characters in these paintings are all types, ready-made figures designed to dismantle tired cultural and social assumptions. It is only with the paintings of tattooed nudes that Adams makes specific individuals the focus of his art. In these paintings, tattooed and
pierced individuals forcefully proclaim their individuality. Among these women are bikers, artists, a college student, perhaps
an S&M aficionado, part-time housewives, lesbians and persons of unknown pursuits. All are tattoo enthusiasts, obviously, and all seem to relish displaying the art that adorns their bodies. By choosing to tattoo and pierce to this significant degree, each person, whether she intends to or not,
represents a subculture. It is by most reckonings a subculture that revels in assertive, if not transgressive individuality and prides itself on being in opposition to the decorative timidity of the plain-skin citizenry and their cloistered values. (This is so despite the broad interest in body alterations by many segments of the population and corporate America’s ongoing attempt to harness the “dangerous” image of the tattooed and pierced person to sell products.) These marks and piercings are intended as rebellions and stand as perpetual declarations that the person displaying them is not from the presumed innocu- ous mold that produces accountants, school teachers, lawyers, bankers, and politicians (although, for alii know, some in this group may practice these very professions).
But this determined individuality can defeat itself by its very insistence. People who are heavily tattooed are in danger of being swallowed up by historical stereotypes – by images of slightly unseemly circus folk, drunken sailors, and petty criminals. The pictures that these women wear on their bodies can make them seem less like individuals and more like walking maps of identifying marks. In some cases these tattoos and piercings are so profuse and dominating that they seem to render gestalts of the human form slightly redundant: We recognize these individuals by their surface patterns, the way you’d tell a Monarch from a Tiger Swallowtail butterfly.
Adams ingeniously plays these conflicting impressions of the tattooed body against one another. Because tattoo- ing is both an expression of individuality and a generic art form, it allows him to approach the representation of the female body by a male artist from a new angle. Decorated bodies provide the means to chip away at monolithic ideas associated with the traditional female nude. The classicized nude, the nude born of the Italian Renaissance, was an idealized object of unmitigated purity, its unblemished and inevitably white skin to be defiled only by religious martyrdom or some severe stigma contrived by mythology or poetic history. Insert the aggressively patterned bodies of these tattooed women into a composition bedecked with classical features, as Adams does, and cherished Western concepts of beauty -that is, beauty as the sole creation of male subjectivity -are thrown into jarring disarray.
So it is in Oiscordia and Paris, a contemporary version of Paris judging the relative beauty of Hera, Athene, and Aphrodite. The painting has a serio-comic tone, with the nude artist himself depicted as Paris holding in one hand the coveted golden apple that, according to Greek myth, a disgruntled Discordia offered as a prize to the most beautiful woman, thereby setting off contention between the goddesses and, ultimately, the Trojan War. In Adams’s version the apple is selected from a bushel
basket nearby, making you think that it might be nothing more significant than a Golden Delicious. Alongside Paris stands the usually-absent Discordia, modeled by the artist’s wife, surveying the three tattooed contestants with considerable disdain.
In this painting Adams faces head-on the perceived binary relationship of the sexes in which the male holds the power to mold the self-image of the passive female. The aesthetic decision that Paris/Adams is about to make will evidently take precedent over whatever notions of identity these tattooed “goddesses” might have. But who can believe it? The women, even as they assume some loose equivalents of classical poses, wear their identities- or at least what they see as representing their identities -right on their skin. In the context of this painting, tattoos are weapons in the gender wars. They invade the sanctity of male subjectivity and its sober deliberations on beauty and serve up their own brand of kick-ass aesthetics (a point that is made infinitely more complex by the inclusion in the background of a copy of Manet’s 01ympia with its famous assault on the traditional nude).
appeared one day posed in the studio. Moreover, these images reflect the reality of the flesh of the models whatever that reality may be -firm, loose, sagging, ruddy, translucent, smooth, rippled, polished, or deathly pale. No idealizations are allowed, no concessions made for the sake of the model’s ego.
To be enjoyed, however, the painting needs no such solemn analysis. It is probably among the most good-natured and gently ironical takes on a subject that has long been used by philosophers, aestheticians and psychologists as a springboard for complex arguments on the source of beauty and aesthetics and their not always comfortable relationship to sexuality. (Compare, for example, Freud’s notion of beauty as psychic material displaced by the shock of
observing the ugliness -or what Freud thought of as ugliness -of human
genitalia.) It would be a mistake to take this painting as serious argument if it
means missing its delightfully theory-free play of ideas.
And the tattoos, along with the piercings and their attached hardware, are for the most part also accurately recorded. The paintings reveal, in fair detail, a wide range of tattooing styles from an “orientalized” drqgon emerging from the rear of one woman to the skulls and black flowers and other accoutrements of death to kitschy patterns to even a bit of inadvertent “Victoriana” in the form of a deli- cate web of black-lace. A glimmering stream of connecting chains anchored to nipple clips, ears festooned with a whole fleet of polished coils, and a ring attached to an eyebrow or a lip like a shiny beetle are all convincingly rendered.
With such vivid subjects the temptation is to be a mere chronicler in paint, to put down with as much fidelity as possible what the eye sees in these women. On one level Adams does just that; on another he subverts the whole process of realistic representation. Although working in a painterly manner here, Adams takes few liberties with the specifics of face and body of his models. Amy looks reasonably like a real person named Amy; Cathy, though painted in vigorous “impressionist” style, still resembles an actual Cathy as she
But Adams’s handling of photographic depiction is what undercuts this easy, painterly realism. The artist elevates the photograph to the status of a document of near-absolute authority, making it the measure of what visual information to include in a painting -even to the point where oddities of the photographic image supersede Adams’s own judgment as to proper anatomy, body shape, and the arrangements of light and shadow. If, for example, a shadow in a photograph appears to cut oft half a limb or turn an appendage into a vague clump of
organic matter, so be it; he paints it that way. The photograph becomes something of a faux “objective view” that is worked into an expressive painterly style, be it impressionist or expressionist. The photographic “look” functions as a kind of stylistic chaperone keeping the “wilder” mannerisms of (mostly) modernist style in check.
This synthetic blending of painterly and photo-real styles is used by Adams as a ready-made painting vocabulary. It helps carry the viewer through a calculated romp through the history of painterly painting, from Hals and Velazquez to Renoir and Manet. It allows old master lookalikes that almost nonchalantly interject contemporary references into the old humanist context.
For example, in Woman on Couch with Boy; the incredibly graceful nude of Velazquez’s Cupid and Venus is transformed into a sleek modern woman whose distinguishing characteristic from the rear is the aforementioned dragon of the backside. Adams has cannily posed his model so that her buttocks hangs over the couch and’pushes ever so slightly
into our space -a very un-Venuslike maneuver. Her features, reflected in a cheap household mirror, are solidly modeled and possess a hard, unflinching stare that is seriously at odds with the muted “feminine” face that appears in Velazquez’s mirror. Acid green shadows careen down this tattooed woman’s back adding a slightly tawdry note (think Toulouse-Lautrec), amplified by the sagging, seedy ochre-colored sofa that stands in for Velazquez’s sensuous display of satins. The trendy work boots
on the woman’s feet ensure that we won’t forget the whole thing is a studio set-up, not a voyeuristic opportunity to catch a latter-day Venus naked, save for her body ink.
These “personalities” -an evidently strong-willed young woman and an impish child -are presented clearly enough. But whatever identities come through are fragmented by the doubleness of their roles as living contemporary people and as models imitating very different models from another social order. In Velazquez’s time (and very much because of Velazquez’s synthesizing vision), painted representations of even mythological subjects were given the convincing sheen of actuality and models presumably played their parts without experiencing any special anxiety. This tattooed woman, on the other hand, reveals a self-awareness of being both the passtve object of the painter’s regard and the possessor of a transgressive body that proclaims an unassailable individuality.
A similar announcement of the patently fictive
nature of the individuals depicted in the painting comes from the boy holding the mirror. In addition to being a pivotal element in the composition, the boy radically alters the psychology of the piece by playing off both the stern tattooed “Venus” before him and the Velazquez cupid that he represents. On his arm is a tattoo of a heart with an arrow through it, a comic reduction of the standard regalia of the Cupid figure. Smiling a faintly embarrassed boy’s smile, he appears to be in on the joke. He gazes happily out at us, a counterpoint to the woman who seems to be equally divided between poetic reverie (shown by means of the beautifully painted lost profile) and an intense, not to say aggressive, regard of her observers.
Many of Adams’s nudes have the specificity of portraits and a number actually assume the traditional attributes of portraiture -centralized figure placement, props, even accompanying pets. (A dog appears in a couple of cases and, more surprisingly, a snake.) Adams takes full advantage of this genre-mixing in Amy; a painting based on Frans Hals’s The Laughing Whore (also known by the gentler title, The Gypsy). In terms of paint, this is a slowed-down, quite deliberate version of Hals’s fabulous paint handling. And all the raucous animation and seductiveness of Hals’s figure is replaced by a stiffly upright, pensive, almost shy figure with averted eyes.
But then this figure, unlike Hals’s slatternly, breast- trussed woman, is nude and it is a nudity of a very bellicose kind. From the naked, studiously modeled breasts with their projecting nipple rings to the spread of death images clinging to one shoulder, this body signals its antipathy to both ordinary rules of portraiture and the staged vernacular drama of Hals. The painting is thrust hell-bent into the present by the demanding presence of nipple rings and macabre tattoos made to seem absolutely subversive by the surrounding cocoon of tradition.
Adams points out the impossibilities of certain expressions of the self as much as he demonstrates workable connections with the image of a painting and the individual portrayed. His paintings proclaim repeatedly that what was once considered a sound basis for allying a depicted person with the specific and unique judgments, thoughts and emotions of a bounded self now is revealed as a flimsy social arrangement accepted by painter, patron, model, and audience alike. The shape and attitude of a body, facial expressions, style of dress, the props of
social status and professional acclaim, the illusion of spatial and psychological harmony that painting can impart -all these things can no longer function as anything but a homeless collection of identifying marks. Adams’s painting suggests that if there is anything like a measurable personality dwelling within a living subject of art, painting has no more access to it than does that business-suited proselytizer handing out questionnaires on Yonge Street.
Richard Huntington Buffalo, New York 1998
Big Orbit Gallery’s main purpose is to promote contemporary art in all media by artists associated with the Western New York region. The gallery encour- ages under-represented, emerging, and established artists in the community through solo exhibition opportunities, performances, and group/theme exhibits. Big Orbit assists in promoting new ideas and issues in art, and seeks to raise the awareness of the community to the arts developing in Western New York. The gallery promotes many artistic disciplines including the visual, literary, video and performing arts.
This brochure was prepared on the occasion of the exhibition Tattooed Women: Paintings by Bruce Adams on view from August 22 through September 19, 1998. Big Orbit Gallery’s programming is made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts, the Cultural Incentive Program, administered by the Arts Council in Buffalo and Erie County, the County of Erie, the City of Buffalo, and the support of its members.
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