Bodies of Work

History and homoeroticism collide in this celebration of the male nude

There are two ways to approach "The Male Form in Contemporary Art," now at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood. Enter the door directly in front of the museum's main entrance, and you'll find the "Education Center," a midsize gallery that's meant to prepare you for what's to come.

Here you'll encounter reproductions of some of the classic works that will be alluded to elsewhere in the exhibition: Caravaggio's David With Head of Goliath (1607), Jacques-Louis David's Nude Study of Patroclus (1780), and Perugino's St. Sebastian (1493­94). There are also examples of the male form as seen in advertisements and magazine illustrations, along with several views of Michelangelo's David (1501­04) and other statues, a handful of anatomical drawings, and a display case with (go figure) a small human skull.

You'll also get a few sales pitches. The Michelangelo David, for instance, is available as a refrigerator magnet with half a dozen wardrobe possibilities, including "David Classic," "David Sportswear," and "Viva David."

A few feet away are some more serious offerings: Hardback versions of Adam: The Male Figure in Art, an excellent volume by English art historian and photographer Edward Lucie-Smith, and David Leddick's Naked Men: Pioneering Male Nudes 1935­ 1955 and Naked Men Too: Liberating the Male Nude 1950­2000. (A dozen of the pieces in the exhibition come from the collection of Leddick, who lives in Miami Beach.) All three books offer more in-depth explorations of the show's theme and include a number of the pieces on display.

Visitors are supposed to see all of this before entering the show proper. As an alternative, though, I recommend entering the exhibition by way of one of the two doors on the left side of the lobby. This approach grants you a sweeping overview of the main body of the show, which takes up the museum's largest gallery and includes paintings, drawings, and sculptures. (Photographs are grouped in two smaller adjacent galleries.)

On the gallery wall here, curator of exhibitions Laurence Pamer has posted a succinct written overview of the exhibition, on which he expands in the show's four-color brochure, charting the ups and downs of the male form in art history. The gist: The male figure has gone from being a standard of beauty and perfection in ancient Greek art to being a commodity for use in advertising and marketing today. In between we get religious asceticism's denial, even hatred, of the body, as well as a renewed preoccupation with it dating from the Renaissance.

But best of all, by entering the show via this route, you're first confronted with seven pieces by the American artist Paul Cadmus, whose long career may be seen as a sort of synopsis of the exhibition's theme. From as early as the 1930s, Cadmus, who died last year at age 95, displayed a frank fascination with the male form that brought him either notoriety or acclaim, depending upon the era.

Cadmus was discreetly but unabashedly gay, and his interest in capturing the male figure is evident even in such a blatantly heterosexual fantasy as the controversial The Fleet's In!, an unflattering portrayal of some on-leave sailors cavorting with what can best be described as floozies. Only vaguely shocking by today's standards, this large 1934 oil on canvas prompted the Assistant Secretary of the Navy to demand that it be removed from the Public Works of Art Project in Washington, D.C.

As represented here, however, Cadmus is less the social satirist and more the classicist who sees the male body as an idealized form. Male Nude (NM 151), for instance, is a graceful rear view of a reclining young man from 1979, rendered in soft pinkish crayon on hand-toned paper. Male Nude (NM 227), another crayon from more than a decade later, is almost identical in style, with a similar emphasis on unadorned masculine beauty.

But it's the large acrylic-on-linen painting Study For a David and Goliath (1971) that really throws Cadmus' career into sharp relief. It's an unnerving composition in which a fiery-eyed, muscular young man sprawls near-nude on a bed. Behind him on the wall is a reproduction of another depiction of David holding the head of Goliath (inspired by Caravaggio), while in the foreground, concealing the young man's crotch, is the leering, sharply tilted head of the artist himself.

The artist's hands, one of which is clutching several colored pencils, suggest that he's posed awkwardly behind some sort of work in progress. His head appears to be skewered by an L-shape piece of metal held by the young man. Elsewhere in the image are references to such gay writers as E.M. Forster and Constantine Cavafy, along with some embedded phallic symbols.

This richly ambiguous piece, painted when Cadmus was in his late sixties and still relatively unappreciated, is open to a number of readings. One might be the defiant assertion that this impaling, this beheading, is the artist's reward for his obsession with scantily clad young men. (Cadmus wasn't the subject of a major museum retrospective until 1981.)

The adjacent piece, Peter von Artens' magnificent Adam (c. 1995), stands in sharp contrast to the Cadmus. It's a large oil-on-canvas portrait of a young man seated with his back to us, his head wrapped in a white bandanna and turned so that his right profile is slightly visible. The muscular, sharply defined back is painted with a meticulousness that approaches photorealism. There's none of the reticence or ambiguity of much of Cadmus' work, as if von Artens is insisting that his almost tangible love of the male form is no cause for embarrassment.

Indeed the rest of the show can be seen as an affirmation of that appreciation for male beauty -- although several pieces still suffer from the male-genitalia squeamishness inherent in much Western art. Von Artens' David e Roma (1995) reminds us that the male figure as art object is nothing new by juxtaposing a lounging male nude against a backdrop of Jacques-Louis David's 1780 Nude Study of Patroclus, allowing them to echo each other.

At the far end of the main gallery, three oils by Karoly Mozer similarly conflate the classical with the contemporary. My Brother (1999) gives us the subject's rather homely face set off by an old-fashioned turban, his bare chest and arms painted with Mozer's wonderful knack for capturing the look of exposed human flesh.

Wes Hempel also alludes to both past and present with his Study For Restoration Project (1997), an oil-on-canvas that features a shirtless young man, back to us, who could be straight out of a contemporary jeans ad, leaning with his left hand resting on the ruins of a classical-style male nude statue. In Triumph Over Boredom (1999), the same artist conjures surrealism by inserting a highly realistic but disproportionately small male nude into a richly marbled foyer, where he appears to dance in midair.

By the time we reach Bruce Sargeant's large oil The Archery Lesson, Yip With Myrig, the Welshman, 1925 (1998), the homoeroticism of so many of the show's pieces is no longer subtext. This startling image, painted mostly in dark, earthy tones, shows the blond, clean-cut Yip gently but firmly under the control of the burly, dark-haired Myrig, who, in case we aren't quite getting it, holds an arrow pointing to the general vicinity of Yip's crotch.

And by the time we get to the 18 black-and-white photographs in the next gallery, homoeroticism to one degree or another is all but taken for granted, from the almost blatant variety in the works of Herb Ritts and Jim French to the subtler version employed by Duane Michals. A dreamy silver gelatin print from Michals' series The Sleepers (1980), for instance, features an exuberant blond youth almost waist-deep in a pond or river, his arms drawing great arcs of water up from the surface. He exudes both innocence and sexuality, a point the photographer underscores with a handwritten quote from a Walt Whitman poem.

In two 1998 selenium-toned silver prints by Harriet Leibowitz, the gay narrative possibilities are tantalizing. Domestic Series, Kitchen (K52) includes a quartet of all-American hunks: one nude, standing with his back to us at an open refrigerator, and three others with towels wrapped around their waists, exchanging suggestive glances. Domestic Series, Kitchen (K55) appears to be another view of the same four men, nude, in another part of the kitchen, each engaged in a different activity but with an ease and unselfconsciousness that imply intimacy.

There's nothing here as provocative as, say, something by Robert Mapplethorpe, which is probably a good thing. The brazenness of much of the bad boy of photography's work involving the male nude would be a distraction from the finer observations this exhibition has to offer. Even so, there's no denying the intrinsically homoerotic content of so much of this show (which was underwritten by the Hollywood gay restaurant/bar complex Mankind).

In other words, if you can't handle gay, stay away.

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Michael Mills