From Paris With Heat

Art or softcore porn? That might well have been the question weighing on the minds of a few people poking their heads into Saba Gallery on Fort Lauderdale's Las Olas Boulevard one recent afternoon. The potential gallerygoers were mostly older, and, while a couple of the men seemed intrigued, the women tended to scurry away once they got a good glimpse of what was in store.

The exhibit in question, "Jehan Legac," definitely includes some eyebrow-raising paintings, including one deemed provocative enough to be kept in the back room and hauled out only upon request. The French artist's preoccupation, almost to the exclusion of any- and everything else, is the female body, either nude or in various states of undress. He seems especially fond of Asian women. My guess is that he's never met a breast he didn't like (and he typically likes 'em big).

Saba owner Priscilla Krammer had just one Legac work on display when she opened her Las Olas venue last summer (her previous location was in Miami's Design District), and as I wrote at the time, "it was seductive enough to make me long to see more." That piece, a 53-inch-square painting called Don't Look Back, is still in evidence, although it has been shunted off to a corner spot to make room for the new additions to the lineup.

It still makes quite a statement. The right half of the canvas is dominated by a voluptuous female torso, seen from the rear, with curvaceous forms that interlock in ways that defy realism but don't quite make it all the way into full abstraction. And the mysterious black, boxy form to the lower left, which includes a blocky blue shape on its front and a thin black rod extending upward from its top, retains its intrigue, as does the strange palette of sickly yellowish greens.

The other Legac works here that best hold their own are similarly stylized. But they and their more brazen companions all raise questions that are not answered, at least not at Saba. There's a slick four-color handout that includes reproductions of Don't Look Back and another painting, but the written information is in maddening artspeak, with just about the only solid tidbit being that the artist "started as a photographer for Charles de Gaulle's son," for whatever that's worth.

So I turned to the Internet for answers or perhaps clues. Given that Legac's pieces at Saba are all labeled "oil on canvas," despite looking more like big digitally manipulated photographs (he tends to work on a large scale, favoring squares over rectangles), I was curious about his creative process. An interview with the artist on the web zine sheds some light.

Apparently, Legac starts with a digital photograph of a live model that he then cuts loose in PhotoShop: "I fly within the pixels. Play around with colours and chrome. Flirt with the model. Create new hair style. Modify slightly her hips or her eyes if needed. Touch her legs and brush against her breasts." The process eventually ends with "my printer, oil pigments, airbrush and finally my spray gun to varnish it." I'm still not quite sure I get it.

The artist's own website brims with reproductions of his work but not much else of use. In lieu of a more traditional biography are three short blurbs about him by writers who sound as if they're on his payroll. Kennerly Clay's is perhaps the most substantive, providing the intriguing detail that Legac's first photography job, before working for de Gaulle's son, was "shooting photos of cats on Paris rooftops."

Another "essayist," Michael Korvin, notes: "The very first time you see the beautiful faces and bodies of Legac's electronic fetish babes, your heart is bound to suddenly change to fast mode. You'll simply think that you've never seen a girl half as cute. And wait till you catch a glimpse of the others! These creatures are information age goddesses in the highest... the female ideals of a real life Internet connoisseur..."

The sad thing is, while some of this hyperbolic nonsense comes close to capturing the overwrought silliness of Legac's more trifling works, it does a great disservice to the ones that, like the aforementioned Don't Look Back, actually have aesthetic merit outweighing the hotted-up erotic content. In Wedding March, for instance, Legac registers the bondage of marriage by portraying a headless female torso with hands, arms, and torso wrapped in thick, red, velvety cords. Subtle? Not exactly. Effective? Surprisingly.

And with Tapas Bar, Legac exercises something approaching restraint. A relatively undistorted body — female, of course — is captured from the chin down, and while her ample breasts are exposed, her midriff is swaddled with a garment that also extends up to and across her left shoulder, giving her the faint suggestion of a classical nude. There are gentle striations on her flesh that hint of rippling energy, and the whole image is suffused with a warm palette of golds, ochers, and bronzes.

The most daring piece on display is probably Luba, a 60-inch-square work in which the body of the model isn't distorted at all, even though the surfaces surrounding her are manipulated in Legac's typical fashion. This siren is nude except for a string bikini bottom, and — here's the rub — three of the fingers of one hand are sunk into her crotch while her other hand reaches up her torso in presumed ecstasy.

Around the corner, with Bambu Drive, Legac keeps such rawness in check and, paradoxically, comes up with a more powerful work. The model's breasts are just half-visible at the top of the image, which continues down to a well-defined navel and into a murkier pubic region. But the body isn't really the focus here, despite its formal balance and beauty. There's a sort of vertical wash of distortion over the picture that recalls the blurry, out-of-focus treatment often used by contemporary German artist Gerhard Richter. The distortions, strangely enough, give the body an even greater immediacy, and they render the unidentifiable objects on either side of the body as irrelevant background clutter.

Having heard about the painting stashed in the back room as potentially inflammatory or even offensive, of course I had to see it. It's called Fruit Fiction, and it features one of Legac's Asian hotties spread-eagled on a bed, a halo of spiky black hair around her head, eyes closed. A raised thigh partially conceals a breast that peeks from below a skimpy black garment, and a vine with a cluster of what looks like apricots snakes out of her crotch. While this latter detail, presumably, is what might be considered provocative, what I found most suggestive was the half of one of the fruits that lies nearby, its pit removed to reveal an empty socket that, in its own way, is much more sexually suggestive than the woman herself.

On one level, Legac hasn't done much more than take the glossy 1940s pinup girls of famous Peruvian artist Alberto Vargas and drag them into the digital age. But as he reveals occasionally, he's capable of more ambitious, nuanced imagery. I hope he keeps pushing himself in that direction. Otherwise, he risks settling into a niche as just another facile 21st-century pinup artist.

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Michael Mills