At first, they seem unrelated. On one wall hangs an inch-thick paint coating, the hair-like strands of color mixing in rapid confusion, resembling the mayhem of the finished artist’s palette, two barely legible figures rising out of the smattering. Some yards away hangs a Picasso, the household name and acclaimed artist, his model showing off her sausage-like fingers and monstrous mint green-splattered nose. And to the left of that? A painting of two hookers, their breasts barely covered by sequined tops. Any viewer would ask, ‘What is the Picasso doing next to the street walkers? What does this mess of paint have to do with the clean portraits also visible in this space? Why is there so much nudity!?”

Welcome to ‘Paint Made Flesh,” the Memorial Art Gallery’s newest exhibit housed in its Grand Gallery, scheduled to run until Jan. 3 of next year. This most recent collection, organized by Frist Center for the Visual Arts curator Mark Scala, is a conglomeration of roughly 40 American and European artists whose interests intersect at their fascination with the human body. That intersection is often the works’ only link, however, as the content of the exhibit runs a rampant course from medical approaches to the body to near absolute abstraction of the nude figure, holding each in equal esteem.

The exhibit, divided into several sections, offers radically differing approaches to both style and content. For instance, in the first series of paintings, more abstract artists like Picasso and de Kooning (a sure favorite of those who crave color) distort the human form. Within the space of their canvases, these pioneers of abstraction distort the classical nude, allowing the viewer only the slightest identification that, yes, that is, in fact, another naked woman. While such abstract artists often veer into puzzlingly open-ended work like that of Jackson Pollock, this exhibit stops abstraction just short of that academic cliff, a critical move for its often unassuming audience.

In its second group of paintings, the human body is revealed in more personal detail, as these works often display folksy influences. For instance, one artist smashes dinnerware, painting a naked woman over the shards of broken plate, as another provides a charged portrait of his wife as a hot hobo, as a saccharine, overly caricatured gypsy. In another corner, the aforementioned hookers jutt out their butts and wave their dainty pink plumes, attracting more than a simple sexual appetite. These works, their clear folk influence and often cartoonish depictions, allow the viewer personal readings, to imagine these strange lifestyles and unique relationships. In these works, the display of flesh is an unremarkable day-to-day reality.

In the last grouping, the body is exposed as a site for political conflict and personal identification, as these artists depict the sagging flesh of their own elderly fathers or the painfully colorful outlines of approaching European refugees. The artists know that, despite the best efforts of Michaelangelo to convince us otherwise, the everlasting David is only so stable as the stone he is carved of, and the human form is a rather finite substance, affected by both literal displacement, in the case of the refugees, or by the emotional agonies contained within it. These works feature carved, red lines slashed within cream skin, portraits of grimacing faces and dark, faceless figures reminiscent of Edvard Munch.

While many potential art viewers often picture Baroque portraits of stiff-shirted boys dressed in strange female garb, the confoundingly overdiscussed smile of the Mona Lisa or, even worse, the flat-plane color swatches of haughty New Yorkers, ‘Paint Made Flesh” lays its thoughtful matter out on the examining table, often quite literally. In Hyman Bloom’s ‘The Hull,” for instance, viewers are initially attracted to the glorious explosion of sky blue and hot orange before they are repulsed by the ominous knife in the painting’s left corner or before they realize the meat in question is human medical carnage.
Despite its intense subject matter, however, these paintings remind their viewers of their mortality, of their more base material, making for an uncomfortable but moving experience. None of the stuffed-shirt, dusty claims to historical foreverness here: This ‘Paint Made Flesh” is all backbone.

Titus is a member of
the class of 2011.

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