Corpora in Extremis
San Luis Obispo Museum of Art
By Ashley Schwellenbach
Shades of Nude, SLO New Times
The five artists on display in the SLO Art Center’s exhibit “Corpora in Extremis” fulfill the show’s stated purpose of pushing the body to the limits, and they do so in a mad hodgepodge of materials: bronze, acrylics, powdered pigment, oils, glass, synskin. The question is what the figures—portraits painted on glass, silhouettes dangling from the ceiling, tormented faces captured in the act of screaming, summoned to life by men and women whose paths have never crossed—could possibly have in common. The answer is readily evident, even if a Wikipedia summation of the works’ meaning is not.
Curator Gordon Fuglie’s purpose in organizing the show was “just to open the public’s mind about how artists use the figure.” The intention might sound simple if not for the fact that minds, like cans of tuna, are rarely ever opened without a great deal of prying and clatter. As a defensive measure, Assistant Director Muara Johnston designed a pamphlet addressing the question, “What is the difference between nude and naked?” In a censorial gesture that neither the Met, MoMA, the Louvre, the Guggenheim, nor the Getty would ever contemplate, the Art Center conceals select paintings behind a room divider during children’s art classes. Besides smacking of pandering to small minds in small towns, the room dividers generate mixed messages about nudity in art; on the one hand, Fuglie is proud of the exhibit, which features five undeniably skilled and deliberate artists. But someone—Puritan or prude perhaps—deemed the images objectionable content for youthful eyes. You have to wonder if Sandro Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” or Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” once upon a time received similar treatment.
But within the work it is astonishing to discover the degree of expressiveness in a simple silhouette or the curve of a back.
Donna Anderson Kam’s seven pastel paintings featuring a single model in various hunched and crouching poses are autobiographical, what she calls psychological renderings of her own fears and anxieties. The paintings are all part of a series titled “paranoia part I,” a post-9/11 response to a national atmosphere charged with fear and uncertainty. Anderson Kam’s nude figure repeatedly exposes her vulnerability, as well as fear.
“It’s sort of that feeling of being in a dream state where you’re caught somewhere and you have something that you’re told will keep you safe, but it won’t,” she explained.
Against an overwhelming expanse of white space, her brunette figure crouches in a primitive, protective stance, sometimes wearing surgical gloves or masks, clutching a cell phone or headphones to her ears, or a headlight strapped to her forehead. The objects become symbols for the futile things that people cling to for security—the technology that can’t save them from terrorist attacks, the masks that afford no protection from the swine flu, the gloves that can’t shield a human from a toxic planet of their own making.
Of the five artists in the show, Anderson Kam’s figures are the most realistically rendered, in flesh tones and with very little abstraction. While the San Francisco-based artist does sometimes turn to other subjects—moving water and tree trunks being of particular interest to her—expressing the human condition is her primary concern, an interest that she believes she shares with the other artists who painted and sculpted the human figure to its extremes.
“Everybody has an immediate response to the figure—in photography, in art,” she explained. “I wanted to do more art that was part of a dialogue with other people.”