Line, Shape and Naked Bodies

by bjmuirhead

One of my problems when I read art theory is that the majority of it simply doesn’t equate with my experience of looking at and making art. Needless to say, this is a problem I experience even when I am writing some form of aesthetics/art theory myself.

So far on this blog, I’ve written very little about art in any direct manner. Instead I’ve written about experience and the nature of thought and the nature of mind and the senses. What all of this has been leading toward is the notion that, from many different points of view, we gain knowledge when we look at a nude and, furthermore, that this knowledge is more than mere sexual knowledge/desire. (Simplistically, the erotic is a small aspect of the nude, not the sum total, as so many seem to believe.) The depth and nature of this knowledge is something I will discuss in a post yet to come.

What I have been doing in writing all of this is laying the groundwork for an answer to the questions such as why do you take nudes? and what’s so important and interesting about nudes?

When I was first asked these questions, they were very personally directed. My interlocutor (an artist about whom I was writing a piece for an art journal) wanted my very personal reasons for focusing on the nude in my own work, having already rejected any possible aesthetic reasons.

It’s fair to say that I had no answer. What I did have was a set of feelings and sensations—tacit knowledge and thought—which propelled me toward the nude as a subject. I had not at that time, however, begun to apply Polanyi’s ideas to art, and I remember, as a first step toward answering the questions, that I said I liked the lines and shapes of the body. Before I had a chance to elaborate, my admittedly feeble comments were dismissed as being merely sexual, and I received a feminist critique of the female nude which left me nonplussed, simply because that critique had nothing to do with what I, for the first time, was trying to put into words.

Untitled (Sexual Forms)

Untitled (Sexual Forms)

 It seems strange to me now that I had not attempted to put it into words before that day, but at the time I thought there was a certain obviousness to it, and it was only afterwards that I realised just how unobvious so much of our lives and work actually are.

My initial introduction to art was much the same as other people’s, or so I imagine: I looked at the world and was fascinated by its appearance. Later, I looked through art books and at paintings and sculptures in galleries and by the time i was 12 or 13 I knew, in the way that you do, that the most deeply important thing in my life was line. The way a line flowed, its textural largesse and bounding of shape entranced me with its offerings, with its always evident promise of knowledge that stretched further than words.

Over many years this fascination with line and shape expanded in a very traditional way to include portraits and nudes, but these did not make sense to me in as much as my portraits and nudes never seemed coherent enough. What I mean by this is that they didn’t seem to say what I wanted to say in a convincing fashion, even when they were adequate representations (in a non-technical sense). My more abstract work, on the other hand, almost always said what I wanted it to say, even if it did so badly. Photography was the obvious solution, though much more difficult.

To be a man #10 (Mushroom)

To be a man #10 (Mushroom)

 In an age of instant photographic satisfaction, it may seem odd that I say this, and it may be thought that I am referring to the difficulties of developing and printing. This, however, is not the case.

What makes the photographic nude more difficult than a painted nude, firstly, is that most people don’t look beyond the immediate obviousness of the naked body. If the shot is well enough exposed, and the body is reasonably attractive (which usually means not too old and definitely not wrinkled), then lots of people are going to like it, no matter how bad a shot it is. What this means is that I, and any other artist working with the naked body in photography, have to create works good enough to break through the barrier of O gosh, it’s a naked body, and I love/hate naked women!

It’s a little different with male nudes, due to our weird and wonderful cultural history, though they also tend to be received in the same ‘lust or loathe’ context.

The second reason that photographic nudes are more difficult are the assumptions and beliefs which people bring with them, and which all too often result in the instant reactive judgement already mentioned. This attitude is evidenced by one of my artist friends who barely looked at my work for twenty years. She’d give them a quick look before dismissing them as just another one of Bruce’s sexual fantasies. It was only when I was selecting work for my 2011 exhibition and I asked her to help me choose which shots to exhibit that she actually looked at them and saw past what she believed about the nude, past what she believed I was doing.

The simple act of looking, without immediate moral judgement, is a rare occurrence (in my experience, and yes, I also am culpable in this regard at times)—to look past one’s own beliefs is a profoundly difficult, and some would say an impossible thing to do. But something like it can be achieved if we take a contemplative approach and seek what is there rather than looking for reasons to dislike it, or reasons why it supports our already existing beliefs.

To the extent that this is possible, it can be shown when people change their minds. Hence the real question concerning my artist friend is whether or not looking produced changes in her overall response to nudes. I’m happy to say that comments she made about other nude work she has seen since then, has indicated that she has changed her view and response, that she now sees something in nudes that she had not seen previously. Perhaps more importantly for me personally, is that she now seems to understand something of what I aim for in a nude.

I could go on about the difficulties in working photographically with the nude, and perhaps I will at another time, but for now what is important is to return to line and shape, which continue to be a primary focus for me. Indeed, many a shot has been rejected (and often the negative destroyed or the file deleted) because there was some line or shape that was mysteriously wrong or out of place—or which just didn’t please me in that particular shot. This always annoys me because I put a lot of time into the composition of each shot, both before I look through the viewfinder and while looking through the viewfinder. In this respect I treat a digital camera as though it is a film camera and this is the only chance I have to make it work. (The aim, of course, is to minimise the amount of work I need to do in photo manipulation afterwards. What I want is to be able to do is to adjust contrast, lightness, darkness, as though actually in a darkroom printing the old fashioned way. Of course, there are times when I take a shot having already decided what type of filters I am going to apply on the computer, whether I am going to use G’MIC in the GIMP, or a Topaz filter in Photoshop, or merely run it through Darktable. To be a man #10 is a good example of the latter. It’s obvious, but often ignored, that it’s always better to know what you are going to do with the shot before you take it.)

What I am talking about is not just my own obsession with line and shape, but the whole issue of composition which, I was informed recently, is of no concern in contemporary art. (This is a view I do not understand, which I am sure is wrong, and which I suspect holds little currency outside of certain universities and types of art.)

The conviction that composition (appearance) matters has been with me my entire life, along with my conviction that what we see when we look at a nude is much much more than an erotically (because) naked body. Partly this is because line itself always has seemed revelatory to me, to hold information and emotion that simply cannot be written, only seen, drawn and photographed.

Sketch for a Crucifixion

Sketch for a Crucifixion

 Obviously, in terms of my work with nudes, line and composition are of paramount importance. My early childhood obsession with fragments of line, then with the shapes made with line and finally with composition resulted in fully fledged but non-theorised convictions about (visual) knowledge which I am only now attempting to elucidate. When I said, therefore, that I ‘liked’ the lines and shapes of the body, I was expressing (badly) a deep truth about my own convictions and my obsession with line and shape. These convictions were expressed in many paintings, drawings and photographs which are not nudes, and in photographs of men and women.

That we interpret line and shape, and that we do so in cultural terms, isn’t something I can, or even want, to deny, but it seems clear to me that there is much that comes prior to such interpretations. When it concerns naked bodies, it’s clear that we do respond to them from a foundation of our cultural ‘teachings’, but it also is clear to me that there is ‘pre-cultural’ knowledge, deriving from our senses and expressed in line, that can undercut the cultural and the theoretical. What is important about this, as Florence Dee Boodakian said, is that we really don’t know what a pre-cultural body may look like, because we never have looked for it. At the same time, if we have a cultural viewpoint, a ‘cultural body’, then surely it is based on something which is prior.

With this in mind, I may have been too hasty in my condemnation of Jean-Luc Nancy’s notion of the monstrous, of the idea that all images do not immediately have meaning, but demand (need) narrative. Clearly what I am talking about is something which lies before our (cultural) narrative; I am talking about the meaning of lines and shapes before they are composed and presented to a public, about what they may give us (what we may take from them) if we take time to attempt to push away the cultural and see what lies before it.

In so many respects it doesn’t even matter if this is possible. The attempt, by itself, undermines immediate interpretations and narratives, and that is worthwhile in and by itself.

For what it is worth, I have included the images of old drawings and the shot of the penis as a visual reference to what I have said. My apologies, however, for the poor quality of the images of the drawings. I am afraid that laziness overcame the urge to perfection in reproduction. None the less, I hope you enjoy them.