Monday, April 25, 2011

Sweet Nike of Samothrace, Enduring

In December of 2001, I visited the Louvre. The statue of Nike of Samothrace (known also as the Winged Victory) enthralled me. Over 10 feet tall, dating from about 190 BCE, she stands at the head of the sweeping Daru staircase. There was a brisk wind blowing up the stairs. The wind seemed to be responsible for pressing the folds of Nike’s garment against her body. Of course, this was nonsense since both her body and garment are marble. The wind is merely a device to heighten the experience for the viewer. For me, Nike was the highlight of the Louvre, if not all Paris. More than thirty years earlier, I had written a sonnet  dedicated to the great Hellenistic statue and the spirit she represents.
My first glimpse of the statue as I ascended the stairs was all I had hoped for and more. Thrilling, inspiring, overwhelming, there was no end of words to apply. I circled the statue in wordless admiration. I just couldn’t get enough of every angle. I circled slowly again and again in complete thrall. How long was I there? I don’t know. Eventually, I had to tear myself away so I could see more of the Louvre and its other treasures, but later, before I left the immense museum, I returned to the head of the Daru staircase and made several more enchanted circuits.
I wasn’t the only visitor circling Nike that afternoon. Many of the people I saw were also walking around her, looking at the thrust of the leg, the ripples of the fabric, the set of the shoulders and the angle of the back and wings. When most people look at sculpture, especially the greatest sculpture, they automatically walk around the art to view the work from different angles so they can really appreciate and understand it. Viewing sculpture is acknowledged to take effort and time to achieve the full experience. With sculpture, you simply have to see it from all sides to really see it. The image included here might be the “best” angle, but you’ll never know that for yourself unless you walk around it.
That being said, below is the sonnet I wrote 44 years ago. I was very young, just married, and it was written after my first visit to the Cloisters, which overlook the Hudson, the opening venue of the poem. Apologies for the quaint language; it still seems to fit.
To Nike of Samothrace

The sun was on the river bright today,
And golden was the sky and all below.
But verily, my thoughts were far away
In France and in the Louvre. They did go
To proudly powered Wing├Ęd Victory
With outstretched body arched into the wind.
No breath have I when of that stone I see
The smallest photograph. What kind
of Time has left the spirit and the flesh
But took away the Head from its high place?
So of all worldly grants that I could wish,
I wish that once I might have seen her face.
In triumph, beauty guiles eternally,
E’en so as sweet the smile of Victory.


Ilene Leslie Skeen
March 26, 1967


Monday, April 18, 2011

Male Art Comes Into Its Own

Fifty years ago this book, 100 Artists of the Male Figure, may have been considered an outrage or an affront. Few artists were working figuratively and fewer still were concentrating on men. Thirty years ago, this book might have been dismissed as a “gay” thing or a “guy” thing, as something relating to “coming out” or grandstanding. Thankfully those days are over.

Kelley, Pan

Today, the most remarkable aspect of the book is not that it is only about men, but that it has tremendous range, expertise and emotion, even with the narrow focus. But maybe the focus is not so narrow. Men, after all, number about half of the 7 billion people on the planet, why shouldn't they have an art book (or many art books) celebrating themselves?

Furthermore, speaking as a heterosexual woman of a certain age, I frankly have to admit that I enjoy looking at men! As the founder and publisher of the nude art calendar contest, Barebrush.com, I have often heard the complaint from women as well as men, “There are not enough men in the calendar! Where are the men?”

Lin, Steam
Thus it was with great anticipation and delight that I leafed through the pages of this book, reading the artists' statements and enjoying the art. To my surprise I found some old friends. I discovered also many new artists to respect and admire. Lovers of figurative art will find the range, depth, skill and sentiments of these 100 artists very satisfying. Some of the artists are straight, some gay, and some are not saying. A handful of the artists are women. 
The difficulty of writing about this book is inherent in the very range of the works. There are elaborate scenes from mythology – most of them expressing at least a hint of a modern twist which makes them unmistakably art of our times. There are studies of form and color in oil, watercolor, drawings and sculpture. There are cubist, outsider, ash can, abstract and surreal figures.

The curator, E. Gibbons, prefaces the work admirably, explaining how the range of the content, representing various approaches, styles and emotions is designed to increase the reader's interest and satisfaction. The introduction by Grady Harp sets the male figure in its historical context, from the Kuros figures of ancient Greece, through Roman, medieval, Renaissance and modern depictions. Then each artist has a say: a two-page spread with a head shot, self-portrait or signature image, accompanied by text and, of course, the artist's images. Artists' contact information is also included in the book.
Newberry,
Icarus Landing
Several of these artists are known personally to me: John Woodrow Kelley, for his slim, American figures, sublimely at home in Greek mythology; Tai Lin, whose solid oil portraits and simple compositions display both strength and sensitivity; Michael Newberry, whose inventive genius translates common myths into fresh, surprising and delightful new images. All three of these artists have work in the Barebrush Nudes of the Month calendars. The fourth artist, Jordan Mejias, who monitors the open studio sessions at Spring Studio in New York City, is a master of watercolor, creating solid form with a splash of pure, confident abandon. His figures have the vitality of the natural flow of water, tamed by a sure hand and a masterful eye. 


Mejias, IC
 
Blanchard,
Jesus Is Nailed to the Cross

There are also several artists new to me whose work caught my eye. Some of the images are clothed, including the very remarkable and disturbing Jesus is Nailed to the Cross by New York artist Doug Blanchard.

For humor, composition and pizazz, I love Thigh of Relief by Campbell Paxton of Ohio.

For pure physicality of form, my copy of the book obeys my silent command and falls open automatically at Anonymous by Chris Lopez of Florida.

And finally, the artist whose work most seems to capture my feeling of what is needed to be an artist today: Sunday Morning Sam by Steve Cronkite (Connecticut) shows the artist's primary focus on reality, but with the strength, confidence, and a certain brutalized bravado to express the truth. If I could paint like that, I'd be a happy lady.

Paxton, Thigh of Relief
 That I mention these artists does not mean that those whose work goes unmentioned are less worthy. After almost five years of running the Barebrush website with guest curators for the online calendar contest, I often point out that selection into any particular calendar is usually more about the curator than the artist.

I am sure that the reader will find his or her own personal favorites and delights. The curator, E. Gibbons, is planning more books devoted to the art of the male figure. As the first of a possible series, it is a worthy beginning.


Here are all the artists:

 
Cronkite,
Sunday Morning Sam


Lopez, Anonymous
  

E. Gibbons. 100 Artists of the Male Figure: A Contemporary Anthology of Painting, Drawing, and Sculpture. Atglen, PA. Schiffer Publishing Ltd. 2011.