'Body Utopia' Explores The Explosive Beauty Of Nonconforming Bodies

'Body Utopia' Explores The Explosive Beauty Of Nonconforming Bodies
Wangechi Mutu, The Storm Has Finally Made It Out Of Me Alhamdulillah, 2012. Mixed media collage on linoleum, Image courtesy of the Artist and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects; Photo Credit: Robert Wedemeyer.

In a recent ARTnews essay, Wangechi Mutu -- the artist of the work above -- implored her fellow feminists to not only think deeply about the amount of women artists active in the contemporary art world, but also the way women are portrayed in artworks themselves.

How often do women appear in art, and how do they sit and perform in the works?" she asks. "Is the figure always represented as docile, inactive, sexualized, or subordinate? Does she have an inferior role in a larger narrative that emphasizes the superiority of the male protagonist? Is her appearance stereotypical in terms of weight, skin color, hair texture, and facial expression?"

Do you know what Mutu's talking about here? Shall we take a five-second tour through art history to refresh our memories?

Anonymous, Venus of Willendorf, 28,000 BCE


Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (1486)
Leonardo da Vinci, Lady with an Ermine (1490)
Edouard Manet, Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (1863)
For sure.
Paul Gauguin, Two Tahitian Women (1899)
Oh, come on.

In part inspired by Mutu's words, Rhia Hurt and Mary Negro, directors of Trestle Gallery, set out to exhibit a show that puts the nonconforming body on display. Bodies of color, queer bodies, bodies with disabilities, bodies that don't conform to societal norms and conventions.

To curate the exhibit, titled "Body Utopia," they enlisted queer, feminist Brooklyn-based painter Clarity Haynes. Haynes, who has worked continuously on "The Breast Portrait Project" since the 1990s, focuses her practice on fondly visualizing the beautiful figures that are so often rendered invisible by mainstream culture. In Haynes' words: "I think of my portraits as a cultural intervention -- 'before' pictures lovingly drawn and painted, meditative descriptions of specific bodies that need no correction."

For Haynes, it was crucial to include both a diverse array of artists and a wide range of represented subjects. "Often we think about the nonconforming body as being represented from the outside, an external view," she explained in an email to The Huffington Post. "And that is important. But I’m also interested in how we (and by we, I mean all human beings) experience embodiment in an internal, felt way."

"As Mutu points out, prejudices and constrictions regarding the kinds of bodies we’re allowed to see and create are strongly entrenched in the art world, just as in society at large," Haynes continued. "I believe we need imagery and artwork about the nonconforming body because it expresses a totality -- a depth -- a truthfulness in our experience, that patriarchal mandates do not permit us."

So, she selected five artists to join her in displaying their body positive work, projecting their own images the ways they want them to be seen. The following six artists, merging the personal and political, render bodies that are willful, active, and dominant. Superior. Nonconformist. Free.

Get to know the artists, with introductions provided by Haynes, below.

Riva Lehrer
Nadina LaSpina, charcoal on paper 2008

"Riva Lehrer’s work is directly about representation, disability and autonomy. Her work in the show is a representational drawing of Nadina LaSpina, a well-known NYC-based disability rights activist. LaSpina is represented in her wheelchair, and Lehrer renders the entirety of her (clothed) body with love and attention. It’s a very compelling portrait."

Constantina Zavitsanos
Self Portrait (EMDR), one years sleep on memory foam, wood, 2009-10

"Constantina Zavitsanos’ work is intimate and conceptual. 'Self Portrait (EMDR)' is a sculpture made from memory foam, which bulges out from a wooden frame in a simple, classical, yet sensual way. The form was created by Zavisanos’ own body during one year of sleep."

Pinar Yolacan
Boro, Lambda print, Ed. of 50 10AP, April edition of ARTIST OF THE MONTH CLUB, 2009, Courtesy of the artist and INVISIBLE-EXPORTS

"Pinar Yolaçan’s photographs of nonconforming bodies are fantastical, creative, beautiful, and sometimes disturbing."

Sondra Perry
42 Black Panther Balloons on 125th Street, (Performance Documentation), 2014

"Sondra Perry’s video work is humorous and moving. In '42 Black Panther Balloons on 125th Street,' a cluster of enigmatic, politically charged balloons form a kind of awkward, symbolic body in a public space."

Black Girl As A Landscape, HD single channel video projection, color, silent; TRT: 10:04 2010

"In 'Black Girl As A Landscape,' the camera pans slowly and obsessively back and forth across a horizontally framed figure (performed by Dionne Lee) who seems to be reclining or floating sideways. The patterns in her dress, her subtle movements, her breathing, and her blinking eyes are all tremendous events in this black and white silent video, which is as much a digital abstraction at times as it is representational. (Perry has said that she explores the possibilities of abstraction as a way of creating dimensionality and autonomy for marginalized bodies.)"

Chitra Ganesh
Her Hanging Remains, dimensions variable, from Broken Spell, a two part mixed media installation at Wave Hill, NY, 2004

"Chitra Ganesh’s work often invokes a kind of monstrous, witchy, goddess energy. 'Her Hanging Remains' is a photograph of an enormous fabric sculpture installation -- a 25-foot wide pair of red underpants, hanging from a tree. The long, trailing ropes form a kind of intentional, looping pattern on the ground that seems to spell out some kind of magic or ritual."

Clarity Haynes
Leonora, oil on linen, 58â x 74â, 2015

"My own interest in the nonconforming body stems from my coming-of-age in the ‘90s in the context of lesbian feminist culture and activism. In the queer spaces I inhabited, diverse bodies were generally embraced. There was a completely different aesthetic value system than in mainstream, straight culture. 'Leonora,' my piece in 'BODY UTOPIA,' represents the monumental nude torso of an older butch lesbian who posed for me over a period of a few years. She is very unapologetic and beautiful as well. The image is rendered in oil paint. The scale makes a statement: this body is taking up space in a culture that tells women they don’t deserve it."

BODY UTOPIA runs from September 25- October 30, 2015 at Trestle Gallery in New York.

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