All posts in “modern and contemporary art”

Object of the Week: Nail Police

New Year’s Eve ushers in and allows for all sorts of behavior. For some, it might be a night to reflect on the past year while making resolutions for the next, but for others it is a social occasion during which one can celebrate freely, throwing caution—and social mores—to the wind. This work by John Wesley, titled Nail Police, seems to be a proponent of the latter.

At first the work appears relatively benign, with a cartoon-like image of a woman drying toenail polish—a standard beauty routine. Upon closer look, Nail Police reveals more erotic undertones, and raises further questions: Why are there three feet instead of two? Is the woman pictured even painting toes at all? Is the painting in fact an adult fantasy rendered ambiguous?

One of Wesley’s many strengths as an artist is his ability to create images that are at once explicit and enigmatic. And, like his highly stylized paintings, Wesley has defied easy categorization throughout his career. His flat, graphic figures and distinctive color palate of periwinkle blue and pale pink often align him with artists who share a Pop sensibility, although Wesley associates his uncanny, dreamlike compositions with Surrealism. However, his painting style, which bears little trace of the human hand, has also been espoused by many Minimalist artists, most notably Donald Judd.

Interested in our mass consumption of media, Wesley regularly begins his paintings by tracing images from publications such as newspapers and fashion magazines—dogs, birds, women, and cartoon characters—which are then converted into gouaches and, ultimately, acrylic paintings. This process allows certain characteristics to be reduced to their most basic elements. Here, this can be seen in the contours of the woman’s feet, or the treatment of her full lips and eyelashes.

Regardless of how you might read this image, the last night of the year is as good a time as any to paint the town—and maybe even your toenails—red. However you celebrate, Happy New Year!

Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Nail Police, 2002, John Wesley, Acrylic on canvas, 63 x 48 in. (160 x 121.9 cm), Gift of American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York and Hassam, Speicher, Betts and Symons Funds, 2004.90, © Artist or Artist’s Estate.
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Object of the Week: Salad Days

Giving tours to young people through our big Jane Lang Davis Gallery in the Modern and Contemporary collection can be difficult. It’s impossible to avoid the fact that there’s a really large painting of a naked woman on the wall! Even if, as the tour guide, one forgets about it momentarily, kids will always bring the attention straight to that piece. Their stifled laughter, or even outright laughter, will probably derail conversation about anything else happening in the gallery. Once my focus is drawn to it, I feel simultaneously uncomfortable and totally compelled by the image. I get why they’re staring and pointing.

There’s a name for the painting with the naked woman: Salad Days. She’s just one half of a two-panel piece that measures seven by fourteen feet, rendering relational discord on a huge scale. The artist is contemporary American painter Eric Fischl. He has been creating uncomfortably naked paintings since the early 1980s, and there are few artists out there who do it better, or with more unsettling creep factor.

Fischl has described himself as a storyteller, an artist who aims to create scenes that are full of meaning. Whether that meaning is positive or negative does not matter to him; whether the viewer’s senses are offended does not matter either. Instead, he’s interested in radical openness and honesty. Many of Fischl’s paintings focus on awkward territory: enduring down time in an unhappy relationship, singing in the shower, or lounging unceremoniously in the buff. Over and over, he confronts viewers with scenes that are unusual for their bare honesty.

Of course there’s a very long history of naked people in art, and Fischl is hardly the first, last, or only artist to engage the subject. Most of these artists are working in one of two traditions: nude art, or naked art. The nude is an idealized figure, on display for the viewer, situated in a context that justifies, or makes more art history appropriate, the lack of clothes. Nakedness is all about the lack of clothes and flying in the face of propriety. Fischl fits squarely in the naked camp.

Venus and Adonis by Paolo Veronese

SAM’s collection has great examples of the nude genre too…

Salad Days pictures a private moment, and in doing so, turns it into something highly public. The woman’s physical nakedness comes to represent a psychological nakedness, where her private thoughts and actions come to the surface. This, like much of Fischl’s work, is a voyeuristic, intimate vignette—not an idealized display set up for our consumption. Imagining two sides of a conversation happening over the phone, he invites us to imagine how others act when we can’t see them. You’ll be thinking about it the next time you’re on a call…

IMAGE: Salad Days, 1984, Eric Fischl (American, born 1948), oil on linen, two panels, 84 x 168 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, © Eric Fischl. Venus and Adonis, 1570s, Paolo Veronese (Italian, 1528-1588) and workshop, oil on canvas, 88 3/8 x 66 ¼ in. Seattle Art Museum, Samuel H. Kress Collection, Photo: Natali Wiseman.
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Our New Modern & Contemporary Art Curator, Catharina Manchanda!

We are thrilled to welcome Catharina Manchanda to the Seattle Art Museum as our new Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art! Manchanda will be joining the SAM team in August. To introduce Catharina to our community, we asked her a couple of questions about art and life in Seattle. You can also read more about Catharina in our official press release.

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