As the Flesh Fad Fades, 'Nude' Painters Band Together

What do you say to a naked lady? If you’re one of this bunch: “For God’s sake, hold the pose.”

What do you say to a naked lady?

If you’re one of this bunch: “For God’s sake, hold the pose.”

I was at a lunch with members of a midtown sketch club, right after they had spent about three hours drawing a live nude (female, as I found out in my reporting, they almost always are). Artists carrying sketch pads streamed in and 13 people squeezed in around me at a table meant for eight. Taking their seats, the starving artists began to vent: about fidgety models, about closed-minded collectors and, most of all, about the difficulty in today’s art market of being a painter or photographer of the naked body.

It may be hard to believe, but flesh is out of fashion. Nude portraits, long the cornerstone of an art student’s education and a hallmark of classical art, are being left unsold on gallery walls throughout New York. With a handful of exceptions–Lucien Freud, Jenny Saville and John Currin among them–very few prominent artists today paint or portray realistic or even vaguely abstract nudes. There’s fewer now, according to some artists and critics, than in the experimental 1960s and 1970s or the body-conscious-art era of the 1990s.

Nonetheless, the artistic subculture that produces these artworks is thriving. (“We’re a subculture all right,” said one artist.) In addition to many well-established and busy locations and hangouts such as the National Academy Museum and School, the Art Students League and Spring Studio, sketch clubs are appearing throughout the city. The New York Academy, famous for its so-called life-drawing classes, recently reported record demand. A handful of artists have banded together through, a Web-based art gallery specializing in paintings, drawings and photography of the nude. And Barebrush last month staged its first all-nude art show. (The art, not the artists.)

But even artists who’ve been successful with other subject matter said there’s not much of a market. “It’s hard to know whether my work doesn’t sell because it’s mainly nudes, or because people think it sucks,” said painter Jean Marcellino. Among other career successes, her portrait of Sandra Day O’Connor is currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. But her sales success with nudes, which she paints often, are few and far between, she said.

Other artists have been told, “You do nudes? Isn’t that pornography?” said painter Bob Palevitz. But he said he likes drawing nudes mostly because it is a challenge. “To draw the human figure is one of the most complicated things you can do. It’s a lifetime thing. You can’t just pick it up,” he told me, a little incensed about the small-mindedness of people who think pruriently. A nude “is not pornographic. It’s a human being without fashion/clothes on.”

As the founder of Barebrush, Ilene Skeen has the self-assigned mission to decide what is and is not pornography. The former computer programmer launched the Web gallery three years ago, and Barebrush features a “N*de of the Day!” (the asterisk keeps some filtering software from blocking the site’s content), curatorial shows and calendars offering a selection of the works on display. The logo of the site is the outline of an ample naked bosom drawn in vivid primary colors.

Barebrush doesn’t “accept images of degradation … where it’s something that shows abuse or weird stuff like that,” she explained. “I had one [artwork] where the artist had done a strong, striking image, but very painful to look at. She had written that there was no difference between pleasure and pain,” said Ms. Skeen. That particular image wasn’t posted. “But I don’t have any compunction about private parts,” she said. In that regard, pretty much anything goes.

Ms. Skeen, who paints nudes herself, said artists who do so are a unique bunch. “The thing that unites them all, they tend to be socially liberal. They’re not hung up. … They’re creative types. Designers, into fashion.” By chance, she added, “no born-again Christians.” 

At least one Episcopalian, though. At another local sketch club, Stephen Chinlund, an Episcopal minister and artist, said of working with nude models, “It isn’t about sex. There are sexual overtones in anything, landscapes, architecture.” Mr. Chinlund said his painting may surprise some, but that his faith and his art were easily reconciled–both are methods of transcendence. Drawing is “a way of going into a trance. At its best, one moves into a non-verbal state, you see.”

Ms. Skeen is religious in her own fervor: “I feel that what I’m doing is giving people, giving [artists] a venue that doesn’t exist elsewhere. I think there’s a need for it. I think that there’s something there–a potential.”

Last month, Barebrush had its first-ever brick-and-mortar exhibition, at the Rogue Space Gallery on West 26th Street in Manhattan. The exhibition consisted of 45 artists displaying 110 works. Styles ranged from academic nude studies to abstract representations, as well as a handful of photographs and sculptures. Prices were left to the discretion of the artists and ranged from $100 to several works just over $5,000. (Barebrush charged a hanging fee of $50 for each piece of art, but no commission.) 

More than 300 people showed up, but there were virtually no sales. Ms. Skeen had a theory: “People will buy in a back room, person to person. They tend not to want to buy [nude art] in a room of people watching them. People are a little squeamish.” Asked about putting on another exhibition, Ms. Skeen added, “We would have a much more specific sales plan.”

Blame the puritans, Ms. Marcellino suggested. “Collectors ask themselves: ‘What have I selected? Am I a pervert?” Our culture’s puritanical stigma about the body carries over, she added. Nude art, though centuries old, is “still not universally accepted.” As the Flesh Fad Fades, 'Nude' Painters Band Together