November/December 2003

more feature articles:

The Best of Miami
∑If You Know Where to Look
by Joel Weinstein

Nude Orleans

From Bellocq to Bourbon Street

by Phil Oppenheim

The trophy wife of a tightfisted politician complained once too often that his squeezing higher taxes out of the local residents kept those folks from enjoying the aesthetic pleasures of the arts. He challenged his wife to put up or shut up, and to put her belief in the transformative power of art to a weirdly exhibitionist test. „Make like the Greek and Roman artworks you admire so highly, and trot your naked behind in front of the art-deprived masses you claim to champion,š he bargained; if she‚d comply, he‚d put the local CPAs out of business and abolish taxes. One sunny day in the middle of the eleventh century, Lady Godiva dropped trou, hopped on a horse and paraded into history.

Nique Le Transome, Happy Lady Godiva‚s Day, 2002, oil and alkyd on linen, 24 by 36 inches (photo by Mike Smith courtesy Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans).

Nearly a thousand years later, the city of New Orleans proclaimed a Lady Godiva Day, adding to its already heavy schedule of holidays, and giving partygoers yet another reason to disrobe and dance around the streets. Or so New Orleans artist Nique Le Transome would have us believe: in one of his paintings featured in the 2003 Louisiana Biennial, a naked reveler astride a racehorse smilingly eludes a mounted policeman under a blimp-drawn banner that flutters „Happy Lady Godiva‚s Day! Be Good!š Transome seems justified in naming Lady Godiva the patron saint of New Orleans, as she stands for the arts and for public nudity. Few places, mythological or real, are more associated with naked flesh than New Orleans: from „Girls Gone Wildš videos for sale on late-night television to popular imagery of Bourbon Street strippers shimmying against shiny poles in dark dives, the city‚s unofficial iconic mascot shifted long ago from the top-hatted inebriate holding up a lamppost to the toothsome sorority girl with her brassiere held defiantly aloft. New Orleans came by its fleshy associations for good reason, and the repercussions of its naked reputation have reverberated for generations.

Ernest J. Bellocq, Bellocq Prostitute, Storyville (courtesy John Stinson Fine Arts).

New Orleans‚ historical legacy of licentiousness extends at least as far back as the Louisiana Purchase. The city struggled to control prostitution throughout the nineteenth century, climaxing its efforts with the creation of Storyville, the red-light district designed to corral vice into a degenerate neighborhood a bead‚s throw from the French Quarter. Storyville‚s unofficial documentarian was the famed photographerųand dwarf, hydrocephalic, kook, pervert or visionary visual poet, depending on whom one askedųErnest J. Bellocq, subject of a renowned 1970 Museum of Modern Art show after his long-forgotten negatives were discovered. Bellocq‚s astonishing photographs of Storyville‚s whores have become a touchstone of modern art for several reasons beside their beauty. Their matter-of-fact nudity distinguishes them from our expectations of polite American-Victorian subject matter, while postmoderns see their conflation of high with low and their introduction of questions of voyeurism, sexual politics and race as proof that Bellocq is one of them. Bellocq‚s Storyville portraits have become a cultural Rorschach test, allowing viewers to read their stories into the mute images; in turn, his photographs helped Storyville morph into an iconic mock Eden, a more innocent time and place in which nudity was „beautifulš and not pornographic, and whorehouses were quaint parlors rather than dens of urban squalor, violence and disease.

Bourbon Street burlesque grew from the Storyville tradition (that is, after the district was closed down in 1917 and after the WWII-era GIs started tomcatting around the port town for a little R&R). And within the last decade, post-ironic hipsters, „do-meš feminists, punks and performance artists have rediscovered the relatively innocent charms of old school dirty dancing, and, fittingly, New Orleans has become the epicenter of the Neo-Burlesque movement. Alison Fensterstock, a local writer, created Tease-O-Rama in 2001, which brought thrill seekers and journalists to New Orleans to document what would become a national phenomenon. Fensterstock is an alumna of The SophistiKittens, a more swingin‚ sixties variant of the form. The Shim Shamettes, New Orleans‚ most famous burley-Q traditionalists (they perform classic routines featuring balloons, feathers and giant oyster shells, for instance) have been featured in profiles of the retro art form as recently as The New York Times‚ May 25, 2003 review, though their home base, the French Quarter‚s Shim Sham Club, recently closed. Whether as part of a nostalgic cultural cocooning associated with the country‚s reaction to the dangerous new world of international terrorism, a deconstruction of traditional gender roles, an effort to preserve a (previously) dying art form, or another sexy way for kids to annoy their parents, burlesqueųspecifically the Golden Age style of burlesque as practiced in gaudy Bourbon Street theaters a generation agoųclearly has recaptured the public imagination.:

Backed up by the retro sounds of the SophistiCats, the SophistiKittens revive the classic burlesque routines of the mid-twentieth century (courtesy SophistiCats & SophistiKittens).

And burlesque dancers are not alone: the spirit of Bellocq as filtered through the mythology of Storyville also imbues the work of New Orleans‚ visual artists. Although Bellocq‚s work obviously predates more contemporary cultural discourse about the politics of voyeurism (the victimization inherent in artistic objectification, the pathology of scopophilia and the reinforcement of phallocentricity brought about by forcing women into object status), his work foregrounds such issues. Similarly, several New Orleanian artists use nude imagery to confront these issues more overtly. Jedd Haas‚s mygirlnextdoorcam.com (2000) directly alludes to such voyeurism in its title and its subject, a topless young woman looking backwards over her shoulder at some imagined internet surfer who‚s paid for the privilege of looking back at her (interestingly enough, Haas is an internet art entrepreneur, and the brains behind the online Gallery Tungsten, a site developed for electronic art purchasing). J.B. Harter turned voyeurism on its ear in his playful homoerotic pinups, which often featured men as naked, posed and ready for hire as Bellocq‚s women (some of which can be found in his book, Encounters With a Male Nude, 1997; Harter‚s work on a second collection of his paintings abruptly ended when he was murdered in March 2002). Perhaps the most disturbing art works mining this territory, though, belong to the sculptor William Ludwig, one of New Orleans‚ most iconic artists; his bronze statue of the city‚s most infamous Lucky Dog vendor, Ignatius Reilly, defiantly stands on the Quarter side of Canal Street, ready for a photo op with any tourist looking for the authentic Confederacy of Dunces experience. Even more New Orleanian, though, are his odd topless female busts. Women‚s heads stare expressionlessly forward, while their breastsųeither with their shirts pulled aside or off completely, sometimes adorned with beadsųare carefully rendered and detailed. The remainders of their bodies (arms, legs, backs) are nonexistent, as if irrelevant. The New Orleans Art Review likened Ludwig‚s art to pornographic Penthouse Pets (his peculiar focus on breasts force „őmysteries‚ [to] degenerate into the salacious,š according to their critic); whether his sculptures reduce women to fetishized objects or criticize such gestures remains open.

Ernest J. Bellocq, Bellocq Prostitute, Storyville (courtesy John Stinson Fine Arts).

Several artists would interpret the inkblots of Bellocq‚s photos as studies in empowerment, as portraits of women who use their nudity and sexuality to create their identities. Performance artist Heather Weathers‚ work certainly stems from this aesthetic. Whether creating paintings out of her menstrual blood, wrapping her nude body in measuring tape, posing in raw meat bikinis, creating a roomful of „Ass Printš wallpapers (courtesy of her paint-daubed ass) or featuring her tattooed naked body in ads urging potential art collectors to „Give It Up for the Arts,š Weathers turns her body into a site of self-creation (versus an object of someone else‚s ownership or subjectivity). Less dramatically, but no less viscerally, Ann Schwab similarly relies on body imagery to explore identity issues. Her 2002 installation at the Contemporary Art Center demonstrates her interest in the body (and, specifically, the processes by which our bodies wound and heal) through her imagery (nude photographic transparencies featuring body parts, scars and sutures) and media (tissue samples, hair, suture threads). Her work, juxtaposing such natural imagery with digital technologies and assemblages, prompts audiences to ask how we create our distinct selves from such common raw materials. Her most ambitious work, Forest (2001), invites its viewers to navigate between framed, translucent, life-sized digital self-portraits suspended from the ceiling (and alternating with more vegetative imagery) and explore and assemble the individual being depicted by constructing a whole from the parts (and, metaphorically, seeing both the forest and the trees).

George Dureau, Brian Haynes, 1989, silver gelatin print, 16 by 20 inches
(courtesy Arthur Roger Gallery).

Photographer and painter George Dureau also focuses on the body (and its imperfections), though his most famous work, his nude series of photographs of physically challenged and disabled men, concentrates on how bodies deemed ugly by traditional standards can become beautiful and erotic. Dureau‚s subjectsųdwarves, amputees and other „imperfectš typesųachieve their powerful erotic charge through their commanding expressions and dignified bearings, shaping their unexpectedly beautiful bodies to their personalities (rather than the other way around). Comparing Dureau‚s images to those of his follower Robert Mapplethorpe illuminates Dureau‚s aesthetic. While Mapplethorpe‚s oeuvre tends towards the cool and distant, Dureau‚s is warm and emotionally engaged; the latter‚s photographs stem from a loving and sympathetic lens, the former‚s images are more like the carnage of an „assault with a deadly cameraš (as the title of Mapplethorpe‚s biography has it). Dureau‚s emotionalism resonates through his painted works, too. Although his canvasses primarily retell Classical histories and myths (and recreate artworks from antiquity), very contemporary passion and vitality infuse his paintings, evoking modern standards of beauty and eroticism in pictures like the otherwise neo-classical Female Poised (1998) and the homoerotically charged GanymedeųThe Date With Jupiter (1993).

Julie Crozat, The Emperor Has No Pants, (courtesy Barrister‚s Gallery)

While Bellocq‚s nudes seem far too poignant to be construed as humorous, New Orleans often sees naked people as funny (perhaps as a result of seeing far too many of them) 2. One of the city‚s most beloved Mardi Gras parades (and the only one attended by an almost exclusively local crowd), the Krewe du Vieux, features equal parts political satire and (papier maché) nudity. Several of the city‚s artists similarly use nudity comically to deflate stereotypes, pretension and history. Julie Crozat‚s historical painting The Emperor Has No Pants (2003), part of the „Louisiana Purchase Dis-Mantledš show at Barrister‚s Gallery last spring, reimagines Napoleon, one of New Orleans‚ most revered heroes, as nude from the waist down, making him look silly and calling into question his legend and legacy. In The Hand of Galatea, Crozat employs a similar strategy, to a different myth of male power, in this case the story of Pygmalion (and, in particular, Jean-Léon Gérome‚s famous painting of the scene). In Bulfinch‚s retelling, Pygmalion fell in love with his virginal creation after he spurned the world of real, live women; in Crozat‚s much more sexual (and sexy) imagining, Galatea‚s pinkish palm, flush with new-flowing blood, beckons her creator in a statuesque come-hither gesture. Crozat‚s version implies that Galatea would tell Pygmalion exactly when and where the rain in Spain was going to fall.

George Schmidt, Ernest Bellocq Photographing a Prostitute, 1989, oil on linen, 52 by 72 inches (courtesy the artist). The original painting does not include a red star.

Bellocq‚s nudes at their most primal are erotica, and many contemporary New Orleans artists follow in a tradition that celebrates sexuality. George Schmidtųan antiquarian artist whose style derives from French Academic painting, whose subject matter focuses primarily on arcane Louisiana history, and who moonlights as the lead vocalist and banjo player for the New Leviathan Oriental Fox-Trot Orchestraųexpressly alludes to the erotic joyousness of Storyville-era entertainment in his energetic, expressionistic etched recreations of The Oyster Dance (1987) and The Naked Dance (1982). In his painting Ernest Bellocq Photographing a Prostitute (1989), Schmidt more realistically depicts the Master in his seedy setting (ratty improvised backdrops, kids playing off camera, general disarray). In a wry joke, though, Schmidt evokes the mystery of the Bellocq myth as well: not only is the nude model at the painting‚s focal point masked, but the famous photographer is, too, cloaked in his camera‚s drapes.

Robyn Menzel and Spencer Livingston, proprietors of the Space Gallery, both address the erotic in their work; Menzel‚s paintings emphasize realistic detail and smoldering sexuality (as in the skywardly staring, cigarette-fingering reclining subject of Bed Spread, [2003]), while Livingston‚s veer towards a more stark naked objectivity (complete with well-delineated nipples and lush depictions of pubic and armpit hair). Collectively, their gallery celebrates sexuality in events like their „Photo Club Art Happeningsš („mingle & watch a live photo shoot w/ nude models,š suggests their ad), „Fetish Nitesš and shows in which the theme is „shameless nudityš (as in the „Origin of the Worldš exhibit in September 2003). And lest the artists (or models) think that coyness will be tolerated, their brochure warns that „Art with fig leaves will not be considered.š

Greg Friedler, from the „Mattressš series (courtesy the artist).

Bellocq‚s legacy lives most robustly, though, in the work of native New Orleans photographer Greg Friedler. Friedler‚s most famous work features disarming portraits of people without clothes, without any concessions to how people force themselves to dress to compromise their identity and fit into the culture. For Friedler, nakedness „reveals people the way they are. Nakedness is a great equalizer.š 3 His „Naked Cityš books (Naked Los Angeles, 1998; Naked London, 2000), present volunteers in matter-of-fact, naturalistic diptychs, the clothed „publicš persona on one side, the naked „privateš on the other. The subject matter of his collection „Mattressš (2002) eerily echoes Bellocq‚s own: naked women, posed on a mattress. The nudity in the „Mattressš photographs is disarming, the direct stares of the models empowering and undeniably modern, the psychologies behind the women‚s eyes as inscrutable as those in Bellocq‚s work. Perceptive gallery owner John Stinson paired the work of Bellocq and Friedlerų„Together for the First Time,š bragged the publicityųto profound effect, the photographs resonating across a room (and across the eighty-odd years that separates them).

Friedler, who recently returned to New Orleans from an extended stay in New York, originally had intended to follow up his „Naked Cityš books with a Naked New Orleans sequel, but met resistance. Aside from sex-industry workers and tattoo artists, Friedler couldn‚t get enough „ordinaryš New Orleanians to participate; unsurprisingly, the public nudity so often on display in the City appears to be more of a tourist phenomenon than a local one. For Friedler, though, this obstacle may mean a change of approach rather than a shift away from his naked muse: his plans for the future include a possible photo session with the dancers at Big Daddy‚s on Bourbon Street, the strip joint most tourists recognize from the pair of artificial legs swinging mechanically through the façade of the building, located about four blocks east of where E.J. Bellocq hauled his camera from whorehouse to whorehouse in search of his muse.

NOTES

1. For an appropriate soundtrack to this essay, I‚d recommend Ronnie Magri and His New Orleans Jazz Band‚s CD Shim Sham Revue, The Naked Orchestra‚s CD Brief Repairs on the Gradually Unraveling Spool in the Sense Continuum and „Our Call of the Freaksš from The New Leviathan Oriental Fox-Trot Orchestra‚s CD Here Comes the Hot Tamale Man, for starters.

2. Living in a tourist town forces artists to weigh their aesthetics against those of an ever-changing audience (i.e., the tourists). New Orleans has its idiosyncrasies as a tourist townųit‚s the visitors to the city and not the locals, for instance, who are most likely to seek out, and in turn become, naked entertainment.

3. Greg Friedler, Naked New York (W.W. Norton, 1997): 5-6.

The SophistiCats and SophistiKittens are at Harrah‚s Casino in New Orleans November 15. „Burning Sands: The New Leviathan Oriental Fox-Trot Orchestra Goes to Warš is out now from Camelback Records. Julie Crozat has work at Barrister‚s Gallery through the spring of ő04; The Emperor Has No Pants is on view in the Saltline Biennial at the Mobile Museum of Art until November 30. Robyn Menzel, from the Space Gallery, will appear on „Wheel of Fortuneš on December 1.

PHIL OPPENHEIM is a television executive, recovering academic and lousy ukulele player. He is working on a study of the Bellocq tradition as manifested in reputable and disreputable literature, film, performance and art.

 

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