New Works

By Belle Wether

These male nudes are the first salvo of CornerPocket, whose tagline is "think outside the briefs". The nudes in question— and questioning is operative in this endeavor— are limited to the iconographically hazardous and profound area of their balls, which apparently have been the focus of large art in only off-world territories we have yet to encounter.

Large drawings of men's balls are not just a hoot or a hook, although their potential notoriety is acknowledged and will most certainly be used. They are a way of exploring issues of sensuality, gender, origin, and politics that are, in 2004, at stake for us all.

These new works are big, confronting, compelling, beautiful, ugly, and intense— sensuous, spilling into both mystery and fear, overwhelming and overwhelmingly detailed, as are my earlier body of flower drawings. The difference between drawing flowers and drawing balls is nominal. Both are genitalia.

Back last September, over a squalorous spread of barbeque and beer at a place in Syracuse called the Dinosaur, I was grumbling to a friend about what direction my art should take— it was getting more and more sensual, but I was feeling bored with flowers— and she suggested I just draw sex. "Why not do huge drawings of men's balls? You could call it Corner Pocket", she laughed. This thought stuck with me.

...why not? I thought— Equal time! What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. You can find a small explosion of images of vulvas from the South End to the Whitney, all done by men, with the exception of Judy Chicago whose lead no woman seems to have inherited. So I coaxed my husband into being my first model (this was really arduous— he would lie down on the bed, spread his legs, and start snoring after a few minutes... I would be bending over him with a magnifying glass and a spotlight...)

From a contextual viewpoint, I am addressing the gap in the portrayal of the male nude in Western art between the first quarter of the 19th century and the last part of the 20th century, when its revival has been sponsored largely by gay guys. Why this is so is of course an excellent question, one that I mean these drawings to raise. Another good question revolves around current depictions of male nudes, which address almost exclusively the formal and stylistic, and emerged as personal images for private collectors. They do not address what was essential to classical / neoclassical male nudes: the representation (in effect, the "suit") of heroism, patriarchal values, republicanism, civic virtue, moral and ethical ideals (athleticism is the one exception); nor are they embedded in a narrative; nor do they make use of history. Why? Also, the gaze that looks at classical male nudes is different— it was designed for men, for homo-social societies that permitted a finely balanced culturally-sanctioned desirability of men, in a way we would now think homo-erotic. How they didn't, or how they did but in a complex, hidden way is another interesting question that my drawings are a starting point for discussing. Who looks at male nudes now?

Now the gaze may come from gay guys, and more recently from women developing the female sex-positive movement. This of course includes tons of pornography of men for men and, more recently, for women. The sensuality and beauty of male bodies is barricaded from popular consumption, perhaps, because of these associations, despite major museum shows of Cadmus, George Platt Lynes, Mapplethorpe, Lucian Freud and so on.

What do balls mean? I think big drawings dissolve the identity of something relatively small and say "Look! What is this?" causing viewers to question their relationship to what is viewed— are they a visitor, an inhabitant, a participant, an author? I have chosen to draw balls instead of drawing pricks because we think we know what the iconography of pricks is. We aren't so sure about balls. What is the nature of the sensual (as in everything from Georges Bataille to Abigail Solomon-Godeau to Susie Bright to Sweet Action, the new women's porn mag)? What is considered manly, or male, or masculine, all of which may differ in this age of gender assignment? What, therefore, is womanly, feminine, or female?

Why is looking at naked women O.K., to the point where bare boobs are now commonplace in even US fashion mags? Female nudes are ubiquitous— from delicate photos in restaurants to fifties pin-up girls they are Decorative Art Lite (and both Ashcroft's pieties and Janet's SuperBowl shenanigans are interesting comments on this). But homophobia in a society where homo-sociality has been eroded by feminism and probably modern capitalism (the "suit" with a capital S— for capitalism, at bottom, comes down to the conflict between transparency and concealment...) prevents any real acceptance of images of naked men. What does it mean to treat either as objects, and how does this verge on the commodification of bodies? Why is a distinction drawn between being naked and being nude?

And finally, what do genitals have to do with sex? Why are the genitals of the plant world fine for the dinner table, the lobby, the piano, etc? —In the relationship of sex to myth and worship, to death and to eroticism and politics, to underlying assumptions of the cult of American heterosexuality grounded in reproductive sex as the acceptable norm, genitals are the doorway to antipathies, to alliances, to the unsuspected: to what Bataille calls "a zone of nothingness we have to cross— without which beauty lacks the suspended, risked aspect that brings about our damnation. Attractive, voluptuous nakedness finally triumphs when defilement causes us to risk ourselves..." When nakedness fails, it is because it remains only the sign of defilement— an object of greed, an object for sale, a price tag.

May 1, 2004