Even in a feminism-conscious world, an exhibit of art works depicting the female form, mostly unclothed, might not cause any eyebrows to rise in surprise. But a gallery show focusing on images of males, mostly unclothed — that could give some folks pause.
"Man, Image, Idea: Photographs of Men from the Mark Rice Collection," which opens Wednesday in the Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is likely to stir conversation. That this sampling of male photography contains a section organized under the theme of intimacy, seduction and arousal can't help but add a distinctive dimension to the discourse.
"We are not used to seeing the nude male figure and facing all the complex things that can be associated with that," says curator and UMBC professor James Smalls. "I think this exhibit is going to help people put everything into context."
The issue of context also interests Emily Hauver, curator of exhibitions at the library.
"We are taught from an early age to see the female body form as artistic and to look at the image in that way," she says. "It is culturally more accepted. The male nude, or even semi-nude, image is potentially more difficult for viewers. The reaction of viewers is less predictable."
UMBC officials had no qualms about displaying the collection, Hauver says, and do not expect controversy.
Artists once had less trouble over male bodies — witness Greek and Roman statuary, the seductive paintings of Caravaggio, and much more.
The UMBC exhibit contains several particularly striking pieces that reference those olden days, including an untitled work from 1992 by Toni Catany of a male nude in a position that recalls the famous Hellenistic sculpture known as the Dying Gaul.
Fran Beaufrand's almost cheeky "Yo Heroe" from 1986 shows a muscular, swim cap-wearing nude male in a statue-like pose (no fig leaf, of course).
And "Adam," a color-rich photo from 1991 by Jose Villarrubia (one of a couple Baltimore artists included in the show), manages to be at once formally beautiful and just a little kitschy. A naked, muscled man holds an apple with one hand, while covering his crotch — a la Eve in so many Renaissance paintings — with the other. The addition of a flowery border provides a witty finishing touch to the image.
The 60-plus primarily black-and-white items in the exhibit represent the work of about three dozen, mostly male photographic artists. (An exception is Baltimore's Connie Imboden, whose individualistic treatment of nudes involves surreal, multilayered textures.) The pieces date from the 1980s and '90s.
"With male nudes of that period, you automatically think of AIDS and HIV," Smalls says. "That context is certainly there. A lot of people may think, 'Oh, this will be a very pessimistic exhibit,' but that's absolutely not the case. The works allude to things that everyone experiences."
The photographs are drawn from more than 80 donated to the Special Collections at the Kuhn Library in 1998. They were part a personal collection displayed in the home that Mark Rice shared with his partner, Ken Kohn, who died of complications from AIDS in 1994. (Rice, who lives in California, is the subject of a portrait by Reed Massengill included in the exhibit.)
Among the most haunting works in the display are two by John Patrick Dugdale, who went nearly blind from an HIV-related illness in the early '90s. He continued to work with the help of friends, and turned to 19th-century photography techniques that yielded poetic images bathed in a kind of haze. Framed with antique glass, the images here have a certain timeless quality that speaks as much to loss as to holding on to what's left.
"I like that the collection contains known and not-so-well-known artists," says Smalls, author of the books "Homosexuality in Art" and "The Homoerotic Photography of Carl Van Vechten." "The collector chose photos that are aesthetically very pleasing. And a lot of them are very thought-provoking. You can stand in front of them and imagine a narrative and a counter-narrative."
One group of pieces, pulled together under the heading "The Allegorical/Metaphorical Body," proves especially intriguing.
A pair of photos by Frank Yamrus — "From Grace" and "R.J. Bronze" — depict figures who appear to be withdrawing, one squatting, his head concealed by his hands; the other bent over, hands grasping at a bald head. The images speak to pain or shame. Also in this group, Bobby Coleman's "Allegory" boldly evokes the Crucifixion. Warren O. Fletcher's "Kudzu Fetish," showing a nude black male surrounded by the invasive plant, raises issues of race and sexuality in subtly powerful fashion.
Those issues are confronted head-on in another section of the show, "The Black and Beautiful Body," which contains works that combine poetry and eroticism.
The same could be said of the intimacy portion of the exhibit. Some photos are remarkably gentle, notably Jim Long's "Bowing to the Light" and a beautifully shaded untitled work by Frank Parsley showing a nude man engaged in the humdrum task of ironing.
David Ausman's "For a Quarter I Will," a disarming portrait of a young hustler, and Jim Long's tiny and beguilingly composed "I Pay to Stand Close to Them" rely on nothing but suggestiveness. Things get a bit more explicit in a few cases, though with no loss of artistic sensibility.
"People often ask what makes this art versus what they think of as pornography," Smalls says. "They think there is an absolute definition of both. But having only one meaning for things doesn't work."
If you go
"Man, Image, Idea: Photographs of Men from the Mark Rice Collection" opens Wednesday and runs through Dec. 12 at the Albin O. Kuhn Library & Gallery, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, 1000 Hilltop Circle. Free. Exhibit curator James Smalls will give a talk on "The Mark Rice Collection and the Homo-Erotics of Photography after Stonewall" at 4 p.m. Dec. 7. For more information, go to artscalendar.umbc.edu.