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'Body Familiar' lays bare the allure of the nude

WINCHESTER -- We are what we wear, and that's especially true when we wear nothing at all. Is it any wonder that the nude is the oldest artistic genre? The first rendered landscape was the landscape of the human body, the first still life the immobilizing of flesh in stone or on wall. Think of the Venus of Willendorf as muse as well as art object.

No less than sculpture or painting, photography has been drawn to the unclothed human body. The camera has presented the nude erotically, clinically, abstractly, sculpturally, even geologically -- sometimes all those at once, as in the later work of Bill Brandt.

That the nude belongs to such a great and enduring tradition poses problems. How to refresh so traditional a tradition? How to keep new the most venerable of genres? Those questions are especially vexing for photographers, who tread water atop an image glut of oceanic scale. All rivers run to the sea, and all magazines, video, digital imagery, and much more besides inundate the collective visual unconscious.

It's this tension between tradition and innovation, the longstanding and the novel, that informs ''The Body Familiar: Current Perspectives of the Nude," which runs at the Griffin Museum of Photography through March 19. Comprising 66 images, it presents nine photographers offering nine very different ways of looking at the human form.

A glaring falsehood sustains the nude as a genre: that the human body is commonly beautiful. That there are beautiful human bodies is certainly the case, as Hollywood and Madison Avenue ceaselessly remind us to their great profit. Alas, a quick look in a full-length mirror will usually bear out that those bodies are glorious exception rather than humdrum rule.

John Coplans's photography confronts that falsehood, imposingly, forthrightly, and, of course, not at all attractively. Coplans, who died in 2003, spent two decades photographing his aged, naked body in minute, oversize detail: a monumentalizing, if not celebration, of wrinkles, sags, and general decay.

Coplans's three large-format triptychs are worlds away from Charles Cohen's 24 images, many snapshot size. He has taken pornographic images from the Web and then, in a sense, desexed them. The naked woman who invariably is at the center of each becomes a white cutout. These denuded nudes look like two-dimensional George Segal sculptures -- an amusing enough conceit, but not much more. Robert Flynt, by contrast, superimposes rather than removes, placing his own images over found images. The muffled, gauzy results don't so much allude to Pictorialism as wanly ape it.

Blue defines Kenro Izu's work as white does Cohen's. The color comes from Izu's employing an elaborate printing process that involves cyanotype. His nudes swim in a sea of blue -- or, rather, drown in it. His etherealization of flesh creates an exquisite murk: stylization taken to the point of illegibility. They markedly contrast with Gary Schneider's trio of full-frontal color nudes. If Izu's people can hardly be seen, Schneider's can hardly be avoided. They're like cartoon cutouts, big, blunt, and assertive -- studies for a Francis Bacon portrait before the brush strokes get applied.

Implicit in every nude is this question: At what point does liberation become transgression (and vice versa)? Liberation is central to the work of Mona Kuhn, who shoots friends as they summer at a naturist colony in France. With sun-splashed self-satisfaction, her subjects watch Kuhn watching them watching her. These people are fully clothed in their skins. Easeful and lingering, they inhabit a Club Med version of Bonnard's paradisiacal canvases. It's a funny kind of paradise, though: The overall effect is slightly creepy.

The dreamy cabana calm of Kuhn's pictures notwithstanding, sex is never far away from the nude, as Vee Speers well knows. This Australian-born photographer prefers transgression to liberation. She also likes evocation. Her transgressively titled ''Bordello" series evokes Brassai's great '30s documentation of the Paris demimonde. There are also reminders of Helmut Newton and Paul Outerbridge, for Speers portrays a nudity of appurtenances: peignoirs, mirrors, masks. Kinks are being worked out here -- or not.

Most of the photographers in ''The Body Familiar" use color. Henry Horenstein's six images are all in a particularly gorgeous black and white. He puts on display a geography of the body -- a breast, buttocks, a few pubic hairs, eyelashes, a voluptuous curve of haunch -- elemental and wholly divorced from context.

By contrast, Elinor Carucci's work is all about context -- the most elemental context of all, family. With utter and winning matter-of-factness, she photographs herself nude: with her husband in bed, with her sister in the tub. She also photographs another family member by herself, as demonstrated by an image that bears one of the all-time great self-explanatory titles: ''Mom Takes a Bath."

Mark Feeney can be reached at

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