Their Bare Feet Gives Them Away: Gary Mitchell at Gallerie Zaum

There is something about a nude body that makes us want to look. All bodies are different, unique in their own way. We all have feelings about our own bodies when we look at ourselves naked in the mirror—whether we love the way we look, feel dissatisfaction or just avoid it all together. It’s interesting to look at a nude painting or a photograph—to see the expression on the model’s face—that level of exhibitionism is something most of us can’t imagine. Perhaps it’s not exhibitionism, and the artist is capturing a private moment, turning the viewer into a voyeur. Then there is how we feel looking at someone else’s naked body. How we have been taught to think about nudity, and its relationship to desire.

Gallerie Zaum’s current exhibition, Body of Work: Photographs by Gary Mitchell, explores the complex world of nude photography. The work featured in the show is primarily black and white. Mitchell enjoys playing with light and shadow, and works with the models to show off their bodies. Many of the images come from Mitchell’s series Industrial Disease. He photographs the models in rugged, rundown spaces, often surrounded by metal and broken down machines. This approach is somewhat derivative of fashion photography we started to see in the 80s and 90s. The juxtaposition of the women and their soft bodies with the hardness of the environment is startling. But what struck me more than anything, was their bare feet. One imagines broken glass, nails, maybe bits of wood scattered about the floor. Then you see their delicate bare feet. They seem in charge of their surroundings, but it’s like their feet gives them away—makes them look vulnerable. In a lot of ways this captures how I felt about the show.

Upon walking in, it’s a gallery, let’s look at some art. But then as you move through the show, it feels like something is just underneath the surface—something distasteful. This begs the question, who is the audience? Are these images meant for the male gaze? Are they meant to appeal to our inner-voyeur?

Mitchell has been doing nude photography almost exclusively since 2005. For the most part, there really aren’t any overtly provocative pictures in the exhibition, maybe one. But for me there is one huge sticking point that largely informs my opinion. The label on each photograph includes the model’s name and a quote from the photographer, often about the model. It’s a detail, but for me it changed the entire experience. When looking at the photographs I wanted to appreciate the lines of the figure, the light and the texture of the environment. I don’t need to know that the model’s name is Ana, or Stephanie or Sarah. There was one photograph that mentioned the model’s twin sister, and actually said, “Double the fun.” For me, this really took away from the images.

I’m not sure what Mitchell’s motivation was here, but based on how he talks about his photography, I believe he means to give the models the credit he feels they deserve. It is meant to personalize, but instead it depersonalizes—makes the women sound like pets. They become a collection of faces, of bodies.

If you’re going to build a show with female nudes, the choices you make as an artist are going to be of the utmost importance, and there is a fine line there. In this case, for me, that line was crossed.

– Laura Partridge

Body of Work is open now through April 30, 2011 at Gallerie Zaum in Newport, 811 Monmouth Street.


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