Rodolfo Villaplana The Naked And The Nude New MOCA London Exhibition

The young Venezuelan painter, Rodolfo Villaplana, aims to create a synthesis of abstraction and naturalistic figuration.  A big ask, you might think? He shows us an abstract, colored space against which float naturalistic banana skins and plastic cups; then naked men and naked women.

At first the subject matter doesn’t matter.  But on reflection, it does – a leather armchair is not the same as bare flesh; a bunch of bananas is not the same as erect nipples or a stiff phallus.

If we see a painting of a naked woman by Lucian Freud (splayed out like a piece of Francis-Bacon-meat) then we feel the tension of what it means for a male artist to look at a female model.  And when a male artist turns his gaze onto other men, then the tension builds.  Male artists (who are not same sex lovers) generally do not gaze at other men, still less if they are nude.  As it happens, Freud did: he looked at their penises and forced the viewer to do the same.  Many viewers snigger, giggle or blush when viewing Nude with Leg Up (Leigh Bowery), but not so at the open labia of Freud’s paintings of his wife, daughters or female models. Exposing the penis exposes the patriarchy.

Admittedly, Lucien Freud was less interested in the critique of power (although he was surely aware of it) than in the critique of flesh, the meat-wrap that holds a person together. Freud sliced like a surgeon through the flesh to the core, to expose the person beneath. He painted his subjects naked in order to expose them more completely.

Notwithstanding that Freud’s project was uninterested in the patriarchy, the patriarchy was interested in him – indeed, in anyone that might attempt to emasculate masculinity.  By contrast, Bacon also often painted his male subjects in the nude – but they were often his same-sex lovers (Peter Lacy, George Dyer) and consequently he occupies a lower place in the patriarchal queue than Freud.  Freud looked at a penis and painted it, but did not desire it; for Bacon it was another matter.  He was regarded as a fag in his day and it is only long after his death that his predilections are being sanctified by the forgetfulness of the art world establishment.  Similarly Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns have been denuded of same-sex desire by auction houses and museums anxious to place a ‘heterosexual filter’ in front of their lives and works in order to make them sell better to new collectors in countries where homosexuality is condemned or outlawed.  Works by faggots don’t do well in Russia, Qatar, Dubai and other ‘emerging’ markets. Even Warhol, perhaps the biggest faggot of the Twentieth Century (Rauschenberg did not like Warhol, stating he was too obviously gay and could not pass as “straight” like he and Johns), has been described as ‘asexual’ by many American museums. This has outraged the artist John Giorno, Warhol’s former lover. Giorno has said there was nothing asexual about their relationship.

Against this cultural and economic background, one cannot look at Villapalna’s  The Drowned without being aware of the man’s large erection, or his startling and staring blue eyes, and not ask: is Villaplana a Freudian or a Baconite?

The Other Origin of the World, like the Gustave Courbet’s original (L’Origine du monde, 1866) focuses on the genitals: but here we see the man’s face as well as his erection whereas Courbet gave us only a view between a woman’s legs.

Recently Deborah de Robertis, a performance artist, sat underneath Courbet’s painting at the Musée d’Orsay and performed her Mirror of Origin (Paris, May 29, 2014). She exposed her own vagina to the consternation of the French officials, and the museum has even filed complaints against her. While the painted image of a nude or naked woman is acceptable to the patriarchy, the real thing answering back is not, – especially if a female artist demands that the gaze be foregrounded and recorded as such. Men can ogle naked women online in porn and in paint, but Robertis reminds us that the focus of that gaze actually exists and can look back.  Like Villaplana’s model. He too with his gaze questions the motives of the artist and the viewer. It is as if his eyes accuse the viewer: does your gaze wound me; what are you looking at?

Villaplana leaves those questions unanswered and when he turns his eye to female models we sometimes see a hint of their origin as in Ashley and other times the model hides her virtue (Siberian). Yet as modern women who either know the artist or are known to him and his sexuality, their nudity is somehow not a pictorial question. They appear nude, not naked, like the men. Villaplana even shows himself naked in Self-portrait with palette which more-than-a-little echoes Painter Working, Reflection (1993) by Freud, who also presents his brush and penis to the viewer for consideration. So what is Villaplana working towards? What does he want us to see in all that floating flesh, often seen with bits cut off by the frame of the painting, a missing leg here, a foot or arm there?

He has stated that the push-pull of the frame, the slippage of the image within the abstract and the realistic are at the core of his vision.  But I think he may be a bit coy.

His works demand the viewer, male or female, question the patriarchal male gaze – but also their own. In a world of 24/7 porn availability, where the human body, erect or flaccid, is there for all to see, we find ourselves with our ancient forefathers. Not only were the classical Greeks blessed by warm weather and fit bodies, but a disturbing belief (to the modern mind) that sports should be performed in the nude. People often saw the naked body – it was in their art; their public sculptures; their private dishware (wine in black and red earthenware decorated with nude figures was the norm). There has always been homosocial nudity in the army and the sports locker room, but men who like to look at each other’s naked bodies have only recently been able to express that desire and make images for each other (and others) where this gaze, this inward gaze, this male gaze on the male body, has so openly surfaced.

And it disrupts the patriarchy as much as women gazing back or exposing their sexual organs to question men’s right to have control over them.

Villaplana usually works from a live model but some works are made from photographs and perhaps the one that best represents repression, male gaze and corruption is his huge (over 3 meter tall) painting Ratzinger Revisited.  This former grand inquisitor of the Roman Church clasps his bejeweled hands together in a sort of clothed reverie. The image is familiar from many televisual and print presentations and while it might be more of a caricature than a portrait, it certainly shows in its scale how much Villaplana (from a Catholic Country) has felt the hand of religious and male oppression.

He is a young artist and in slaying the dragons of his past, both his artistic and religious fathers, so to speak, he frees himself to attempt even more difficult works.

He is one to gaze upon with interest.

Venue: 20th Century Theatre, 291 Westbourne Grove, London W11 2QA

Words: Michael Petry, 2014 Image Rodolfo Villaplana ©2014

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