Mr. Chatterbox

Mr. C Considers the Art of the Nude

This month: Mr. Chatterbox gets exposed to the art of the nude in a Ringling Museum exhibition.

By Bob Plunket July 29, 2016 Published in the August 2016 issue of Sarasota Magazine

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Image: Shutterstock

As a child in east Texas in the 1950s, I was fascinated by art museums. True, they could be a little boring and much of the stuff was old and not very interesting. But they had one thing nobody else had—pictures of naked people. How they were allowed to do this was beyond me. There was no taboo greater back in that time and place, and yet here was a building full of people with no clothes on. It was thrilling, mysterious and shameful all at the same time.

The net result of all this is that to this day, I’ll never turn down an art exhibit that promises nudity. So when I heard that The Ringling was having a show entitled Exposure: Naked Before the Lens, I put it at the top of my to-do list. I didn’t want to show up the first day, though; that sounded a little pathetic, like nerdy teenagers waiting in line for the new Star Wars movie. So I went the second day.

I was unexpectedly busy, and by the time I got to the museum I was cutting it close. I’d barely have an hour to look at naked people before I was due at the Toasted Mango.

I breezed through the visitor’s center, paying my $25, and then rushed out to the tram. It had just left so I walked through the 91-degree heat and humidity, arriving at the museum soaked in sweat but undeterred. In the Rubens Gallery a group tour was just getting underway. I skirted around them and proceeded down that vast, long corridor, from one gallery to the next, picking up the pace when I could see the naked-people gallery far in the distance.

A placard at the door warned of nudity ahead—always a good sign—and I burst into the room panting and out of breath and soaking wet. This was kind of embarrassing, as the room was completely empty except for a guard sitting on a stool staring at me.

As nonchalantly as possible, I sauntered over to the first photograph and pretended to study it. Where was everybody? I thought it would be a mob scene.

Feeling the guard’s eyes boring into my back, I moved slowly from photograph to photograph, trying to dry off and pull myself together.

There were basically three kinds of photographs. The first were the arty, abstract ones, where you can’t tell if it’s a woman or a pear. These don’t interest me. Yes, I realize that the human body is a beautiful, natural thing, but I would never, never go to an exhibit of pear photographs. To me nudity and sex are inextricably linked, and I want at least a hint of the prurient.

The next category was the presentational portrait—languid poses, simple props, lots of baby oil to reflect the light. These were OK. They included men and women. The women come across better than the men. There’s something about the male genitalia that complicates things. If it’s too big, you’re embarrassed. Sex has entered the picture—literally. If it’s too small, you feel sorry for the guy.

The third category is what I call “group casuals.” These are pictures of groups of ordinary people, some of whom happen to be naked. They’re usually doing commonplace things—having a family picnic, say, or being strip-searched in prison. These are my favorites. I love it when nudity has a situational context (a “story”) and is not just a nice body all dolled up to get its picture taken.

A few of the photographs actually do enter the realm of sex, albeit rather obliquely. There was a series of five or so pictures by Duane Michals that appear to show an angel entering someone’s bedroom while he’s taking a nap. What happens next is a little hard to figure out because the pictures are so small. You have to get up close and squint and study them. I was really getting into this until I heard the guard give a warning cough.

The exhibit was put together by Ringling curator Chris Jones, and he did a sensational job. Many of the photographs are from the extensive collection of Warren and Margot Coville, the couple from Bird Key who are big patrons of the museum. (He used to be part owner of the Detroit Pistons.) The selection is varied and thought-provoking (although I missed a Robert Mapplethorpe).

As I drove to the Toasted Mango, I realized there was something else missing, too: some acknowledgement that in the past several years nude photography has exploded and taken off in all sorts of new directions. There is so much nudity on the internet that it’s hard to ignore and impossible to get away from. Some of it is even art, in an edgy, profane sort of way. Best of all, it’s in color and in focus and can be found right in your pocket.

And what about the brave souls who allow themselves to be photographed nude? That used to be the line that no normal person would cross. It branded you as either a flaky exhibitionist or a moral reprobate.

Not anymore. Now celebrities use it as a smart career move, like Justin Bieber and those shots that “accidentally” got leaked. And look at Melania Trump. We may soon have a First Lady with nude photos all over the internet and people are accepting it as no big deal. Just think what nude photos of Mamie Eisenhower would have done to Ike’s career. It’s impossible to even wrap your mind around the concept.

And me! Yes, that’s right. A couple of weeks ago I got a text from Matt Orr (many of you remember him from when he lived here and was a high-profile young Michael Saunders realtor). Matt is now living in Los Angeles and working for AirBnB. The text was a picture of a man reclining on a Louis XIV couch with nothing on but a pair of socks. Matt wrote: “This looks like you 30 years ago.”

I studied it closely. It was me 30 years ago! Yes, somehow a nude picture of me has ended up on the internet.

I have no idea how it happened. I swear to God. I vaguely remember the evening and I certainly remember the couch. But who took the picture and how did it get posted online? That’s a mystery.    

Now, after seeing Exposure, I feel better about my own exposure. It’s kind of cool. I now share a certain kinship with the in crowd, people like Jennifer Lawrence, Shia LeBeouf, Colin Farrell, Rihanna and Anthony Weiner.

And best of all, it’s not a bad picture. I’m kind of hoping it goes viral. I exude a mature sort of youthfulness, with a tight stomach, a happy grin on my face, and…well, as Marco Rubio might put it, the most enormous pair of hands.

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