Safe Sex

By saratemporary January 1, 2004

In every culture and at every time, there’s always been an appreciation for renderings of the female figure. In Western culture, following the curvaceous line from Botticelli’s Birth of Venus to Hugh Hefner’s Playboy bunnies takes us through the playful yet provocative world of the pin-up.

If you can get a copy of The Great American Pin-Up by Charles Martignette and Louis K. Meisel, you’ll be staggered by the abundance and the artistry of pin-up illustrations over the 20th century. Failing that, you can see plenty of examples from the pair’s collection at this month’s show at Selby Gallery at Ringling School of Art and Design.

Gallery director Kevin Dean thought the time was right for an examination of the place of pin-up art in the high-low culture spectrum, particularly in these post- feminist times. All of the pieces on view are paintings, not photographs; and none are of the raunchy variety you might find on an Internet search. Rather, there’s often a certain posed innocence in the works, done by such celebrated practitioners as Vargas, Gil Elvgren, Al Buell and Joyce Ballantyne (yes, women painted pin-ups, too). You can compare the originals to “serious” works by artists such as Mel Ramos that explore sex in advertising and within our culture.

On tool calendars, in film magazines, and accompanying works of pulp fiction, the pin-up conformed to certain genres (beauties in nautical or holiday attire, with pets, happily poised on swings, and, of course, startled by “accidental” breezes that revealed skimpy panties). They also celebrated a carefree, slightly naughty American spirit (these girls were often what the boys overseas were fighting for), and gave a small army of illustrators regular work. Today, pin-ups evoke nostalgia for some viewers and will cause others to debate changing views of women and sexuality. Whatever camp you’re in, you can see Safe Sex: The History of the Great American Pin-Up Jan. 9 through Feb. 11. 

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