Erotic Body as Text show finishes at RNG Gallery Even the most prudish of viewers will tolerate the occasional nude in art; that is, as long as it is properly ensconced in a proper museum. That said, past and current staff at the Joslyn Art Museum could regale readers with tales of offended viewers who first encountered the idealized but sensual “Return of Spring” by 19th century painter William Adolphe Bouguereau. While bluenoses are a minority, it’s also safe to say that the more overt erotic art is clearly not everyone’s cup of glee. Even the most sophisticated and liberal viewer may respond to erotica’s flirtation with pornography with a blasé and dismissive “I’ve seen it all before.” Well, maybe. Yet erotic art isn’t going away; it resurfaces occasionally, even in Omaha, to arouse curiosity and test the boundaries of art and public taste. The city’s enjoyed this more uninhibited art previously, but it has been some time, and it was usually exhibited two flights up the rickety stairs of the dark, dank and now defunct Antiquarian bookstore. Somehow, the ambiance and content seemed to fit. But lately, erotica enjoys renewed respectability in such varied venues as Nomad Lounge, Polyester Gallery and the area’s edgiest space, the RNG Gallery, with its mix of local, national and international artists who enjoy pushing the envelope. Most recently, erotic art came out of the attic and onto center stage at RNG with the popular group show, Body as Text. This exhibit features 12 area artists, six men and six women, who’ve demonstrated a commitment to the human form as an aesthetic in paintings, drawings and photography, according to the show’s curator, photographer Larry Ferguson. Adding to Body as Text’s credibility and celebrity is its connection to Omaha’s sixth annual Lit Fest. Though the fest ended Sept. 11, Ferguson and writers/models Karen Bowerman and Sally Deskins (a Reader contributor) organized Undressed/Untold, a performance of erotic readings by nude models featuring the work of Timothy Schaffert, Tim Siragusa, Bowerman, and Deskins, among others. Body as Text complements the performance within the letter and context of the erotic intent. And it does so with relative intelligence, taste and titillation. As varied as erotic art is, its common ground is sexuality. Body as Text delivers it explicitly and implicitly with varying degrees of creative success. A sign on a discreet screen separating the gallery from its connection to Dixie Quicks restaurant cautions those under 18 from entering, as well as anyone offended by erotic material, and it is warranted. But in no way is this show obscene or hardcore. In fact, many pieces are quite subtle and sophisticated; and ironically, some of the more blatant nudes the least sexy. This is particularly true of the photography of Ferguson and his intern/assistant, Nancy Dobler. Dobler’s gelatin silver prints of largely bare torsos are homage to the human form. The cropping of individual faces and the layering of arms and legs add to their sculptural beauty. Barely erotic or erotic barely, one notices instead the careful attention to tone, lighting and composition. Equally idealized despite in-your-face audacity are Ferguson’s extreme close-ups of male and female genitalia from his Pudenda series. What keeps these photos from a mere anatomy lesson is the undeniable uniqueness of a part of the body most people see only in a mirror and seldom with a frame around it. Complementing these frank studies is the artist’s signature pristine, high contrast visual style. Compared to the studied, professional approach of the latter, Deskins’ nude self-portraits are casual and refreshing. They are the candids to Ferguson’s and Dobler’s still lifes and each seems to say, “I’m okay with myself and my world, are you with yours?” A “rear view” with the artist looking back over her shoulder is especially fetching. The first gallery space also highlights two pairs of sharply different drawings and paintings. In the first, Tafadzwa Ndoda’s super realistic charcoal nude drawings that focus only on part of the anatomy contrast with William Holland’s contour mixed media of amputees in the nude. The former are remarkably detailed but oddly detached in POV while the latter are startling and empathetic. The second pairing includes the highly entertaining and engaging charcoal, graphite and watercolor illustrations of Watie White and the disturbing, psychosexual oils on canvas of John Miller. White continues his variations on classical and modern styles and genres, this time in poster size renderings of pulp fiction book covers. White is having a lot of fun with this as his tawdry scenarios blare such come-on’s as “He Takes What He Needs,” in this case the leggy, red-haired wench waiting in the wings. White’s washed out palette is an apt aesthetic for the cheap literary thrills waiting between the covers. Meanwhile, Miller has been down this ’60s/’70s road before, but of particular interest is his “La Dee Dada,” an after the fall, post-paradise view of Adam and Eve with three Puritan ships on the horizon, all in garish, neon hues and light. An additional pairing, in two separate galleries, are the seemingly companion pieces of Wanda Ewing and Dana Rose who some might see in a mentor (Ewing)/intern (Rose) connection. Both incorporate erotic images in relief on a carved background. Ewing’s are appropriated and served on wood, while Rose’s more personal self-pinups are painted on cardboard. Overall their work is more experimental than finished. Which brings us to the astonishing and disturbing imagery of Rebecca Herskovitz’s three oils on canvas, the most accomplished work in Body as Text. Continuing her exploration of the complexity of erotica as first seen in her earlier Bemis Underground exhibit, Herskovitz offers three large paintings of very naked women in the throes of pleasuring themselves. Though the act is the same, their eyes tell a different story which belies any temptation to label this as simple porn. The first woman is oblivious to all but her climax, the second looks weary and frustrated and the third swollen with desire, eager to please, both herself and her viewer, getting off on her own exhibition as much as the sex. It’s arousing, provocative work, and in its way, a statement for the show itself as its “texts” illustrate society’s multiple response to erotica’s right to free expression and its consequences. Body as Text continues through Oct. 10, at RNG Gallery, 1915 Leavenworth St. Call 346.3549 for details.

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