“Hips Don’t Lie” at the Asian Art Museum (San Francisco)

I’m happy to be able to share with you, this review by my good friend, and fellow CSA Western Region board member, Brenna Barks. She recently visited the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco to hear “HIps Don’t Lie — GORGEOUS Idea Talk” by Nicole Archer, a fellow CSA member, as a part of a CSA Western Region meet-up. . The talk is part of programming support for the current exhibition, Gorgeous (on view through September 14). Brenna kindly agreed to write up her thoughts for Fashion Historia:

Hips Don’t Lie – GORGEOUS Idea Talk by Nicole Archer

The first piece Nicole Archer led the group to in the GORGEOUS galleries for her talk, ‘Hips Don’t Lie’, was Gerhard Richter’s 1991 piece, Spiegel, blutrut (Blood Red Mirror). It was an unexpected first piece to examine, and with it, Nicole masterfully set the tone for the entire talk.

I had noticed the piece during my quick walk-through prior to the talk and had admired it for the color and for the power of such a rich color on such a large, stark piece. But I was in a bit of a hurry because I didn’t want to miss the start of the talk so I didn’t have time to notice what Nicole pointed out: the piece’s reflective properties. Oil painted on glass, Spiegel, blutrut is naturally reflective and for a talk that focused on posture, body language, and how we use both to communicate and relate not just with ourselves and each other, but with the art objects we encounter, the first “image” Nicole confronted us with was ourselves.

This forced us to examine how we were standing and carrying ourselves, and enabled Nicole to introduce the major tenet of her talk, best summarized by a Nietzsche quote she shared with us: “There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy.” Our bodies know as much about figurative art – and non-figurative art, we would learn – as our minds do.

Nicole then discussed the hip line and its use throughout art history and across various cultures. Starting with the ancient Etruscan kore statues and the statuary of ancient Egypt, there is a firm, stiff posture with the hips straight and parallel which establishes one’s presence, or gives one a dominating, determined, confident (if static) air. This was followed by the ancient Greek s-curve and the contro posto poses; each of these stances adds a sensuality and a movement to the body that the initial posture does not have.

This was best illustrated by Nicole through Narkissos (1976 – 1991), a collage drawing by San Francisco artist, Jess which features a self-portrait of the artist in the composition in the more sensual s-curve posture, with another male figure in the background in the firmer, straight-hipped, kore-style stance. The contrast between firmness and softness in stance, between strong confidence and a gentle sensuality emphasized the artwork’s main theme: exploration and celebration of male, homosexual desire. As Nicole stated through her use of the Nietzsche quote at the start of the talk, my body “knew” what the difference in those postures meant and I had read the difference almost subconsciously; by viewing the work through the lens of Nicole’s thesis and expertise, and hearing and participating in the discussion with my fellow attendees, this difference was brought to the surface and for me added even more depth to an already exquisite piece.

I was not alone in my revelations. While gathered around a sketch by Tom of Finland, as various people examined the figures’ postures and connected with them physically through mimicking their poses (some only mentally, some physically), there were multiple and all equally interesting and accurate interpretations of what the two men in the sketch were doing: they were subtly checking out each others behinds, they were establishing who was the dominant and who was the less dominant person in this exchange, they were posturing for a third person observing them, and so on.

While examining the comedic Laughing Nude by John Currin (1998), one young man pointed out that the hands of the woman depicted were not graceful, but – through illustrating with his own hands – rather awkward, and that their depiction was almost masculine. This meant that Currin’s Nude was not only a parody of the distorted nudes and female figures found in most Northern Renaissance paintings, but also perhaps a parody of contemporary nudes, which tend to over-emphasize an ideal of grace and delicacy.

That so many people felt comfortable speaking aloud can only be credited to Nicole. Her ability to engage with her audience, and her style of delivery were nothing short of masterful. With or without any artistic knowledge, Nicole emphasized that since we all have bodies, we can all relate to these artworks, and that no way we relate is wrong. People felt confident and comfortable enough to speak, even though surrounded by a large group of strangers in a very public setting, something I’ve never seen before. She was also very engaging, miming actions – such as the impossibility of “strutting” while maintaining a straight-hipped, kore-style stance – explaining things quickly and succinctly, making us laugh, and genuinely listening to anyone who spoke, welcoming new insights and perspectives.

Movement was as much a theme as posture. Comparing a Japanese triptych of Three Types of Edo Beauties, wrapped in their kimono with the static nature of a Noh robe hanging in a case, Nicole perhaps intentionally echoed a statement of Lou Taylor’s: that recreating the dynamism of movement in clothing can never quite be achieved in a museum or gallery setting, a living, moving body is required to give the clothing life. As Nicole illustrated, our stance indicates what movements are possible as much as what we are doing and where we are indicates the style of movement. “Why don’t we strut in galleries?” she asked. Contrasted with the performance by Phonique and other performance artists happening in the museum at the same time, it was a very thought-provoking question. It was not suggesting that we necessarily should strut, but it brought to the forefront of our minds how different situations and their different etiquette’s dictate our bodily stances and movement.

By the end of the talk through the gallery, Nicole had brought our attention to movement even in artworks that were not human: the curves of a Balinese dagger and the swaying, beaded curtain of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Golden) each had their own movement and a sensuality which mimicked the s-curve of so many of the figures we had examined. Nicole also brought attention to the curators’ expertise in this exhibition by highlighting juxtaposing pieces that might seem unrelated at first, until you examine the poses and stances the art depicts – even between “realistic” photographs, and cubist portraits.

After this wonderful, insightful talk, which felt more like a private class than a lecture, I don’t think I will be completely unaware of my own stance and body language in a museum or gallery for a long time to come.

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