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Feminine Personae 

Venus and Mars. Guys and dolls. Bubbas and babes. Like day and night, masculine and feminine are more than just different modes; they're different moods, different contexts. Nudes have been around for as long as art has been around, but female nudes have been a favorite for artists of both genders, maybe because painting women is sort of like painting nature: both defy easy comprehension, and subtly shifting nuances can change everything.

That much is implicit in Jason DuMouchel's new Nudes, and while he's dealt with gender stuff before, this show heralds an evolution in his handling of both paint and subject matter. No less intense than in the past, his new figures, if still slightly twisted, are more subtle, with intriguing compositions and skin tones that hark to Lucian Freud and Egon Schiele while evoking a uniquely American amalgam of longing and angst. Think Desperate Housewives without all the campy melodrama. But there is also something New Orleans about them. Imagine your sexy but neurotic neighbor down the street lounging around in the buff on a hot, humid day in late May, a little hung over, contemplating ex-boyfriends and Prozac.

Body language is the key. Candied Apples (I'm not sold on these titles) is a matter-of-fact brunette lounging at an angle on a deep mauve easy chair. She's got one leg cocked up on the seat and an arm cocked akimbo against the back of her head, and she's wearing nothing but a matter-of-factly diffident expression as she gazes just past the viewer. With peaches-and-cream skin shadowed in venous blue, mauve and not-quite burnt umber, she may be contemplating how her youthful body will age, and why are guys such idiots, anyway?

In Do You Do the Astro? the woman and chair both seem of a slightly earlier vintage, and her pose is more blatantly sex-kittenish below a haughty facial expression that seems to say, "Yeah, I'm neurotic and twisted but I've still got great legs, and what's it to you, anyway?" In Orange Crush, it's the original arm chair again and a similar model, only this babe is a bit more fried, maybe from a long night, hanging her head over the arm of the chair with a look that says party girl ponders the meaning of life. Or maybe she's just trying to figure out what she can wear before having to make another trip to the laundry.

Tangled Up in Blue is a nude female duo, with arms and legs tangled up in each other like a knot no Boy Scout ever knew, and here they gaze at us with expressions that suggest how defiantly comfortable they are with this cozy arrangement, and if it makes anyone uneasy, "Hey, loosen up and get a life!," they seem to say. Not all are so eloquent; some look awkward or rushed, but this is DuMouchel's best showing to date, a quantum leap forward.

Performance artist Heather Weathers also knows a thing or two about feminine personae, leaving in her wake not only the residue of her performance pieces, but also reams of photographs of herself as various female characters. Not unlike the campy divas in her Louisiana Festival Queen Calendar, the beauty queens in this Narcissism Starts at Home show include icons such as Friendly Crawfish, in which a nude Weathers clutches dozens of boiled crawfish to her otherwise bare breasts, suggesting a bayou take on Botticelli's Birth of Venus. Included also are shots that may have been a tad too, um, piquant, for the calendar. In the front gallery hang precision scale models of fighter aircraft from the past century crafted from scratch by the artist's father, Joseph Weathers, along with photos of Ms. Weathers as a kid. What gives? Having survived a recent accident, it seems Ms. Weathers discovered that such reminders of mortality put one's values in perspective. So here we have family values, Heather Weathers style. And if this seems not quite coherent enough for easy comprehension, at least it's not the "family values" cliches the politicians bandy about these days, but something far more true to life precisely because it is far more eclectic.

click to enlarge This detail of Tangled Up in Blue, from Jason DuMouchel's best show to date, features a nude female duo all in a knot unrecognizable by the average Boy Scout.
  • This detail of Tangled Up in Blue, from Jason DuMouchel's best show to date, features a nude female duo all in a knot unrecognizable by the average Boy Scout.


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