The Civil Body, Part 1: Jim Rose, Chippendale’s & Fine Art
This is Part 1 of 3 in a series originally written in an academic setting. The series discusses sex and death explicitly and may be offensive or upsetting to certain readers.
Texas Penal Code 43.23: A person commits an offense if, knowing its content and character, he wholesale promotes or possesses with intent to wholesale promote any obscene material or obscene device.
Texas obscenity laws are extraordinarily vague, and my dear hometown loves to enforce them at will and with a vigorous enthusiasm. Lubbock is legendary for shutting down performances of anything deemed too sexy or sexually explicit. In 2007, Chippendale's Male Revue was terminated mid-show by police and eight dancers were arrested for "moving in ways to arouse those in the crowd."
A decade earlier, two Mexican drag-queen wrestlers were arrested in Lubbock for performing an act on stage which included simulated sex with dildos. The goal of the match was to pin your opponent and stick the dildo in their mouth. Lubbock Police Department did not find that charming at all. The wrestlers were part of Jim Rose’s Circus, a traveling freak/shock show, which had gotten famous performing this act and many others like it during Lollapalooza. The incident, and Lubbock, made MTV news, which in 1997 was still an authority on pop culture.
Just 13 years ago, Lubbock police officers raided a sex shop for stocking more than six dildos at a time. Six is the legal limit in Texas, so be advised. I know of an individual who was charged for having that many in his backpack. He had gotten pulled over in Lubbock and foolishly consented to a search. He had, among other paraphernalia, a dozen or so sex toys, pornographic magazines and, my personal favorite: a double dong.
He had been en route to pick his girlfriend up from jail, and I suppose this was his way to celebrate. His attorney had prepared to challenge the statute’s constitutionality, but dropped his case and his client. The white substance also found in the backpack tested positive as meth, and no one wants to take a meth head into a courtroom. I'd love to believe that this type of hand-wringing prudishness could never be enforced on art, but art is inherently subjective. I think Jim Rose drag queen wrestler performances are art, but not many would agree with me.
Ghislaine Fremaux is known by her friends simply as Ghi, a stunning beauty with gently flowing hair. Her arched, inquisitive brows frame a symmetrical face with elegant bones beneath: an ideal anatomy. Her traditional beauty may be what some notice first, but the warmth of her aura can be felt through an entire room; she is a roaring fireplace of intellect, kind attentiveness, and acute observation. When you speak to her, she unconsciously tilts her head nearer her shoulder, as if to hear you better, and there is no doubt that she considers, processes and values every word she hears.
"Why do you leave certain parts of the body…I don’t want to say unfinished."
I asked that at a talk she gave upon the release of her body of work on geriatric individuals, entitled Skin of Years: Nudism and the Aging Body.
"I prefer to say that I leave them unrendered."
We spoke about it much later, over drinks, because I could not exactly remember what she said at the talk. I have a traumatized, scattered brain and fail to write these things down. I stated then my own theory, the unrendered "openings" suggest an inside, and the viewer must guess if this figure is hollow, or full of a real human's intimate insides - their wet and squishy guts.
Ghi nodded and smiled, letting me have my theory without confirming or denying it.
It was an obscenely hot West Texas July when Ghi's normally open-air studio was blocked off, preventing any incidental view from people walking by the row of studios. It also prevented any whisper of a breeze. Ghi explained to me, with that flowing hair damp at its roots with sweat, that she had, after many months, finally received a complaint.
A passerby of her studio space considered her work inappropriate and informed the larger venue of their opinion. Ghi acquiesced without a fight and was gracious in her suffering. In the extreme heat, she still attempted to get some work done on a new piece, sculpting human flesh from mere chalk dust.
Ghi's work is bodies and their parts, nude, unfiltered, and enormous - each body she renders a Colossus. Because of this, a viewer cannot help but consider their own body magnified in the extreme, 'warts and all,' and for the uptight or insecure it's a wiggly, uncomfortable feeling indeed. I believe this is what motivated the passerby to inflict their punishment on Ghi and the guests within her space.
This feels particularly unfair and misguided, as Ghi has happily subjected herself to extensive bioethics training, the same as any medical doctor or a research scientist should receive. Her work is inherently informed by an interdisciplinary and academic approach. Every piece is saturated with meticulous care and compassion towards her subject.
She, of course, explains her motives most effectively:
Traditionally in figurative artistic study, it is thought that the figure model’s aliveness and humanness has to be un-seen - if not only because it will result in more “objective” analyses of the body and as such yield more accurate representations, but also because if their aliveness and humanness are acknowledged, the model’s nakedness becomes real - not allegorical, not the stuff of Greek statuary, not clinical. The model threatens to be, and of course they always were, a shivering, blinking, breathing person. The admission that they can see you as you see them, that they can hear you, wrests them out of objectification and topples the power structure of who looks and who is looked upon.
Therefore, I contend that the discomfort towards her pieces does not originate from the artifact itself and could never be "obscene." There is no miasma dripping from these eight to twelve feet chalk and resin figures, because they are drawn from individuals who gave their consent freely. There is no voyeurism or exploitation woven in; any such malaise originates from the viewer, perhaps discomforted by the figure's returned gaze. It's a power and a risk the model understands and accepts.
Ghi's statement is clear: "The work originates in a relational aesthetic practice, governed by the precepts of bioethics: autonomy, beneficence, justice, and respect for persons."
Ghi's gift to the art world is rarified respect toward the human body, in a culture that aggressively seeks to commodify, and thereby devalue, or make illicit, human bodies.