The nude human form—nothing could be more personal, more intimate, more private, right? Well, when considered in the context of the history of art, perhaps nothing could be more saddled with expectations built up over time.

Should the male nude be powerful and virile? Is the female nude intended to empower or titillate? Is the vulnerability of nakedness being used to exploit—and to what end? Who holds the power and what’s at stake?

These questions are others are at the heart of two compelling new exhibitions at the Wisconsin Union Galleries in the Memorial Union.

In Significant Other in the Porter Butts Gallery, Patrick Earl Hammie offers stunning large-scale paintings of a man and woman “locked in a physical dialogue.”

With a commanding sense of light, the artist depicts his subjects in a range of interactive poses. Using figurative painting to explore the assumptions built into the genre, and focusing on gender and race to expand how identity is often understood, Hammie sets his male subject in passive poses, often lying on the ground. His female model, however, takes a more active role, bending or crouching over her partner, lifting his feet or rolling him over.

The nine works, most of them oils on linen or canvas, plus a few studies in oil or charcoal, reference traditions of Old Masters and Romanticists, yet “reconfigure inherited conceptions of ideal beauty and heroic nudity” in a way that’s both modern and thought-provoking.

In the adjacent Class of 1925 Gallery, Emily L. R. Adams presents a unique exploration of the female nude in Autonomous Tangle. She’s turned the small gallery into a salon, with a rich red tapestry, pink wallpaper and silver plates hanging on walls and a fainting couch set in one corner.

She’s also taken vintage pornographic photography and set the images onto more than thirty silver platters and serving dishes, playing up the ideas of how women are perceived and the dualities between the “internal expressions of the woman’s perspective and external observations of a man’s perspective.”

Adams chose images hailing from the mid-nineteenth century through the 1920s, specifically images in which the women show a self-righteous spirit and sense of comfort with their sensuality. She enhances this in her red wall hanging, in which she surrounds women’s faces with empowering words such as “Your Opinion is Important,” “You Want What You Already Have” and “Own Your Actions.”

Shown together, the two exhibitions create a provocative starting point for contemplating issues of tradition, identity, gender, race and power—and how the nude figure fits into them.

Significant Other runs February 7–March 25 at the Porter Butts Gallery and Autonomous Tangle runs February 7–March 20 at the Class of 1925 Gallery. For more information, visit union.wisc.edu/wud/art-events.htm.

Copyright © 2020 Emily L. R. Adams