“No one really hesitates to take a school group to see female nudes but what if it’s a full frontal male?” asks Cara Perlman. How can a woman see a man stripped, vulnerable, with ephemeral strength and an individualized body? Eve offers Adam the apple with her loving eyes locked on him—a gesture of powerful connection, not concupiscence. This painting series suggests that women’s gaze on the male nude need not echo the greedy eye of so many conventional versions of the female nude. Nor the classical idealizing of fleshly forms. Perlman’s latest paintings invite us to see how women can create homoerotic registers to reshape our common visual vocabularies, in a realm of intimacy that includes but is not reduced to the sensual and sexualized body.
This new series —begun in late summer 2021 by an artist with a long track record in a range of media— reflects the cloistered conditions of the pandemic. Perlman calls it her “romance of privacy,” taking the intimacy of two years of restricted space to study what is close to her in natural surroundings, far from her Tribeca studio. Her new studio in a space not much taller than a Paris garret, meant painting at a scale that fits the knee walls. Perlman’s sculptures have often dealt with the body, raising questions about physicality through the choice of materials. For example her fierce standing figure Rock Thrower from 1993 has a chicken wire skeleton.
Perlman comments that “When I was sculpting, I did lots of figure work with ceramics, plaster, and soft materials.” She’s made inflatables, designed ballet sets and produced both experimental and documentary films, as well as being a founder of the artist-led cultural activist group Colab in the 1970s. Meanwhile, she continuously painted, creating quick finger-painted heads of such sitters as Tom Otterness, more recently bird studies and now this year-long phallo-friendly series.
Perlman avoids defining herself by deliberate flouting of conventions —no pigeon-holing could confine her imagination. Our eyes have been willy-nilly affected by the gay point of view on buff bodies shown with hunger, sexualized down to the calf bulge. Often such work is as ideal as the marble athletes that embodied the Greco-Roman template for beauty. But that ideal beauty is suffused with soul, while the modern homoerotic more often pants with raw appetite. This is not how Perlman approaches her subject. Rather the paintings acknowledge traditions of the nude and quickly proceed to the important task: fresh observation and expression. Perlman says “This is in part a response to art history which in modern art developed a taboo about showing male nudity. For both men and women, this homophobic taboo inhibited the pleasure in describing the private parts of the other.”
Nudity is the vocabulary of familiarity, as much as sexuality. Perlman’s female gaze on the male body is close-up and human, finding the erect penis interesting but not fetishizing it. The artist’s figures are touchable yet transparent. She emphasizes a fleet body, treading the world with tenderness. This deliberately contrasts with the heavy masculinity of muscles, big bones and wide shoulders—the burly performance of gender that dominates the Western canon.
Early paintings in the series show her working to get control of painting flesh, especially white men’s skin tone and the various states of the penis. Perlman loves fluorescents and her colors have been called smoldering and hot coral. Often a blazing furry pink outlines a body, more suggested than modeled, turning internal tissue into external border. The thematic figure alternates between erect slim sapling poses and wobbly shapes indicating
movements that often seem initiated by the flamethrower gaze of the painter. Indeed, the painter’s feelings are the psychokinesis moving this body. A half swollen penis etched in pink appears poised: a stick of pastel ready —but not impatient— to draw pleasure. The full frontal focus whether pink or greenish radiates a genuine affection for the male nude, and even on one occasion adds a vagina to the genital close-up. These works which Perlman calls “realism adjacent” focus on mundane poses: lolling about, shaving, peeing, pulling a shirt on, hauling up underwear. These portraits are self-consciously ageless. The body speaks its form and its animating intelligence.
Favoring malleable proportions, body parts balloon, shrink, and morph. Later iterations elongate and twist the body, flesh no longer adheres to a skeleton but carves its own path. For Perlman, distortions signal possibility suggesting that the body is not fixed, and the female gaze on it is not definitive. As famously proclaimed in the ironic Guerrilla Girls poster “The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist,” exclusion from the male art world could be taken as a gift because it allows originality. G&S