The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Second-Hand Nudes
Chuck Samuels
Before the Camera
Ed Barnas
Photo by Chuck Samuels . Source:
Chuck Samuels, "After Outerbridge"

Photographers’ using self-portraits to explore identity and gender roles is nothing new. Claude Cahun, Cindy Sherman, and Francesca Woodman spring to mind. Chuck Samuels offers the viewer a nice variation in “Before the Camera.” Based in Montreal, he has exhibited internationally since 1980 but this is his first solo show in the U.S., even though this particular body of work was done several decades ago.

Walking into the back room at the ClampArt Gallery, I had a sense of déjà vu. The dozen images on the wall “looked” familiar to me, as they would be to anyone familiar with the history of the nude in photography. Samuels has recreated a number of classic images, from Bellocq, Weston and Man Ray through to Avedon, Newton and Mapplethorpe. The twist is that Samuels’ own average male body has replaced the women in the original images, inverting the viewer’s expectations and subverting the “male gaze” in images of the female nude.

Photo by Chuck Samuels . Source:
Chuck Samuels, "After Avedon"

The style, poses, background and presentation were carefully mimicked in each image. Avedon’s photo of Nastassja Kinski with a serpent, Mapplethorpe’s of Lisa Lyon striking a classic body builder pose, and Weston’s of Charis nude in a corner are instantly recognizable but read differently with Samuels’ body as the center of attention. My first response was to chuckle at the role reversals as amusing visual parodies. What saves these images from being a one-note joke is the variety of bodies displaced by Samuels and the images he has chosen to work from.

One of the images he has chosen to burlesque was itself intended as a parody: May Ray’s Le Violon d’Ingres referenced Ingres’ dreamy nudes and musical “talent” by adding F-notes to a woman’s curvy back to turn her into a violin. There have been numerous homages to this image with suitably voluptuous bodies (and F-notes on the back have become a popular tattoo design). However, with Samuels’ definitely un-curvy body in place of Kiki de Montparnasse, the objectification of the body inherent in the armless and legless pose is enhanced and is somewhat freakish.

In several images, the switch to a male body does not seem to affect my response to the image. Outerbridge’s headless nude with meat packer’s gloves looks just as fetishist with a male torso as with a female and the pastoral nudes by Bullock and Callahan work well with either gender in the picture. In others, however, the full frontal nature of the originals (e.g., Newton and Mapplethorpe) forces the viewer to reflect that those works could “pass” as artistic images but the flaccid penis in Samuels’ versions would generally earn a NSFW tag.

Photo by Chuck Samuels . Source:
Chuck Samuels, "After Bellocq"

The male gaze did not dominate all the images. The earliest photo Samuels choose to model was one of Bellocq’s Storeyville portraits. The women in those images were not afraid to engage the viewer. The original photo shows a woman reclining on a chase longue, clad only in dark stockings and a black mask covering her eyes, smiling invitingly directly at the camera. He mimics the pose and attire precisely, smiling just as broadly at the viewer as did the original model to invite the viewer to recline.

This was only one of several galleries I visited that day but it was the most enjoyable. Samuels’ role-reversal of a broad spectrum of iconic nudes offered an engaging commentary on how body gender (and type) can affect response to an image. Another example worth a look is Leonard Nimoy’s “The Full Body Project” in which he used full-figured models to recreate classic images from art history (including Newton’s Sie Kommen pairing).

Chuck Samuels
Before the Camera

521-531 W 25th St. Ground Fl
Chelsea         Map

646 230 0020

Thursday, February 19 to
Saturday, March 28, 2015
Hours: Tue-Sat, 10 to 6

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