This is a portrait by Alannah Farrell of her husband Jared.
It is on exhibit in Farrell’s solo show Worlds Without Rooms, opening tonight at The Painting Center in New York (details at bottom). Of all the eerily lonely paintings in Farrell’s current body of work, this one struck me the most. I asked myself Why is this so powerful? Here’s how my thinking went:
It is clearly an erotic portrait. For me at least, the subject is the wrong gender and the wrong type. But the portrait is erotic. How? How do we know? There are lots of male nudes floating around. What makes this one erotic?
It’s a very strange pose. The first related image that came to mind was the famous 1972 Cosmopolitan centerfold of Burt Reynolds.
The Reynolds photograph was considered funny at the time, because it was outrageous. And it was outrageous because Reynolds was depicted the way you depict a woman. A traditionally erotic portrayal of a man emphasizes his traditionally masculine qualities, which is to say, his capacity for taking powerful action.
By contrast, a traditionally erotic portrayal of a woman emphasizes passivity — or not passivity, exactly, but something easily confused with passivity: display.
The Reynolds photograph, and the Farrell painting, are part of the lineage of The Naked Maja and not the Bernini David. That’s the whole joke in the Reynolds picture, but Farrell is not joking. A gender-fluid millennial herself, I believe her straight-faced use of a feminine erotic pose for a man answers to the gender slippage characteristic of her cohort.
Let’s compare a few more instances of the genre. Here we have Titian’s Venus of Urbino.
It is said that Manet’s Olympia harshly updates this type into the modern age, and in terms of situating his figure in the present, and not some mythical scenario, this is true. But Olympia’s famously direct gaze is new only in its veiled contempt for the viewer. Titian’s Venus addressed us directly centuries earlier.
I imagine you will tend to recognize this pose — the display pose — and its linkage with the feminine. But one of the most famous examples of it is a man, and provides my own indirect original connection with the genre.
Adam takes the passive display pose here. Interestingly, Michelangelo does not assign God the typically masculine vertical action pose. Part of his assertion of the near-equality of Man and the Divine is that they both take horizontal poses. He strews around other markers of the subordinate relation of Man to God — Adam is naked and God is clothed, Adam’s background shape extends down and God’s background shape extends up, Adam reclines back while God surges forward — but Michelangelo’s rational God does not stand over his supine Man. They are two of a like kind.
For all that, Adam’s pose is the same erotic display pose that we see in the Farrell, the Goya, the Titian, and the Manet. It was not my first exposure to this pose, but it inspired the image that was:
This is from the famous children’s book of Greek myths, on which I was raised (along with the Bible comic book). You know what’s happening in this picture? Heracles, fatally poisoned, orders his men to build him a funeral pyre and he sits down on it while still living. From the pyre, the gods raise him up to Olympus. So this is not really a pyre. It is a sacrificial altar, the same as Cain’s, the same as the one prepared for Isaac. The altar is where you cook the meal of the gods. In myth, we find the elemental fusion of superficially separate phenomena: here, the different forms of desire fuse into a single form. Erotic desire, as invoked in the display pose of Heracles, is fused with hunger, as demonstrated in the sacrificial cooking fire. Desire is craving, and craving is satisfied in consumption. The display pose is the beloved’s offer to be consumed. It is the emblem of beloved as meal.
All of those other instances of the display pose are less direct demonstrations of the same impulse: here are my parts, consume them, consume me. Boucher and Hockney attempt the same thing with the ass, but the preponderance of action is in front — face, breasts, genitals — and so the supine display pose remains central to the genre.
It is entirely reasonable to claim that this is an absurd and subjective conjecture on my part. But I absolutely believe that the forest of forms and categories through which we navigate day-to-day grows from a very small number of roots underground. Different things are fundamentally the same thing. Psychology and socialization have gone to a great deal of trouble to help us distinguish forms of desire from one another, to teach the nursing baby that the cravings for flesh and food are two different things. Theology and moral philosophy have done heavy lifting to teach us how to love without desiring, to desire without possessing, to possess without consuming. But in the fiery crucible of myth, and in its faint echo, art, the distinctions break down and we confront the primitive figure of the beloved-as-meal.
Not entirely surprisingly, this linkage was clear to the surrealists, who repeatedly presented the beloved not only as meal, but as the table too.
From them, it comes down in smirking, obscene form to the brutal A Clockwork Orange, in which the Korova Milk Bar is decorated with pornographized figures pitching both adult consumption and infantile nursing to the same degenerate adolescent clientele.
We’ve gotten fairly far afield from Farrell’s portrait of her husband. But we’ve answered the question Why is this so powerful? There are lots of male nudes floating around out there, but this one takes its place in a long cultural lineage threading through art history all the way back to the mythical self-conception of humanity. As much as it derives its strength from its strange glassy style, I believe it derives it from its content as well, from its depiction of the beloved-as-meal. It rises to the level of a hallucinatory intensity, cutting across gender, sexuality, and type, to suture our gaze to Farrell’s gaze: because the gaze, in this particular case, is not made with the eyes, but with a set of cravings that exist before and beneath seeing.
Alannah Farrell: Worlds Without Rooms
The Painting Center
March 26th to April 20th, 2019
547 West 27th Street, Suite 500 (5th Floor), New York.
Tuesday — Saturday, 11 a.m. — 6 p.m.
opening reception Thursday, March 28, 6–8 p.m.