From nude to naked

Why do all the famous museum nudes lack female genitalia?
No matter how meticulously drawn the breasts, the elbow, the little toe, each nude coyly protects her external reproductive organs with tightly crossed legs, a hand or a strategically draped sheet, or perhaps a swatch of long hair. Even Edouard Manet's "Olympia," which caused such a fuss in Paris in 1863 because it was a nude woman, not a nude goddess, reveals a courtesan waiting for her lover, boldly unself-conscious of her nudity, but fiercely protective of her, um, pudendum.

Artists have been painting erotica since the days of cave art and clay fertility dolls, from the phallic art of ancient Greece to the graphic depictions of sexuality found in India and the Orient.

And take a second look at the female nudes of Titian or Ingres, Bouguereau, and Rubens: Those babes are hot! Their coy sexuality may be veiled behind allegory and myth, but these artists were painting erotica.

Of course, erotica--contrasted with what we call pornography--is supposed to contain some artistic or social or historical value. The problem is shifting values: yesterday's pornography is today's valuable art.

The debate--is it erotic art or smut?--poses a challenge for the modern artist engaged in the representation of the female nude: how to celebrate the evolution of female sexuality without sacrificing art to titillation.

Denny Doran and George Gleckler, two artists sharing a studio here in Dallas, are taking up that challenge.

By Bible Belt standards, their work is controversial--even without government funding. Genuinely talented artists, both actually make a living from the sale of their paintings, though they have no gallery contracts. Relying instead on word-of-mouth referrals, they line up commissions at parties, enjoying little name recognition beyond a small, loyal clientele.

Doran, 42, has a fine arts degree from Notre Dame and a master's in fine art from the University of Kansas. He's been painting since he was growing up in Ohio. A still-life oil of a coffeepot and cup, painted by a precocious Doran when he was eight, hangs over the desk in his studio. His skill was evident even then.

Moving to Dallas in the early 1980s to be near his father, Doran found himself moving artistically toward offbeat combinations of images and mediums, trying to momentarily catch hold of fleeting trends and the substance beneath them. "Whatever the public has its attention on for the moment--the NEA or MTV or Sally Jessy Raphael--is of interest to me," says Doran. "It's a very organic process, but it's the pace of the change which is so fascinating.

"If you take someone from the past who believes that the world is flat and unchanging and plop him down in the middle of Central Expressway, his nervous system would probably shut down. But each generation is moving toward faster technology, more information, and greater sensory input. How does that affect us? I think that receptiveness becomes embedded in our very DNA."

A large painting in the studio's office demonstrates Doran's fascination with the juxtaposition of past and present. The background is reproduced from French artist Guy Marchant's 1485 woodcut, "The Three Living and the Three Dead."

Poised in the right foreground, surrounded by leering skeletons, is a vibrantly lifelike nude holding a daisy. Her hair is tucked behind one perfect little ear. Bikini lines emphasize her shapeliness. Although the picture cuts her off at the ankle, there is little question that her feet are just as perfect as the rest of her. Though surrounded by death, the model refuses to recognize it; her lush innocence and rebellious gaze assert eternal youth. The painting is titled "Deep Ellum Chick."

Doran's "Dallas Modern" is a vastly different treatment, albeit with a similar fixation on the unusual to symbolize contemporary ideas, this time of masculinity and femininity. A glassy-eyed blue marlin is positioned at the top of the arrangement. A soiled doll's dress provides the center.

But the true focus of the work lies below, on an irregularly shaped canvas, with its three primary colors creating a triptych effect. There, an oil painting of a naked young woman stretches across two-thirds of the picture plane. Her head and shoulders are blue. Her anus and vulva, revealed by her spread-eagle position, are passionately red and precise in detail. The work has the quality of Op Art in its concern with color and shape, the bright red creating the illusion of physically advancing toward the viewer. The subject seems to gaze, not in invitation, but rather to ask, So, what do you think of all this?

"On the one hand," notes Doran with pleasure, "the work is just ink on cotton or grease on cloth. And yet it's obviously so much more--and with disturbing associations."

A suggestion from his girlfriend to paint the marlin's spear-tip flesh color meets with Doran's approval. He finds the idea in keeping with the sexual tone of the arrangement.

Sound bizarre? It is. But Doran loves to shock--and to watch your expression while he's doing it. "I don't want my work to be easily defined. But I'm very interested in what occurs in your head when you look at it and what that says about popular culture."

While Doran is direct and uninhibited, studiomate Gleckler, 45, speaks uncomfortably about himself and his paintings. He admits that he's been reluctant to bring dates to visit the studio, lest his work embarrass them.

Gleckler's nudes, while less graphic, derive their eroticism from the hedonistic poses of his models, as well as his skill in rendering a certain moody sensuality.

He has always drawn, even while pursuing other endeavors. He studied education at St. John's University and the University of Arizona, and before arriving in Dallas in 1990, he captained his own charter boat around the Caribbean. "Even though I'd always done things besides art, my desire to draw was something I couldn't ignore," he says. "Whenever I could, I found somebody who could teach me something."

For a couple of years he studied glass-blowing in New York City. When he got time away from his charter boat business, he worked with a pastel artist in Fort Myers, Florida.

Although he grew up in East Hampton, a short distance from the studio of renowned abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning--and even used to truck de Kooning's finished paintings from his studio to the local frame shop--Gleckler never developed an interest in abstract art. "Figurative drawing is the greatest challenge to me. I like to capture the mood conveyed by a face or a pose."

After selling his boat business, Gleckler came to Dallas to visit a friend. He had some money in his pocket, and an ardent desire to fine-tune his talent. He met Doran at the Creative Arts Center, a non-profit arts facility in East Dallas which offers classes in wood, stone, and metal sculpture, as well as studio space for local artists.

Doran took him on as an apprentice. A year later, they purchased their current studio, 5,000 square feet off Industrial Boulevard. They've worked there for two years, among work tables and plaster casts, discarded cigarette butts, and fashion photos clipped from glossy magazines.

Gleckler prefers to work in charcoal or pastels, explaining that his charcoals are more frequently commissioned because they are less expensive. "I may do a portrait for someone that results in several additional commissions. Sometimes a person will see one of my nudes and they want themselves painted so that they can point and say, 'See! This is what I looked like when I was 21!' That kind of work has provided me with a nice income for the last couple of years."

He is surprised that some people find his work shocking. After all, "they're just nudes.

"I was at a gallery where my work was being shown and I actually saw a woman lift her hand to shield her face from this painting," he recalls, indicating a work in charcoal.

The model in the work, titled "Torso," a nude, blonde bombshell with face turned away from the viewer, arches forward with her hips lifted in blatant invitation.

Just a passive rendering of the female form? Not exactly. Says Doran: "The work is done so finely that it's hard to dismiss."

Henry Hermetet, manager of the Milam Gallery, agrees. "My first impression of [Gleckler's] work was that it was wonderfully detailed. We wanted his charcoals to be affordable for our patrons, so he agreed to price them at around $850. They were very well received."

The two artists would like some day to do a show together, featuring some of their more controversial works. "I'd even like to call it 'The Power of Pussy,' and have people deal with that," says Doran. "The show would really be about the culture, but that would be the hook."

Gleckler and Doran both showed their work this summer in the Milam Gallery's annual 20th Century Erotic Art Show.

Justine Yeager, the gallery's owner, maintains two criteria for entry into the juried show. She admits no displays of unconsenting violence and no erotic displays of children. "If you look at some of the paintings of the old masters which hang in museums, you'll find that a lot of them violate these two criteria," she says. "They wouldn't make it into my show."

About 300 visual arts pieces were included, from about 90 regional artists. "This is a hard market for contemporary artists who want to display nudes. In most Dallasites' minds, if someone is painted nude, then they're obviously up to no good. I've said this before, but if Michelangelo's 'David' were in Dallas, he'd have to be wearing a suit and tie in order to be acceptable."

Obviously, Doran isn't too concerned about traditional ideas of artistic credibility. He's been represented by galleries in the past, but admits that he likes being able to set his own price for his works. "In order for a gallery to make money on my art, they're going to take my price and bump that up as much as a hundred percent. That makes it tough on art lovers who aren't affluent."

Still, he's committed to earning a living from his art. "The mortgage on the studio is very affordable," he says. "And although we don't want casual interruptions while we're working, we're always willing to make an appointment with a serious buyer."

Doran recently branched out into photography, as well as more sculptural work. He has successfully embedded Belgian lace into plaster casts of classically shaped female torsos, creating an intricate tattooed effect. The mix of media here, and in much of Doran's work, broadens the framework for erogenous forms and adds layers of subtext. While lace has adorned the feminine form for centuries, obviously, the final effect confronts the viewer with the rising popularity--and controversy--engendered by women adorning their bodies with tattoos, actually a much older form of decoration.

Dallas is not an obvious market for two painters whose work celebrates the sensual female nude. But Gleckler and Doran have shown an ability to fill a niche here--artistically and commercially.

A graphic nude in New York, no matter how well conceived and executed, is easily lost amid the crush of artists and art. But in Dallas, well-done erotic art shakes things up--and gets at least word-of-mouth attention.

Doran and Gleckler are clearly boosters of the local art community. "Some people believe that if they buy a painting from a gallery in New York City, then it means more than if it was purchased here in Dallas," Gleckler observes. "I'd like to see more people giving credit to the talent that's right here."

As I sit before a painting in their studio, enjoying the smell of burning incense and scribbling my impressions, Doran unexpectedly takes my picture.

I nearly snap my pencil wondering what he's going to do with the photo. Maybe I can convince him to paint a series: from "Deep Ellum Chick" to "Suburban Mom Chick."

The Doran Studio is located at 110 Cole Street, Dallas, Texas 75207, 748-4544.

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Denise Spellman Getson