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."