We’re in May, but walking into “Truth” – the naked truth, as we are reminded – is like walking into a box of bonbons for Valentine’s Day. The red hot vinyl floor and the lacy, diaphanous white curtains hanging ceiling to floor tell us quickly that this is an exhibition that leans towards the alluring and the compelling.
“Truth” highlights 37 works of art from six centuries by an impressive array of artists, most of them well known (Albrecht Dürer, Alphonse Mucha, Eadweard Muybridge, Gustav Klimt, for starters) and others on their way up. Curator Bernhard Zünkeler has sensitively arranged the work, almost all of it from the personal collection of Brian and Eva Sweeney, who opened the El Segundo Museum of Art in January.
The paintings and sculptures are not exhibited in any sort of orthodox manner, that is, by country, period, style, or artist. “I did it more in an intuitive way and not in an art historical way,” Zünkeler says.
He cautions us not to become entangled in ideology or theory. “Just look at the real thing, enjoy it, and don’t think too much.” Arranging the show “was more about the juxtaposition, to see that our attitude towards nudity (over the centuries) hasn’t changed all that much. There are only two kinds of people, open-minded and close-minded people.”
The curtains and the flooring tilt this depiction of naked truth more towards the feminine than the masculine, and what this décor does is extend an invitation for us to step deeper and deeper into the gallery – pulling aside one veil after another. The space before the first set of curtains conveys a sense of playful innocence, but as we venture further these soft partitions give way to various expressions of nudity or partial nudity that are geared towards different viewpoints. Two Robert Mapplethorpe photographs of nude African American men are juxtaposed with a stunning watercolor by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema from several decades earlier. A Stefan Balkenhol sculpture of a standing nude woman seems to resonate closely with a reclining nude in a large painting high on the wall.
These anatomical landscapes, as such, resonate and harmonize with one another. In one section three figures (a drawing, a sculpture, a painting) have their backsides turned towards us, their buttocks a little melody for the viewer. And there’s a bit of a musical surge with four closely-placed nudes, by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Max Pechstein, Fernand Khnopff, and Diego Rivera, each one a highly individualized rendition of the female form.
In a sense, then, what Zünkeler has created is a series of visual vignettes or narratives. By placing similar or dissimilar work in close proximity to one another he is offering us the chance to “listen in” on a dialogue, a dialogue between the works and thus one which we may also join. But the curator does not want to tell us how to respond:
“I don’t want to give too many explanations in the beginning,” he says, “because when people come in here I really hope that they’ll just [realize], ‘Okay, I don’t need to know anything, I can just go here, I can just like the whole setup.’ And if they’re really interested then they can dig deeper into every piece.”
I believe that all of the work has artistic merit, and that there is nothing on display that’s only sexually provocative. An exquisite painting of a young Taiwanese girl by Lo Chan Peng, if handled by less capable hands, might have fallen into that category, but the execution of the work is so exquisite that the content itself almost takes a backseat to the skill that went into creating it.
One large picture that is sure to draw comments shows an older couple that has just finished making love. It is beautifully rendered but clearly these are not 20- or 30-year-olds. “Here in L.A.,” Zünkeler says, “everybody wants to get older but nobody wants to look older.” This canvas does indeed embody the premise of the show, presenting us with the naked truth.
Truth opens at 10 a.m. on Sunday at the El Segundo Museum of Art, 208 Main St., El Segundo. Opening remarks at 11 a.m. by Dr. Lee Hendrix, Curator of Drawings at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Free. Through August 25. Call (424) 277-1020 or go to ESMoA.org.