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Celebrating New Zealand's nude art
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Posted: Sep 18, 2009

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The nude is the oldest and most controversial subject in art. A new exhibition in Wellington brings together 100 nude paintings, drawings and sculpture and proves that when it comes to being naked, there's still more than meets the eye.

In 1958 New Zealand artist Eugene Fancott submitted a painting called Dora as Venus for a National Gallery exhibition in Wellington. The painting was rejected, not specifically because the woman depicted in Fancott's painting was nude, but because the model's legs - shock, horror - were more three centimetres apart.

"Even though she was viewed sideways, it was deemed technically obscene," says Matt Gauldie, curator of the new exhibition Nude, at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts in Wellington.

People may not be surprised that in late 50s New Zealand there were such rules, but Gauldie says the nude in art continues to be controversial, even though it's been a subject of art since prehistoric times.

"It comes back to people's vulnerability and insecurities, all those sorts of things," says Gauldie, who has four striking paintings in the exhibition.

"There are some artists in this show who chose to deal with some subjects like erotica, some other artists that I've seen before deal with insecurity and vulnerability. There are just so many different things to interpret what 'nude' is about."

Gauldie is an established Wellington artist, as well as, for the past four years, the official artist of the New Zealand Army. He gets some time each year to pursue projects outside his big Army commitments, where he's expected to produce 15 works a year and can be covering exercises and deployments overseas.

Nude is the first time Gauldie's curated a show. The crux was to celebrate the nude in New Zealand art, but also to "try to push the concept of what 'nude' can be". To do so, along with the exhibition being open to academy members, Gauldie's show includes himself and six other guest artists, highlighting the many different interpretations of nude.

It features works by Fancott, including Dora as Venus and four each from Wellington artists Marian Muggeridge, Mica Still, Simon Morse, Freeman White and Sandro Kopp. Gauldie is enthusiastic about each, especially the different styles and approaches to the nude.

Kopp is in demand as a portrait artist, mainly among Hollywood celebrities, since he began dating British actress Tilda Swinton. Like Kopp, Morse is better known overseas, especially in the United States and Japan, as a cartoonist and illustrator - a reputation he's built upon over the past two decades including the comic series Chopper Chick.

His works in Nude provide a rare example of his paintings and, as a comment on body augmentation and plastic surgery, they're menacing and hypnotic.

Mica Still, a rising star in New Zealand art, has a distinct take. Her paintings, awash with bright primary colours, mix the nude figure with animals and what could be animal-human hybrids. "For Mica 'nude' is more like an emotional statement," says Gauldie.

All up there are about 100 works, mainly paintings, along with some drawings and sculpture.

Works by Muggeridge, one of the country's top portrait artists, Gauldie and White are, on first look, more "traditional" in their approach, but on closer inspection, pushing boundaries. Muggeridge's large paintings don't flinch at depicting full-frontal male nudes, while the models for Gauldie's four, include a heavily pregnant woman and another who is overweight. Fay, the model in one of Gauldie's, has featured in about 10 of his paintings. Trust and building a relationship with a model can be reflected in the art, Gauldie says.

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"We went to school together. I've known her since we were five," says Gauldie.

"I had known a lot of these people for a long time and just watching them do their own thing. There's a lot of talent here in Wellington. I thought it would be awesome to bring everyone together and put them on the same walls and showcase what kind of talent is out there at the moment."

Most artists at some point learn life drawing. Gauldie says it's an important skill, even if some artists afterwards put their nude works in a bottom drawer and concentrate on other subjects. For Gauldie, it's those that continue to explore the nude.

"It goes right back to the earliest cave paintings. It's humans in their most natural state. It's also timeless. Nudes obviously don't have clothes, so it breaks away from fashion, it breaks away from a definite time and place.

"For me, it becomes quite exciting, because when you're doing these nudes, really there's not a lot separating you sitting there painting a nude and trying really hard and somebody 500 years ago painting a nude, or any of the great nude painters.

"Basically, you're working with the same body. Fashions change, technology changes, but at the end of the day there you are with a brush, canvas, oils, nude figure in front of you - and away you go."
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