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An Escort Through Xpressionism

Xpressionism, curated by famed photorealist painter Harry Sudman, is a beautifully extensive and thorough examination of different artists’ connections to the aesthetic of the erotic, fetish, and kink lifestyle. Sudman’s paintings of women within the Chicago kink and S&M scene are as much works of cultural anthropology as they are respectfully erotic paintings. What separates Sudman from many of his contemporaries is that his undeniably beautiful paintings do not project the tired, and ultimately corrosive, lurid male gaze upon his female subjects. Hispaintings leave a purely objective and elegant vision of women confidently living out singular lives in full visibility. Sudman has also kept his finger on the pulse of contemporary art both in the US and abroad.  From his contact with other artists across the globe, all of whom have an interest in underground lifestyles, Sudman has curated a collection of art in Xpressionism that harmonizes with his own body of work.

In 2008, the cultural phenomenon of Stieg Larsson’s book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo helped to normalize all things dark and taboo, changing the widespread dialogue regarding the fetish world in pop culture. Other industries, such as fashion, followed suit with designers like Alexander McQueen and Gareth Pugh ushering in a new understanding of S&M imagery and dark glamour. All artists on display in Xpressionism hold some connection to these alternative lifestyles, and their work captures the same earnest and genuine reflection of Sudman’s paintings, offering a view into a beautifully dark and misunderstood region.

Dennis Wojtkiewicz

Perhaps the best place to start is with acclaimed painter and educator Dennis Wojtkiewicz from Bowling Green State University. Wojtkiewicz’s diptych of a woman in patterned panties serves as a perfect introduction to the show. While his paintings are overt in their sexuality, like many other pieces in Xpressionism, greater depth lies within these works. Wojtkiewicz cites famed photorealist painter John Kacere as a significant influence, yet what separates Wojtkiewicz’s paintings from Kacere’s closeup renderings of women in lingerie is the treatment of the model and the paint handling. One can see that the model’s body is captured with the same level of realism as the fetishized garments. By contrast, many of Kacere’s pieces reduce the female body to a mannequin. Wojtkiewicz’s paintings capture a focused and affectionate side of the male gaze, contrary to the largely reductive visions of women by men that the public is fed in other media. His paintings capture expressions of heterosexual desire, reflective of what is widely accepted and portrayed today. Yet the added emphasis on the female model, instead of the fetishized lingerie or genitalia, signals admiration rather than simple lust, not to mention impeccable craft and finesse.

Dana Day, Lolita.

Following the theme of admiration is the work of pinhole photographer Dana Day. The antiquated format of pinhole photography removes the opportunities to distort, alter, or “correct” a photograph, as the technology is so limited. The resulting aesthetic is a mysterious combination of undoctored reality and blurred fantasy. Day’s photographs of women in particular are remarkable for being ethereal and ghostly, yet at the same time, voyeuristic and sensual. At the center of these two themes are women, captured as goddesses in some of the photographs and as haloed, erotic beings in the others. Day’s exhibited work employs her more voyeuristic approach with a hint of playfulness. Lolita perfectly articulates the bridge from Day’s previous pinhole photographs to her latest collection of photos, taken with a basic Holga camera, focusing on nudes and kink. Her previous black and white photographs, capturing women in their early twenties wearing youthful dresses and playing with tricycles and toys, channeled nostalgia for childhood simplicity. Yet Lolita suggests sexual awakening, as the cropped image may appear to feature either frilly, childhood clothing or adult lingerie. The implicit taboo related to the book her photograph references, and the delicate nature of her other images featuring women in collars with floggers, is challenged by the naïveté of the compositions’ medium. Day’s work seems to be exploring the multi-faceted nature of the word “play” within society today.

Marisa Andropolis, If Looks Could Kill.

Touching upon play and whimsy, painter Marisa Andropolis and famed photographer Alejandra Guerrero apply a more Jungian approach to their art, exploring and capturing that which is hidden from the public in efforts to uncover new sides of themselves in their own work. Andropolis’s lush and sensual self-portraits depict a vampy alter ego, complete with dark makeup, wigs, corsets, cigarette holders, and riding crops. Guerrero’s slick and polished photographs of sharply-poised women, occasionally featuring herself as the central subject, also explore scenes of domination, power, and high glamour. The rest of her large body of work, recently featured in the book The New Erotic Photography Vol. 2 by Taschen, positions kink and fetish imagery into commercial fashion editorials, thus norming those scenes and removing the stigma associated with power dynamics and kink.

Alejandra Guerrero, La Femme Suicide.

Both artists have expressed similar relationships to creating these erotic pieces, gleaning confidence and self-acceptance by dressing and adopting the persona of “the other.” They both resuscitate the imagery of Bettie Page and Marilyn Monroe within contemporary contexts of dark glamour, feminine power, and a fair amount of Third Wave Feminist theory. The women portrayed within the two artists’ work adopt allusions to Venus instead of Vargas girls, reclaiming sexuality for women as opposed to the viewer alone.

Such popular notions of beauty and acceptable sexual practices are challenged in Xpressionism with the work of French street artist Zalez and Colombian painter Fernando Vesga.  Both artists create works with an overt political agenda, thus to confront and

challenge traditional notions of beauty and sexuality.  Zalez tags and stencils elaborate images of tattooed women of the underground on street walls to combat the traditional images of blond, bikini-clad women sprawled all over print media and advertisement. His street art (and his latest works on paper) combat the overwhelming multitude of images prescribing limiting beauty standards to women and men by presenting alternative images of attractiveness, increasing their visibility and acceptability.

Likewise, Fernando Vesga’s work touches upon the sexually repressed political aura of his native Colombia, where images of violence are commonplace but sexual imagery is forbidden and punishable. Following the fashion of the other artists on display, Vesga’s personal and natural depictions of female nudes and fetishism, removed from the violent imagery pervasive in his country, addresses the natural and loving nature of sex and desire. Again, fighting censorship and narrow visions of acceptability with pure expressions of beauty and honesty.

Harry Sudman, 9:09.

When I first interviewed Harry Sudman, he explained to me that the overtly sexual subject matter of his paintings came to him by chance. He originally began painting tattoos and other forms of body modification he saw at heavy metal and punk shows. Ultimately, he developed a fascination with the staggering heels and latex clothing of the women he met. The fact that the paintings are not wholly directed or constructed by the artist, and in part collaboration with the subject, allows the work to act as a mirror to society, revealing truth rather than individual desire. According tattooed burlesque and punk performers with the same refinement of the Dutch painting masters removes the veneer of bias and judgment that is commonplace with this subject matter. Most of the artists on display share this practice of capturing “rough” or difficult subject matter with elegance and skill. By capturing different facets of one subculture over time, these artists (and in turn the audience) have come to understand the new underground scene the models and imagery introduce, rather than seeing it through the prism of spectacle.

Xpressionism opens April 19th at the 33 Contemporary Gallery at the Zhou B Art Center, located at 1029 W. 35th Street, Chicago, IL 60609 with an opening reception from 7-10pm.  The show runs through May 11th.

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