The Model as Painter and Painted

– The following essay appeared in the Winter 2001 volume of Denver Quarterly published by the University of Denver and won the Robert D. Richardson award for best essay published in a volume year.

The Model as Painter and Painted

— Desirée Alvarez

The women of Michael Angelo are the sex.

The women of Correggio are seraglio beauties.

The women of Titiano are the plump, fair, marrowy Venetian race.

The women of Parmegiano are coquettes.

From Henry Fuseli, Aphorisms on Art (1741-1825)

For the past seven years I have been a woman in Philip Pearlstein’s paintings. It began as a part- time job, ideal for a painter with a bit of commercial modeling experience but who was disenchanted with its portrayal of women. I remember my first day meeting Pearlstein, an artist I have admired since my early teens, wondering what to wear to an interview for a nude modeling position with America’s legendary realist figurative painter. I never dreamed that I would still be here years later, on the other side of a painting, sitting naked under hot lights; arms and legs numb, wrapped around antique toys. But I have stayed through graduate school, through many evolutions in my own way of working while Pearlstein has devotedly pursued his commitment to the figure. Neither of us can see me aging, but the paintings see and gradually record it. He has painted me into my early thirties, and I sit, stand and lie spellbound, watching these enigmatic paintings develop; not bored, not sleeping as the critics like to think, but meditating on my own current or future paintings.

I am annoyed by the historic image of the model as either passive object or brazen seductress. Neither of these roles matches my job description. I choose my own poses and find the meditative time empowering. Further, I consider the assumption of critics that models look bored to be a personal affront and hope the following ruminations will dispel such a notion. It seems time for the model to talk back. First, about being the object of a specific male gaze. Second, about that specific gaze, because after seven years of literally looking over this artist’s shoulder, I discover I am a somewhat privileged authority on his work.

For the record, my poses are usually far too demanding and painful to be napping. Pearlstein often waits for the moment, usually halfway through a 25 minute pose, when veins begin to pop and muscles start to tense and swell. With the patience of a seasoned birdwatcher, he waits for the terrain of the body to become dramatically rugged. This is when the figure begins to interest him to record. Pearlstein’s insistence on working from life is my job security. I remain in the pose throughout a painting’s development, often reading while he paints the objects around me. “I need the visual confusion,” he says, frustrated when he occasionally tries to work on the painting without me. He claims the entire set-up looks different with my body present, reflecting light and color.

Journal entry/ March 1995: So weary after work now. Insane to take three rigorous poses at once. One day standing on one leg, another sitting astride a wide bench (feels like I’m in the saddle all day), and now, body compressed, hunkering over a decoy swan. But I give what I would like to receive and these are the poses that I would like to draw. Sometimes I stay even when the pain steals into my limbs; I sit or lie and feel it break and enter my house, as he watches me and paints. I try to enter the pain as I’ve read soldiers do when they are shot or tortured. But it’s a temporary discomfort and my body is made stronger by these poses that resemble isometric exercises. Reading helps; so do erotic fantasies.

It amazes me that even in the 90s many people are shocked or disturbed by Pearlstein’s work. They see what I do as stripping and what he creates as pornography, Pearlstein can relate endless incidents of his work in museums vandalized, angry letters sent to the media regarding shows, exhibitions canceled under public protest, etc. A museum exhibition in Scottsdale, Arizona was called pornographic by the press and the curator was fired. Nevertheless, Pearlstein is following a tradition begun in ancient times, continued through the Renaissance to today, of displaying the nude figure as art. A recent study of people’s responses to images of nudes, assembled from a variety of sources, including fine art, pornography and advertising, demonstrated that people were most disturbed by the study’s nude images taken from contemporary fine art. (Eck, University of Virginia, 1996). This is not only because these images lack the historic acceptability and romanticism of an odalisque, but also because they are characterized by a cutting-edge realism that is threatening in its unidealized depiction of the body. Pearlstein is frequently criticized for not flattering his models, and I am often asked why I am not displeased by his portraits of me. He believes he is recovering the nude from idolatry and pornography by respecting its reality, rendering it as he sees it. His approach is almost a denial of the model as icon, or at least a demystification; a refusal to exploit the body’s power to inspire worship or sexually beguile.

Despite its increasing presence in the media, the nude still retains some of its ability to surprise and shock. Therefore, we are all the more startled to regard nudes staring into space, deep in thought, possibly bored or sleeping — in short, minding their own business and making no effort to engage or seduce the viewer with direct eye contact, as in pornography or advertising, Nor are they presented as “perfect” or voluptuous bodies. Frequently larger than life, with veins, muscles and fat folds apparent, they are simply bodies occupying space, just as the still-life objects — toy cars, airplanes, African carvings, etc. — exist as part of the composition. Ironically, in this sense I find it liberating to be objectified because I am not present in the painting to arouse, but rather to exist, and to provide a complex surface to interact visually with other complex surfaces. My head is frequently out of the painting and rarely am I central to the composition. This is a democratic, postmortem vision of the nude: casually presented, cynically cropped, unromanticized — the individual observed within Pearlstein’s carefully constructed still- life of artifacts and collectibles.

Pearlstein is an avid collector of Americana, antique toys, African art, early American quilts, Navaho weaving, Pre-Columbian ceramics, Greco-Roman antiquities, etc. He has always been attracted to icons as subject matter, painting views that feature such classic American landmarks as the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. His figure paintings often include a character from American pop culture such as Superman, Mickey Mouse or Popeye. Yet, Pearlstein’s gaze extends far beyond current American fantasy. Over the years, I have modeled with Nefertiti, Punch, Godzilla, Javanese animal marionettes, rocking horses, a carousel ostrich, decoy ducks, Luna Park lions, a model ship, and a toy firetruck. Pearlstein favors animal imagery and creates a sort of menagerie in many paintings. In the very first painting I modeled for, I sat in an African birthing chair, surrounded by Godzilla, an Oceanic carving, a cement horse, a rooster weathervane, a Navaho rug and another model. Pearlstein’s collection is eclectic and his paintings are the meditations of an acquisitive mind. Symbolically, they demonstrate the layering of cultures that forms our world. With my feet on a Navaho rug, my body in an African chair and Godzilia on my left, I am caught in an intricate multicultural web that spans centuries. Pearlstein seems to be involved with creating tableaux of civilization. I become the terrain on which these cultural signifiers visually rest: a formal stand-in for the individual in society on whom these icons act and influence. Each painting becomes an epistemology, presenting us with a unique view of the accumulation of knowledge, culture and craft. The figure is placed in a sort of collector’s Garden of Eden — though perhaps an Eden post Fall, for I am surrounded by the cultural residue of knowledge. I sit, absorbing all this wisdom and craft, waiting to don this glorious cloak of civilization, this coat of many colors. In each painting I am confronted by the striking consonance of texture, the repetition and contrast of cultures and epochs — the stuff that makes us human and the stuff that humans make.

Journal entry/January 1994: I sit here and feel angry. Angry that he is painting and I’m not — because I’ve lost my faith and he still has his. I’ve changed ranks now to make this strange, hybrid work that falls somewhere between painting, printmaking, sculpture and installation. I make it up as I go along, scrambling to invent a new language because I can no longer speak in the old one. But I love the old one so much that I miss it like a lover who I never wanted to leave. So I sit in his studio, drinking in the paint and turp fumes, envying his oil colors, his brushes, his mark-making; jealous of his belief that there is still something to be conjured on this canvas that has not yet been seen and that only he can will into being. He is my link to a history of painting that he has brought alive and kicking into the twentieth century.

I am both moved and amused by the coexistence of pop culture and religious relics, the contrast in spirit of Pearlstein’s curation of each painting: Godzilla above a prayer rug, Nefertiti and a firetruck, and often the ordinary electrical outlet on the wall of a painting’s horizon. These groupings seem almost a meditation on the sacred and the profane. I find the combination of the electric outlet with the Navaho rug appropriate. While on the surface they may appear to represent the exotic and the mundane, respectively, actually they are both miraculous images: one representing prayer, the other power.

I always feel posing that the objects in the painting are the primary subjects and I, the figure, am the landscape on which they rest. Pearlstein once painted my hand so large, with such rippling veins, that it seemed a Sahara. Often I do not quite recognize myself in paintings due to the grandiose scale (often 1 1/2 – 2 times larger than life) and his abstraction of the bodv’s surface. Pearlstein has transferred his interest in landscape painting — always craggy mountains, intricate cityscapes, desert canyons and Anasazi ruins — to the body with its veins, knuckles, muscles, breasts and flesh. This cinematic panning in to close-up views of intense detail, and the dramatic cropping of the figure, positions the body as an essentially American landscape: a Southwestern desert, full of light and shadow, rugged in its beauty.

With recent triptychs, Pearlstein pushes his eclectic collector’s vision even further, As earlier paintings were inspired by his extensive use of 3-D cameras, the triptychs seem influenced by his recent love of video with its facile multiplicity of viewpoint. For several years, Philip has entertained me with travel videos: sharing his view of Pisanello, Mantegna and Michelangelo frescos, ruins in Turkey and gardens in Japan. This process of telling the same story through multiple and fluidly continuous views drives the new paintings. In “Chevrons,” we are shown three different women in the same African chair. Knowing Pearlstein to be a fan of Duchamp, I think of “Nude Descending a Staircase,” as both artists allude to the simultaneity of our perception of a repeated image with subtle variations. Static, seated women are suddenly given a sense of movement as our eyes move from one painting’s composition to the next; legs, feet and arms arc choreographed across three separate surfaces. The viewer becomes the video camera.

The triptychs are prismatic examinations of the theme of the acquisition of knowledge through culture, formally demonstrating the intricate geometric relationships between objects. Pearlstein is a classical audiophile and his favorite composer is Mahler. He constructs his paintings like symphonies: layering and repeating form and pattern rhythmically, finding geometry in apparent chaos. The paintings hint at allegory and psychological motif with such provocative tableaux as female models and horses in the “Zeppelin and Horses” triptych. The narrative exists in Pearlstein’s selection and combination of images which have become more baroque or even operatic, in recent work. Yet, while the paintings may suggest a story or puzzle to be solved, they remain finally opaque, leaving us to configure meaning. This very denial of a narrative becomes the subject and the painting leaves the genre of realism to enter abstraction.

I occasionally wrestle with the description of Pearlstein’s work as cold and unemotional. I am always startled by the difference between my experience as a model sweaty and uncomfortable, with a view of everything in the painting except myself and Philip’s perspective. I suppose the painter he most resembles in spirit is Mantegna. Both are painters of great intellect and precision, Their paintings are driven by geometry, and the tension, mystery and ultimate power of their work emanates largely from what is withheld. The equation of energetic, erratic mark- making, signifying the gesture of the artist’s body in the act of painting, seems a twentieth century notion, arising from such New York School painters as Pollock and Kline. Certainly old masters cannot be accused of dispassion, despite their meticulous rendering. However, they have a specific narrative that gives their work emotion, and this is what Pearlstein’s work lacks. The tension in his work comes from the fact that we are not accustomed to perceiving the body as a territory for abstraction. We want a painting of the body to be visceral because our experience of our bodies is visceral. Therefore, we do not bring the language of abstraction — and especially not geometric abstraction — to nude figure painting. Pearlstein’s challenge is that we should.

Journal entry/September 1996:Sudden itch below left kneecap. I scratch. “Did you know I was just starting to paint that knee?” Always this uncanny coincidence between his brush and my body: as if each limb emerges from a trance as he paints it into the world of his canvas. I may be meditating, but he is like the Zen monk, practicing the same ritual every day, keeping an open mind to the results. It’s hot and the heater is drying out my eyes, but without it I’ll start to fidget and itch because the room is draughty today. Bartok makes it seem colder. Now, after years of classical music signaling the end of break and the beginning of a pose, I start to strip whenever and wherever I hear classical music playing. Somewhere, Pavlov is smiling. I realize this morning that I’ve probably spent more than half my life naked. How odd that it should be otherwise. It is, after all, a relief sometimes to leave my studio and come here. So easy to take off my clothes and sit here before a warm heater. When I was a little girl, I would go behind the big sofa in our living room to draw. I have always been secretive and private about making work. For years, I have sat watching this man boldly paint before me and I wonder now which of us is really more naked.