Thursday, June 23, 2016

I Am a Vase

This is the first of three articles about art modeling. 

A filmmaker has asked me to be part of a documentary about art modeling. And after talking to him, I’m peeved enough to express my own views. What irritates me is his prurient idea that nudity is what art modeling is about. Um, no, art is what art modeling is about. Anyone can take off their clothes. I bet that at some point in the past 24 hours, you too took off your clothes! Okay, perhaps you’ve never disrobed in public, but the novelty of that lasts for all of like two seconds. And then your neck has a horrible crick but you can’t move for another Ten. Long. Agonizing. Minutes.

Everyone has a body. The point of art modeling isn’t the nudity of a body, but the structure of a body.  Drawing from a nude model allows an artist to go back to basics and understand the architecture of the human form. It’s just easier to draw a naked person than one enveloped in clothing.

I would think this is obvious but from the conversation I had with the filmmaker, it seems that some people can’t see beyond the nudity aspect. It’s hard for me to grasp this but I think they must have a deeply internalized Puritanical morality through which everything is viewed. For them, a nude body isn’t just a nude body. For them, nudity is inseparable from sexuality and/or shame. To be nude in public is terrifying or daring or provocative.

But an art model isn’t there to purge their internal issues or to get someone worked up. Nude or not, an art model is supposed to come up with an expressive pose and sustain it for a certain length of time. This is a lot more difficult than it seems.

First, you need to have a varied physical vocabulary. Especially if the session is comprised of several short poses. Being a dancer helps. Seeing lots of artwork helps. And having the schizophrenic ability to view yourself from the outside is rather instrumental. The other thing that is required is the strength to hold a position. Even the most comfortable reclining pose becomes unendurable after a while. The body is just not really meant to be still.

So it might seem like something anyone can do, but there is actually an art to art modeling. A good art model has the uncanny ability to find a pose that is interesting from at least three different angles, while accurately calculating how long it can be held. Anyone who’s ever art modeled knows this is not easy. Even if you’ve posed for artists as long as I have, you still make mistakes and find yourself in pins and needles, with your arm screaming to be moved.

I started posing for artists when I was about 17 years old. A photographer approached me on the subway and asked if I would model for him. He paid $25 per hour, a small fortune to a teenage runaway. It might have been him who introduced me to the Art Students League of NY, which kept me decently employed for the next three years. Looking back, this was probably one of the best places to learn about art modeling. Put all your weight on one leg, I was told. Turn your body slightly. Tilt your head. A pose is more interesting if it’s asymmetrical. And then for a while, I was the lecture model for Gustav Rehberger and learned a lot about anatomy from being his guinea pig: the three planes of a foot, the difference between a man’s neck and a woman’s, the complex parts that make up an eye.

At the Art Students League, I got experience posing for all kinds of mediums, including sculpture, where the modeling occurs on a giant turntable. The instructor comes and turns you every so often like a plate of bok choy on a Chinatown banquet table. “I am a vase. I am a vase,” I found myself thinking. I was desperate to keep my mind occupied since I had a standing pose that was incredibly painful.

Quentin Crisp said once that he never had thoughts about anything while posing except for the pose itself. But I find that thinking is one of the keys to being still. Not only can you quickly pass the time, but I’ve also developed the ability to drift away in my thoughts, leaving my body relatively immobile. I’ve composed entire essays in my head, won heated arguments with my parents, and come up with an amazing set design for a production of Agamemnon. I actually find art modeling rather meditative. Either that or it’s just contributing to my ultimate mental collapse.

During breaks, I usually wander around the room. Partly, this is to get some needed circulation in cramped up body parts. But it’s also interesting to see the work that is being produced. Not because oh look, it’s me me me me me! Well maybe, but I like to think that I’m more fascinated to see the same pose from 10 different angles as seen by 10 different people. It’s the Rashomon effect on a page. And it’s so interesting to see that most pictures look a lot like the artist. 

There was only one time that I ever saw an artist draw me as an Oriental stereotype. Like literally, there were slanted lines where my eyes ought to be. It was in a beginner’s class but I’ve posed for high school students and never once have I ever seen a picture of me with chinky eyes.  Interestingly, it was a black guy on the outskirts of London who drew that picture. I think maybe he was a recent immigrant and hadn’t been exposed to much of the world yet. Every other artist I’ve ever encountered draws from what they see, not what they think they should see.  

This is what I think is the most radical thing about drawing from life. In order to depict someone accurately, an artist has to see beyond preconceived ideas and break everything down into geometric shapes. It’s the great equalizer. No matter what our size, gender, or race, we’re really just a bunch of spheres and cylinders hanging on a skeletal frame.

But it seems that some people like the filmmaker and that black guy on the outskirts of London can’t get beyond themselves to see a body just the way it is. For that black guy, I’m Asian so I must have Mongoloid eyes. His unconscious racism makes him incapable of seeing that I do have eyelids. For the filmmaker, I’m nude so I must be an exhibitionist or a libertine. His body issues make him incapable of seeing the eloquence of a pose, the uniqueness of a particular position, the expressiveness of a gesture. To him, I’m just nude. 

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