"Double Exposure: Nude drawings by Willem de Kooning and Chloe Piene reveal the politics of desire."

by Carmen Winant

Ever since Manet ushered in modernism by painting a nude Olympia staring us down as she lay fully exposed on her bed, Western art has had to contend with the subject's erotic desire. Plenty of artists have weighed in, from Mapplethorpe (who helped eroticize the male subject) to Mary Kelly (who argued that, thanks to patriarchy, it's impossible to represent the female body free of objectification) to Madonna (who appropriated for herself the imagery of sexual objectification - and who were we to call her a victim?).

The "Bodies of Desire" exhibition at Locks Gallery takes up this topic again both intellectually and intimately. The show touches on our uncertainties about desire, provoking such questions as: Does desire require an object, or at least an imagined other? Is the subject's desire anything more than a projection of the (typically male) artist's gaze? In owning her desire, does the female subject reformulate the power relationship with the artist and the viewer? And what is it about desire that disturbs us anyway?

The exhibit is a twin show, bringing together the drawings of Willem de Kooning with those of 34-year-old Brooklynite Chloe Piene. And it's among a number of worthy exhibitions of works on paper currently in the city's galleries.

The drawings fill the large upstairs floor of the gallery, with each artist's works set up on opposing sides of the room, as if to view each other. It feels a bit like a house of mirrors - in a good way.

De Kooning - who often painted with his eyes closed - was the first abstract expressionist to return to figurative drawing. In the era of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, such a turn was considered sacrilegious, although the fact that he drew and painted exclusively females barely turned a head.

His nude women are aggressive, almost violent, with enlarged vaginas and smiling mouths (often cut out of magazine ads). Although the artist later suggested he was partly painting himself, he also offered the following explanation for the works: "Women irritate me sometimes. I painted that irritation in the 'Woman' series."

The women displayed in the works at Locks Gallery are mostly more sympathetic. But as curator Klaus Ottmann writes in the exhibit brochure, they are "just as brazenly sexual." "Despite their stereotypical depiction, they seem less like [sex] objects and more like subjects that embody not simply the artist's desire but a desire of their own," Ottmann explains.

Chloe Piene's charcoal-on-vellum portraits are considerably larger (about 55 by 35 inches) and appear intentional and delicate in comparison to de Kooning's untamed works. Both artists take on the female nude, sexual desire and the artist's gaze. Both have an element of the macabre. (Piene describes her work as straddling the line "between the erotic and the forensic.") And both confront the otherness surrounding desire.

But here's the kicker: Piene's subject is herself.

While de Kooning seems to be in a symbiotic relationship with his subjects, Piene creates an autoerotic bond. Most striking are the two masturbation self-portraits that bookmark her section of the gallery. By drawing herself in a shaky contour with legs splayed, Piene is unabashedly aware the viewer becomes the only available other, projecting their own desires and gendered lens.

Finnish curator Sari Tervaniemi has commented on this effect, saying Piene "will not accept the camera's or viewers' power over her, and her instincts drive her to intimidate - a direct and basic form of using power."

If the difference between empowerment and objectification boils down to owning our desire and our control of its depiction, then the pairing of Willem de Kooning and Chloe Piene suggests the boundary between the two is messy indeed.

"Bodies of Desire" (Fri., Feb. 2, 5:30-7:30pm. Free. Locks Gallery, 600 Washington Square S. 215.629.1000.

Nude drawings by Willem de Kooning and Chloe Piene reveal the politics of desire."