In an age of Carl's Jr. commercials, American Apparel ads and PornHub, it's easy these days to become desensitized to images of the naked body. What once was seen as a "temple of the Holy Spirit" or the ultimate source of artistic inspiration, is now more likely to be used to sell knee-high socks and expensive perfume. But thanks to a crop of young, international photographers, nudity once more is serving as sources of creative expression. Equal parts surreal, grotesque, absurd and erotic, these artists' works free nudity of associations with shame, exhibitionism or obscenity and in the process manage to make a timeless subject matter feel fresh again.
Working under the name of Synchrodogs, Ukrainian artists Tania Shcheglova and Roman Noven's work hits you like a lucid dream. Naked women meld into undulating fields and rocky terrains or emerge out of cacti and caves; the bodies become pale, sculptural entities in the midst of gorgeous landscapes, emanating light, swaddled in fabric, or painted in neon bright colors. Together, the photographers have published two books of their work, the eponymous Synchrodogs and Byzantine, and created original imagery for publications such as New York Magazine, Dazed & Confused, AnOther, and various editions of Vice. Within their pictures, the body becomes an otherworldly, sacred entity but one that is still grounded in the natural world. "Naked is sheer, naked is true, naked is faultless," Shcheglova tells us over email. And "art should not be obvious at all," she adds. "It is not about depicting something, it is about exploring ourselves."
Dutch photographer Melanie Bonajo's images tease out similar issues of societal constraint, albeit with a much more direct and unflinching eye. Her work has been exhibited at places ranging from the De Appel Arts Center in Amsterdam to the Kohun National Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul. Bonajo's series, "Furniture Bondage," treats the female form as little more than a building material in the creation of her domestic sculptures. In her photos, women are leashed to chairs, ladders, and cleaning supplies, and then manipulated into BDSM-esque positions with bags over their heads or blindfolded. The models become slaves to the household products meant to serve them. While her work may appear to be a blunt commentary on the emotional, cultural, and physical baggage we all carry with us through life, Bonajo insists it's "really about trust." It's about the models' trust in her, in themselves, and in this situation that they're surrendering to while also remaining vigilant, upholding their precariously balanced structures. As trapped as these women may seem, there is still a persistent feeling of imminent self-liberation. In the artist's words, "the female I like to represent is an assemblage of [the] human-animal-object-world rising up in response to human civilization."
Where Bonajo's nudes are all about the underlying implications, Ren Hang's women are far more blatant and direct. The Chinese photographer, who has three international solo exhibitions this spring, including one that just closed at NYC's Capricious 88 gallery, creates images that present a fearless, overt sexuality with an underlying perversion (sort of like a Ryan McGinley picture on mushrooms). Women contort into geometric shapes, animals stand in for apparel, and bodies clash with nature to create a hallucinatory effect. Though Hang claims his pictures are inspired by "the boredom of life," there is an undeniable pleasure to his work. He makes his pictures "because sex is my favorite. I want sex bad when I see [a] nude human," he tell us. Though it might be that cut and dry for Hang, for the viewer his imagery is more fraught, obfuscating the line between body and object.
Of all six artists, Asger Carlsen makes work that exists most in a realm all its own. The Dutch-born New York-based photographer, whose had solo shows internationally and been profiled in publications such as the New Yorker, Interview, and New York Magazine, makes nudes that are more abstract sculpture than human body. Like nightmarish Francis Bacon paintings come to life, his naked figures become warped and distorted, mushed up like a ball of Play-Doh and thrown into abandoned rooms to collect dust. As grotesque as his bodies can be, there is still an element of the hyperreal in his work. "I'm not interested in deformity," he tells us in his Chinatown studio. "I'm interested in things that look really complicated...that don't necessarily reveal themselves." The photographer's focus lies in experimenting with form, shape and the technicalities of manipulation rather than catering to any individuals' hangups or revulsions. "There's an awkwardness in [my work]," he asserts, "not that I feel awkward, but there's a feeling that I never really belonged to anywhere or anything. [My work] helps me find a place to belong."