The Naked Eye

Let's face it. We're all fascinated by anything that repels us, whether it's crocheted toilet-seat covers or images of crime, car crashes and, well, rude sex. "Venus Inferred," Laura Letinsky's new series of color photographs at Lawndale, examines the grotesque banality of human desire.

Letinsky, a visiting professor of photography at the University of Houston, says she wants to examine what love -- tenderness, vulnerability, regret and disgust -- looks like through images of heterosexual couples in postures of fore-play and copulation. Positioned close to the picture plane, the models invite an intimate viewing relationship.

But these photographs are less about the fragile, tender moments that Letinsky claims she is seeking, and less about erotica, than they are about sex. There's no ecstasy, no loss of self in these so-called romantic images. The series doesn't deliver a love story so much as a parody of porn. Rather than show us idealized body forms, Letinsky gives us people with pimples, birthmarks, vaccinations, potbellies and excess body hair. Indeed, if these pictures were offered on the porno market, they'd disappear in the competitive shuffle. The body positions are awkward, mechanical and sort of clunky. Are the grace and delicacy Letinsky alludes to our romantic ideal? Are the sweaty distortions what we really look like?

Pictures of penises and vaginas have been produced by a slew of artists for several years -- Robert Mapplethorpe, Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin and Larry Clark, among others. There are the explicit images of Jeff Koons having sex in a variety of kitschy formats with his

(now ex-) wife, Ilona Staller, the extremely photogenic Hungarian-born porn "star" and Italian politician known as La Cicciolina. And who can forget Lynda Benglis' ad in the November 1974 issue of Artforum, in which the sculptor posed belligerently, hand on hip, wearing nothing but sunglasses and an enormous dildo?

So, since the representation of sex has already been thoroughly and hotly debated, is there further value in examining that tension between sex as pornography and sex as art? In 1994, Letinsky's series is not all that scandalous, even for Houston (although Lawndale earns a blue ribbon for showing it); it has an air of tepid inevitability and belatedness in an age in which sex too often means fear of AIDS.

Letinsky's lens takes the woman's point of view and challenges what is considered to be "normal" feminine sexuality, pleasure and fantasy. Remember, many women artists have used their bodies as the site of their art in opposition to the notion of displaying themselves for male pleasure. Refusing to play the role of the woman in Romantic love -- a sexual being suppressed in favor of her function as a catalyst for the man's passage to a state of rapture -- Letinsky's female models never seem at the mercy of their aroused men. Does Letinsky, rather than using these women for voyeurism, want us to try on those identities, even empathize with them?

Traditional society conditions viewers (and women, in particular) to see sexual imagery as risqu. Women are taught not to look at pornography, or at sex. Is pornography ultimately collusive with patriarchal power structures, and thus reactionary? Or is it subversive and liberating? Letinsky doesn't provide easy answers, nor does she limit her series with moral judgments. Instead, she hopes the series will give us permission to look at sex explicitly and judge for ourselves.

Letinsky regards her couples as collaborators. She photographed the young to middle-aged couples in their apartments, which results in a provocative and entertaining foray into ambiguous sensual titillation. Indeed, there is something brave about her willingness to grapple with the unpleasant realities of the human condition. But in pulling aside the veil of her models' lives, Letinsky colonizes low culture for the sake of high art. The shots featuring Robin and Ken seduce us with fleshy pink lighting and a Hallmark-card vision of healthy sexual enjoyment. Robin has long bleached-blond hair, painted nails and a body that looks sculpted by World Gym. In one photo, she's astride Ken, back arched, her huge breasts and nipples erect. Their bedroom is a pastel Disneyland adventure of soft, feminine fantasy -- an aqua pile carpet, a waterbed with a pink spread and pouf pillows, "Cinderella" bows at the window and various "little girl" knickknacks on the dresser.

By contrast, Dawn and Scott make love on an old velour sofa with only patched sheetrock as background. Dawn has long, straight blond hair parted down the middle, making her look a bit like a '60s flower child. She's sitting on top of Scott and smiling at him, as he's laid out stiff as a board. In another photograph, a nude woman sits in front of a tawdry, daisy-patterned curtain. She stares directly at the camera, embracing her partner much like a woman would suckle a child.

Even though these are couples engaged in supposedly "normal" behavior, when the private becomes public, nobody comes out looking

ormal. After all, these couples volunteered to pose for Letinsky's lens -- so what's staged, and what's spontaneous?

Who are these couples? Part of me is attracted to their full-throttle exhibitionism, to ordinary people attempting to achieve a kind of New Age exaltation by making love in front of a camera. (Is making a hidden act a public matter good for self-esteem?) But true porn gives us true sex. Is it simulated here? We don't know for sure. Taken as a whole, the series has a quirky, if dated, veneer. After all, in an age of sex scenes for commercial purposes, who can look at these unattractive people with an innocent eye, particularly when they seem to parody a daytime sex channel? It reads as "soap-sex" -- like their TV counterparts, they're performing for the camera. Lawndale's small gallery space evokes the back room of an adult bookstore. Only these couples aren't a turn-on. Boring sex. Tacky apartments. There's no psychological depth -- just different strokes for different folks. And it's just that coolly dangerous combination of grotesque physicality and elusive emotional content that gives Letinsky's work its disturbing edge.


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