Ellen Harvey Gives Nudity the Third Degree at Bass

Courtesy of Ellen Harvey
"The Nudist Museum" 2010, 54 paintings: oil on gesso board with used frames


Ellen Harvey

puts art clichés on trial. She infamously took the idea of landscapes to task when she painted oil pastorals among NYC's graffiti tags and concrete pylons. Next she cross-examined portraits when she asked the public to sit for her renderings in exchange for their criticism.

Her latest art debrief, "The Nudist Museum," unfolds at the Bass, where she has re-created every nude in the museum's permanent collection to highlight the "impoverishment of our relationships to our naked selves." Expect zoomed-in interpretations of fleshy, Rubensesque bodies that spill over worn, secondhand frames. As a contrast, contemporary sexualized nudes from today's media will paper the wall behind the paintings. Nudity starts getting the third degree when the exhibit opens this Saturday.

We spoke to Harvey about how a legal mind thinks about art and why she decided to explore the idea of nakedness in a Miami museum.

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New Times: You've been educated in law as well as art. Does your legal background inform your work?

Ellen Harvey: For a long time I always thought that my legal background

had nothing to do with my artwork. It was just something that I had done

in order to support myself at a time when I didn't think I could make

it as an artist.  More recently, I realized that there is a common

denominator: I'm most interested in the ways in which unspoken rules

govern our lives.

I'm really interested in how people decide that someone is an artist, or

that something is art.  Who decides? And what about all those people

who think they are artists but nobody else does?  When I was a lawyer, I

was fascinated by which things people need to agree on in negotiations

and which things are just taken for granted.  These things are very

culture-specific but they're often invisible within a culture.  As an

artist, I like making the invisible, visible. For example, the "Nudist

Museum" is all about making visible our contemporary assumptions about

nudity in and outside of an art context.

Your "New York Beautification Project" paintings recontextualize

traditional landscapes. They seemed to imply that romantic countrysides

exist only in the dreams of city dwellers. What constructs are you

questioning in "The Nudist Museum"?

Miami is such a sexy city compared to New York. It's warm and people

wear less clothing so I suppose nudity was just on my mind.  Also, I'm

interested in cliches of art production and the nude is one of the great

genres of painting and something that many people immediately think of

when they think of art.  I've worked with the history painting, the

landscape, the portrait. It was time to do something with the nude. 

I was lucky in that the Bass Museum has a really interesting (but

fortunately, not too large) collection so I thought it would be great to

start by looking to see what nudes they had. Once I saw them all, I

realized that I had a project.  The nudes were so different from what we

think of now when we think of nudity.  A lot of the nudes were

religious or of children.  Only a very few of the artworks fell into the

category of the sexualized nude and even then the bodies depicted were

quite radically different from what we would consider to be attractive


Ellen Harvey Gives Nudity the Third Degree at Bass
Courtesy of Ellen Harvey

Courtesy of Ellen Harvey
In your Whitney Biennial exhibit video, you mentioned that "failure" is a

reoccurring theme in your work. Does the theme appear in "The Nudist


Failure is interesting to me because I think it's something that links

art to the larger human condition.  Artists try to achieve the

impossible: to create something extraordinary that in the end is almost

never as extraordinary as they hope it will be.  Similarly, we all try

to accomplish things that seldom work out perfectly.  It's a very, very

human thing to do.  The "Nudist Museum" is really about the failure or

impoverishment of our relationship to our own naked selves.

We live in a society that only really accepts the perfect sexualized

nude, but the reality is that we have bodies throughout our lives and

that even at our prime, very few of us look like the "acceptable" nudes

of the mass media.  Nudity can also mean so much more than sex and it's

sad to have such a interesting and potent metaphor so reduced in

meaning. In a sense, we are all failures in that we almost all fail to

conform to the physical stereotypes of our culture but also in the sense

that we allow these stereotypes to have so much power.

Can you describe your process for creating these pieces for the Bass Museum?

I wanted my piece to look like a real collection so I bought a lot of

second-hand frames.  I then printed out the images sent by the Bass

Museum of all their artworks that contained nudity and made free-hand

copies on oils, cropping the images to accentuate the nudes and painting

everything other than the actual nudes in shades of black and white.  

The sizes of the paintings were determined more or less by the sizes of

the second-hand frames and the paintings spilled out onto the frames to

alert viewers that what appears to be a collection of older paintings

was in fact something a little different.  The wallpaper behind the

paintings will contain fragments of contemporary mass media nudes to

provide a contrast to the paintings.

We read about two occasions where you did free portraits of the public

in exchange for their critique. Did you find that the public was

critical in their response?

I did "100 Free Portraits" on the streets of New York and "100 Visitors

to the Biennial Immortalized" in the context of the Whitney Biennial in

2008.  The difference between the evaluations of the participants was

surprising even to me:  on the streets, people were very critical of

their 15 minute portraits. In the Biennial, people were extremely kind

and complimentary.  I don't think that I got better as a portraitist so I

assume that people were hesitant to be critical of a "serious" artist,

while they had no difficulty being extremely critical of a random street


Any plans to do live portrait series in Miami - perhaps during Art Basel?

I think I'm done with that project. I don't like to repeat myself. . .

Meet Harvey this Saturday, when "The Nudist Museum" opens. The exhibit continues until November 7. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 12 to 5 p.m. Tickets cost $8 general admission, $6 for seniors and students, and is free for members. Call 305-673-7530 or visit bassmuseum.org.

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