Those seeking titillation from "The Erotic Art Show" at the Washington Women's Art Center might as well forget it. That woozy womb-a-rama is a dull, defiant downer. Its chief imagery is vulvar. The feminist who juried it, Joan Semmel of New York, apparently believes that consciousness is raised by lowering the gaze.
The good Dr. Freud, a man who had an eye for sexual symbols, has, perhaps unfairly, been blamed for the contention that everything in art is either round or long. Here round wins by a mile. The female sexual organ is portrayed, often vaguely, more than 50 times in this 35-item show.
"The great question which I have not been able to answer, despite my 30 years of research into the feminine soul," mused Freud, "is: 'What does a woman want?' " One answer this show offers is that women want to celebrate an eroticism different from that for so long stamped by males on the images of art.
There is precedent aplenty for sexiness in art. Gwen John painted nudes, so did Suzanne Valadon and Sandro Botticelli. Countless are the masterworks -- the Ice Age Venus of Willendorf, Praxitiles' Aphrodite, Michelangelo's David, the lovers of Rodin -- that by Webster's definition, "tending to arouse sexual love or desire," may be termed "erotic." But the sexual love in this show is far too often self-love, the desire narcissistic.
Women have long been oppressed, raped and bought and sold. There is reason for their rage. "You want it? Here it is," their exhibit seems to growl. What makes their show so sad is not its amateurish art, but the way its artists, who decry oppression, echo their oppressors. The crotch-shots in their show cannot help but call to mind those obscene magazines for men whose exploited models, like too many artists here, seem to wish to turn their bodies inside-out.
Despite flashes of humor, this show, partly funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, and, for different reasons, by the Pleasure Chest in Georgetown, is less scandal than flop. It is too clinical to please, too serious to be sexy. The viewer who emerges from the basement galleries of the Washington Women's Art Center, 1821 Q St. NW, gasping for fresh air, may cleanse his eyes by visiting "Bare Facts: A Modest Look at Glamour Art," a vastly better exhibition currently on view at the Nourse Gallery in Georgetown, 3212 N St. NW.
It is a show of pinups. It is slightly sexy, and it is also fun. Feminists may argue, and they would, of course, be right, that these saucy, well-made paintings were specifically produced -- in the '40s, '50s and '60s -- for male titillation. The motives of the artists represented here were, there is no doubt, less admirable than Rodin's. They made their art to please wide-eyed boys in barbershops, mechanics in garages and GIs overseas. But they did their questionable work lightheartedly and well, with something close to grace. Genital pictures flaunt. This cheesecake instead flirts.
These "Bare Facts" are not really bare. The rounded sweeties here do affect spike heels, garters and long gloves, and the come-hither look, but at least they keep their clothes on. Freud might have remarked the candles on their birthday cakes, the soap bubbles they blow, the bearskins they cavort on and the sailboat masts they climb, but the puppies that they play with are not really prurient. This art is stylized and sexist. But it is not obscene.
There is a difference. When Hiram Power's marble "Greek Slave" was shown to gaping audiences in 1845, the Rev. Orville Dewey excused the absence of her dress on the grounds that she was, after all, "clothed all over with sentiment, sheltered, protected by it, from every profane eye." When, in 1913, the young and naked wader in Paul Chabas' "September Morn" was attacked as indecent ("There's too little morn and too much maid," complained Anthony Comstock of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice) she, too, was defended, at least by those who could perceive the sentiment that clothed her. She soon became the first nationally known calendar nude. Her daughters, who all wear underclothes of innocence and overclothes of humor, smile from the walls of the present show.
Made for Brown & Bigelow calendars, and for ads in Esquire, they are beautifully painted. The artists who portrayed them -- Vargas, Peter Dribben, Gil Elvgren, Fritz Willis, Rolf Armstrong and Zoe Mozert, who did not need a model, she posed before her mirror -- had learned more from the Louvre than they had from lust.
With oils or pastels, they painted with high skill. The Vargas paintings here are as alluring as the rest, though we only see their faces, creamy shoulders and green, glowing eyes. Elvgren's happy patriot, who wears red, white and blue, and urges us to vote, is -- as is the sailormaid of his "Ankles Awow" -- no more a sex object than a joke. The women in this show are fantasies, of course, but in the best erotic art, in the drawings of Picasso, the carved temples of India, the sculpture of Rodin, fantasy is preferable, sweeter, less offensive -- and more erotic, too -- than the ferocious fact of Hustler or the "Erotic Art Show."
The paintings in "Bare Facts" come from the collection of Arthur Amsie of Alexandria. A new piece of calendar art, published by Chip Nourse, accompanies the show, which closes on Feb. 21. The "Erotic Art Show" at WWAC runs through Feb. 20.