Boise State University's Student Union Gallery is "plastered" with nude bodies, male and female, that catch the eye of all who attempt to stroll nonchalantly by. It might seem ironic that this gawk-fest is presented by the Boise State Women's Center. The intent behind the pieces, however, is not to provide fodder for sex-starved freshmen and faculty members, but to visually transform the human form, in its many shapes and sizes, into a thing of beauty.
The featured exhibition, The Body Image Project, is an installation by artist Larry Kirkwood. Kirkwood, who spent his own university years studying philosophy, ethics and aesthetics, started The Project in 1993 to, according to his November 4 lecture, "help people to really 'see' the human body and to emphasize the beauty of every form." He has since traveled to universities far and wide, including Duke, Kansas State, Louisiana State, University of Minnesota, University of Nebraska, University of Wisconsin, University of Illinois and the University of Wyoming, making plaster casts of the naked torsos of students. For die-hard Animal House fans, it may sound like Kirkwood has somehow brilliantly engineered the American male's dream job: get paid to fondle co-eds. Kirkwood, however, sees his work as much more meaningful and omits any discussion of real, tactile evidence that he's been feelin' up America for more than a decade.
Kirkwood says instead that he is interested in exposing the myth of the "perfect" body and revealing the magnificence of the body's form, however it may be contoured. His models, all anonymous volunteers, range from the morbidly obese to the sickly skinny, with the majority falling in the range of pleasantly plump. He says that each two-hour casting session consists of only twenty minutes of actual casting, while the rest is spent teaching his subjects how to look at their bodies as a beautiful, bouncy whole instead of the sum of a few under- or oversized parts. Kirkwood even comes back to the opening of each exhibition to educate attendees about the ills of the modern marketing world and its efforts to make us feel like we are less than we are in hopes that we purchase products aimed at self-enhancement.
It seems like such a good idea, doesn't it? What could be better than leering at some nudies while basking in one's own sense of superior political correctness? Unfortunately, Kirkwood manages to turn the human form from the one purely beautiful thing we all possess into an eyesore destined to hang over the leopard print, velour couch in some smarmy bachelor pad. I'm surprised Kirkwood wasn't commissioned by Saturday Night Live to create a set for "The Ladies' Man."
The casts, once removed from the bodies and left to cure, are vandalized by a painting process Kirkwood believes, "detracts from the nudity and helps viewers focus on the form." Unfortunately, this means the surfaces are covered with a medley of faux painting techniques that detract from their beauty and in no way serve the purpose Kirkwood intends. I just can't enjoy the lumps, bumps and bulges of the casts when they are camouflaged in hot pink and purple paint with gold crackles. I can imagine, however, I would have enjoyed seeing this exhibition in fifth grade instead of watching the required maturation video. Not only would it have provided a realistic image of the naked adult form, but such color combos were the height of middle-school fashion at the time.
But what do you expect when you leave a man to do the job of addressing and redressing the ills of modern society in regard to the self-image and subsequent self-worth of women? Boise State's Women's Center to the rescue! The exhibition that accompanies Kirkwood's, Shelled, is a much more powerful and honest investigation. The participants started with the same basic intent, making plaster torso casts, but instead of casting strangers they cast themselves. The casts are not taken out of context, and no attempt is made to disguise the medium or the subject. Instead, the casts are centerpieces in mini-installations that are painfully personal. They are more artistically minded and aesthetically motivated than Kirkwood's. They are not a prettily packaged "exhibition and lecture" product to be purchased for the well being of Boise State's student body-they are the student body, and all the internal and external baggage that comes to school with that body. It is well worth visiting the exhibition if for no other reason than to engage in a little "Disparage the commercialized, profit-ized, penis-ized professional artist!" compare and contrast session.