Nude or Naked: June Leaf’s Reclining Nude

The longer you stare at June Leaf’s Reclining Nude, the more figures start to crawl out at you. In the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG), its 64-by-110 inch canvas is a dark shadow on a bright white wall. There is an unfinished quality to this work, mainly due to the interminged existence of thick impastos, bare canvas, dripping paint, and the light stain of a horizontal stroke across the canvas. Leaf’s layers of oil paint reveal an unsettling world of an artist always in motion, mangling the human body and the traditional conventions of the nude itself.

Much of Leaf’s work explores the role of the female form — particularly the nude female form — in contemporary painting. In an exhibition last summer, the YUAG displayed several of Leaf’s sketches and drawings that dissect the human body. Reclining Nude, part of the YUAG’s permanent collection, is perhaps the most audacious example of Leaf’s continued exploration.

Up close, Reclining Nude divulges its creation story. Leaf’s brushstrokes expose the viewer to 11 years of painting and repainting, stopping and starting, from 1996 to 2007. The lines where Leaf removed part of the canvas to begin again suggest dissatisfaction with her rendering of the figure’s hand or perhaps the swirls in the sky above. The dripping of paint in the bottom left corner suggests she worked standing, allowing herself to zoom in and out, touching the canvas and then moving away to see the work in its entirety. The quick, uneven, scribbling strokes of her paintbrush leave thick paint in some areas, and an almost untouched canvas in others. The paint is thickest by the figure’s face — blush-colored impastos mimicking the natural bouncing of light off the human face.

The pinks, reds, and oranges of the naked figure are fleshy, almost gory: red paint drips like blood from the figure’s left arm. Do the black, sunken features and shut eyes indicate pain or just a deep slumber? The hands grasp for something unattainable with a tense, almost pleading quality. The flesh contrasts against the soothing blues, greens, and browns of the painting’s background.

The gore and ominous lifelessness depicted in Leaf’s work increase as the viewer steps away from the canvas in discomfort. Is her subject “reclining,” dying, already dead? With each step away from the canvas, the disjointed, jerky brush strokes merge, making space for ghost-like figures to creep out from the layers of paint. The calm blues of the background afford no relief from the fleshy, bloody warm tones of the human body. Leaf does not allow for the luxurious relaxation that her title Reclining Nude suggests. Instead of silk draperies, unsettling apparitions surround the figure’s form. One dark figure lurks over the body, with many more faces and human features appearing the longer you stare into the muddied layers of paint. From this distance, you no longer see the touch of Leaf’s hand and are left only with this soft lifelessness. Leaf shows a body that has been badly harmed.

Leaf’s choice of title, Reclining Nude, adds another dimension to this work. With it, she makes a nod to a history of female nudes. Many European post-Renaissance male artists depicted a barely, if at all, dressed woman reclining with her naked torso on full display at the center of the image. Theirs was an idealized, sexualized figure, staring off into space so as to remain an object and to avoid implicating the male painter or voyeur in an indecent act. Leaf’s subject, however, faces down, concealing their torso. At first glance, the figure appears male, but only because of the lack of typically feminine qualities — no hair or breasts or vagina. Leaf paints the pelvic area dark grey, drawing the viewer’s eyes to this region, but you don’t see genitalia.

Leaf’s work is by no means a classical nude. Why then did she choose this title? Does she use the word nude satirically? Is her depiction of a limp and unidentifiable figure a critique of traditional nudes? Is her title an assertion that the lack of individuality in her own figure parallels the traditional objectification of women in nude paintings? Historically, the purpose of nudes has been to satiate some pornographic craving of the male viewers. Reclining Nude definitely does not serve this purpose, but it does satiate some other voyeuristic desire for death. If a nude is meant to show the undressed body for a purpose, then maybe her work remains a nude, not an image of a naked figure.

Leaf has stated that she works on a painting until she feels as though it tells some sort of unarguable truth. It took her 11 years to produce this particular truth: Reclining Nude is uncomfortable, disquieting, and stomach-turning. We stare at a harmed or dead figure. In the gap between the title Leaf has chosen and the painting itself, she asks what exactly the boundary is between the objectified porcelain bodies of a traditional nude and a complete stripping of individuality and life.

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