My Friends, Naked

Sienna Reid at Collusion Gallery, August 1997

by Alison Gates



Walking into a gallery full of paintings of naked people is nothing new. The artist has long rendered the human form for one reason or another for thousands of years, and probably will continue to do so well beyond our lifetimes. But even to those of us who have spent endless hours reviewing the difference between the 'Naked and the Nude' the deeper issues at work in an exhibit like this (if, in fact there are other exhibits like this) may not present themselves readily. Here, at the end of the millennium, the implications of the human form represented unclothed are complex, and made moreso by this artist's identification with her subject matter. They are, admittedly, her friends, and they are indisputably naked; herein lies the complexity that makes this show worth writing about.

At the opening of the exhibit, commentary ran the gamut of "Look, there's Yves' wanker," to "Yeah, that's my housemate, the one with the hair." Obviously, these models are not only Sienna Reid's friends, but other peoples' friends too, and Reid is a good enough realist painter for us to be able to make these instant associations. Beyond adept rendering, however, the artistic license allowed a painter who paints her friends is specifically emotional. In looking at the pictures the relationship of artist to model, model to artist is clearly different from most of the nudes we see in museums in it's intimacy and thoughtfulness. Reid is painting a picture of someone she cares about in each case, not a hired figure who poses for whomever can supply a remuneration.

There is inherent in these paintings a kindness, or reverence, of the person depicted. This is an anomaly in the realm of art history. Compare the very private "Helga" paintings of Wyeth or certain other groundbreaking works of Manet, like his "Olympia," to the nudes of Picasso, Giacometti or Ingres. The fact that this sort of nude-as-individual is a rarity makes an exhibit of this nature quite compelling; we the viewers aren't 'supposed' to know anything about the person who posed nude. Until "Olympia" hit the public in the face in 1865 everyone knew but never admitted that most nude models were hired bodies, perhaps even of questionable moral fiber. Manet was the first to exhibit a painting of a courtesan 'en situ.' Reid, over a century later, is still battling the oppressive hypocritical morality imposed upon painters and their models: My Friends, Naked feels like a battle cry against the dehumanization of the model, and a rebellion against a public who would still rather not have the painting stare back.

And stare back these models do. Why shouldn't they? They were in the hands of a trusted confidante. Perhaps they wouldn't have posed nude for anyone else, and there seems in the very title of this show a pact of confidence, that their naked forms would be treated with respect and a lack of exploitation. Reid delivers. The portraits are sensitive, individual, sometimes celebrational, and deeply personal in a way that makes the physical nakedness of the model somewhat irrelevant; these models could be naked psychologically as well as physically in light of the fact that the woman who painted them already seems to know and accept their secrets, beliefs and personal characteristics perhaps not shared readily with the public at large. Some were placed in environments, others exist in an ambiguous color field ala Manet's "Fifer." Painting portraits of a group of diverse personalities seems to have given Reid the opportunity to explore the full range of ways in which to paint the nude as well as express her personal views of people close to her in a way most of us are unable to do with our own circles of friends.

The inclusion of a set of smaller self-portraits is somewhat worthy of mention. At first I found their presence a little irritating, however, for a woman in America to include herself in the company of her own friends is in itself an interesting statement in light of the generally accepted atmosphere of self-hatred under which we (American women) all seem to labor. By including these "Sienna-Eye View" renderings of her own body, she celebrates her own position as a friend to herself and that is a refreshing thought. That she trusts herself to paint her own figure is a strong statement in these times, and reinforces the idea that she is indeed a trustworthy executor of this project.

Click on the arrow to begin the virtual gallery walk of scanned slides of Sienna Reid's paintings from her shows "My Friends, Naked," "My Friends, Drunk," as well as other recent paintings of hers.

Sienna Reid can be reached at: 

Alison Gates can be reached at: