Skin Deep

Thomas Wharton

About three years ago I went to a New York gallery opening that included paintings by some of my friends. The theme was the male nude. In the course of conversation, one of the artists suggested that I should think about doing one. I hadn’t considered it before because I didn’t feel I had anything to bring to such a classic subject, but I left thinking about it, and after a few months decided to try one.

I found a good model, we arrived at a pose that he would be able to hold during the extended sessions, and I began. Yet after a few sessions I became aware that I really didn’t like how the painting was coming together. It seemed predictable and rather academic, and I realized that I had no desire to finish it.

During a break, I told him I wanted to try something else. I wanted him to assume a variety of poses that I would photograph. He was agreeable, and when we were through with the session, I had several hundred shots. Many seemed interesting, but I was uncertain about what to do with them and not entirely comfortable with the idea of painting from photos. So I put them away.

About a year later I had an insight. I realized that nude was the art world term for naked, and that unlike nude, naked is a powerful word that carries a tremendous emotional charge. Naked is exposed. Naked is a person without cultural costume or societal mask. Naked carries the potential of shame, vulnerability, and even of freedom and joy.

Ecce homo—behold the man.


Emily Gilbert