Edward Eggelston painting model, Edith Backus, 1936. Courtesy of Cleveland State University.
Ever since I gave up abstraction back in the 90s in favor of the figure, I have, on and off, been using a nude female model. In my recent work the figures hang somewhere between an abstracted rendition of a living being and a flat-out cartoon ─ a hybrid concoction in no obvious need of posed naked bodies. And yet I persist. I tell myself that hiring a model is a legitimate way to keep in touch with the “reality” of human flesh (whatever that may be). But then the entire artist-and-model thing is so rife with clichés and social anxieties that I barely believe my own rationale. Who in 2012 can take seriously the patriarchal myth that has male artist and female model ─ despite their unequal status, clothing-wise ─ cocooned within the sacred studio solely for the purpose of pursuing high-minded creative goals? Not me. I must confront ─ and continually re-confront ─ the fact that, for me at least, there is in this highly contrived arrangement between painter and poser a fair degree of sexual tension ─ a sexual tension that allows me to studiously draw from the model in the confident knowledge that this accumulated erotic charge may very well transfer to the completed painting and make it much more than it would otherwise be.
The models that I hire are sometimes strangers, sometimes people I know. In all cases I pay them a fair wage, somewhere in the range of $20 an hour, depending on the nature and duration of the pose. In my book, modeling is work and deserves pay. To my surprise I recently found out that my studio partner, the Buffalo painter Bruce Adams, pays his many models nothing. For him, pay somehow falsifies the relationship, makes it less “pure.” Adams says he wants the model to have a vested interest in the art. “I often treat the model as a collaborator. . . They work with me, not for me.” No matter, the notion of having a woman pose nude for free struck me as exploitative, and in many long arguments I expressed that view to no avail.
“Hiring a model is like renting a power tool,” Adams claims. “The power tool has no interest in what you are doing . . . I want a model who has some personal motivation for modeling that transcends a cash reward.”
Though I shell out the bucks, I don’t ever remember thinking of the model as a disinterested machine. They chatter away, laugh at my jokes (some, anyway), go pensive, stare into space, offer posing ideas of their own invention, and generally join in the spirit of the work at hand. And at the end of the session they walk away with, say, $60, which to my mind is hardly worthy compensation for taking off your clothes and assuming what are sometimes ungainly and unflattering attitudes. But still, better than nothing.
I told Adams he was romanticizing the artist/model relationship, creating a false studio idyll that played on (and off of) the model’s ego and self-image. He didn’t buy it. Running out of arguments against this entrenched model gratis, I once resorted to the atavistic position that the camera ─ we both use the camera in the painting process ─ “steals the soul.” His retort shut me down: “So you think that a model’s soul is only worth a measly $20 an hour?”
And amazingly the models continue to, figuratively, line up outside Adams’ studio door, hastened there by word of mouth that the experience is singular, if not life-changing. Many of these women are professionals of some sort. One heads a media arts organization, another runs a city-wide mural project. Among them are a poet, an educator working on her doctorate, and a gay and lesbian activist who has addressed the U.S. Supreme Court. In short, they are often model citizens ─ citizens who also find it fascinating to strip down and offer themselves as an artist’s model.
Bruce Adams, “Diana and the Stag,” oil on canvas, 2011; Courtesy of the artist
One model, a petite woman with hooded eyes worthy of a Leonardo, who appears as Diana in Adams’ Diana and the Stag, said she saw modeling for Adams “as an experiment for the artist to utilize my body as a pass-through and catalyst for new ideas.” She talked about the artist/model relationship as a unique chance for thought-provoking conversation.
Modeling for this person was an opportunity for intellectual expansion, a chance to be in on a fresh creative moment.
Another model, whose imposing figure would fill the most generously sized canvas, said that “modeling forced me to get out of my comfort zone and see myself as many others see me. Losing the shield, becoming vulnerable, surprisingly I became powerful, which made me feel beautiful. And of course it was an ego boost finding out that there are lots of men out there who don’t like skinny twigs.”
OK, I can see that: modeling as a kind of psychotherapy.
A third woman, of statuesque proportions, someone who has modeled for both Adams and myself (for example, in my Beauty Rules: Silly Girls), said that when she sees her image in a fairly realistic painting she felt “immortalized,” a word that other models used as well.
Now, it was beginning to look as though it is the models that are doing the romanticizing of the artist/model parable, seeing in it a near-miraculous transformative power on a very personal level. Adams confirms that all these individuals found something extraordinary through modeling. “Inevitably, without fail,” he said, “the models leave saying it was one of the greatest experiences of their lives.”
Richard Huntington, “Beauty Rules: Silly Girls,” acrylic on canvas, 1997; Courtesy of the artist.
Meanwhile, back in my more workaday studio, at the end of a session I pass along the few dollars owed, perhaps make arrangements for another visit, and give a cordial goodbye. As far as I can see the model is more or less the same person she was when she walked in, only a few bucks richer and maybe armed with a few more good amusing stories.
But maybe the fair-wage for fair-work argument isn’t totally defeated by this entrancing romance of the studio. Turns out the model last mentioned above, the one who felt herself “immortalized” when she saw her face and body rendered so convincingly on canvas, also had a pragmatic side. It would be fine with her, she allowed, if while being immortalized she was also paid a few dollars for her time.