Relaxing with the masters

They recline in lounge chairs, bodies insolently draped, slouched and perched. They’re mostly nude, but for a handful clothed in blue sky and clouds. Say what? A surreal beachside tableau wrought by too many hallucinogenics, perhaps?

A surreal tableau, indeed, but it’s not the result of taking mind-altering drugs. Artist Gayle Wurthner has painstakingly painted famous nudes from art history onto vintage lounge chairs. And yes, an occasional piece (after surrealist Rene Magritte, for example) features a body composed of impossibly blue skies dotted with puffy white clouds. The chairs, each paired with a complementary landscape painting, are on exhibit at Zone one contemporary gallery through July 3, under the collective title Lounging at the Louvre.

Wurthner — a former Los Angeles resident (by way of Pittsburgh) who now calls Asheville home — says that creating the chairs was somewhat of a natural progression for her. A longtime set designer and scenic artist for theater, films and music videos (her work has appeared in such films as The Long Walk Home, Creepshow, Ironweed, The Music Box, Hoosiers and Nobody’s Fool, and in a popular Beastie Boys music video), Wurthner has always had a flair for, as she puts it, “making something look like something else.” But her motivation for creating the chairs goes beyond mere desire to expand her artistic horizons.

“I wanted to kind of make fun of the fact that appropriated art is being taken so seriously,” she says with a throaty laugh. “There’s very little humor in it. To take, say, a Gauguin figure and put it in some esoteric landscape — which is often done — excludes many people,” she explains — particularly those who may not be all that conversant, or comfortable, with high art. By way of illustration, Wurthner points to a time when she was a design consultant for Hollywood’s ultrarich and famous. “I mean, they didn’t trust their own taste to design the inside of their homes. So I would spend time convincing people that if they hadn’t traveled to Rome, they really didn’t need Roman artifacts on their mantel. It was bulls••t. If they had bad taste, they should embrace it. They should say, ‘Damn it — I like black-velvet paintings!’ That’s partly what this exhibit is about; it’s a way of assaulting what is taken too seriously.”

Wurthner also had a yen for making utilitarian art. “I realize that’s already being done, with things like Monet-on-an-umbrella available in the [National Public Radio-affiliated] Signals catalog,” she notes. “And I don’t consider what I’m doing any more grand. But I do think that putting these famous nudes on ’60s fiberglass surfaces … some of which were marbleized first … and then having them undulating on the surfaces was an interesting blending of something postmodern with the notion that appropriating [the figures] on the chairs would simply be funny. I did the first two, and not only were they funny, I felt that they would welcome the nongallery viewer into the art world in a way that the Monet umbrellas don’t.”

Seeing famous nudes by Picasso, Beardsley, de Kooning, Modigliani, Corinth, Klimt, Schiele, Dali, Matisse, Gauguin, Magritte and Giacometti lounging side by side in Wurthner’s spacious studio is indeed oddly humorous, not to mention beautifully disconcerting: A voluptuous Matisse figure, wearing only a sheer sarong, reclines with arms lazily resting behind a dark-tressed head; an even more ripely voluptuous (and decidedly disturbing) Corinth appears to literally squirm on the chair — vulnerably naked, with arms tightly crossed and a facial expression running somewhere between fear and ecstasy; a perfect Modigliani rests in peaceful repose; a distorted de Kooning becomes a dark caricature of Woman; the whimsical, bowler-hatted, blue-skied Magritte body ends in a seal’s tail, the whole figure perched atop a ball; and the simple lines of an elegant Beardsley (the only definitively male figure in the celebrity group) follow the curves of the chair, while the figure’s Medusa-like hair tops a face at once petulant and frightening.

She has titled the pieces “Wurthner’s Picasso,” “Wurthner’s Beardsley,” and so on. “I certainly don’t want people to think this is my genius,” she explains. “It’s like being too tall for all the guys when you’re younger [Wurthner stands 6-foot-1], and knowing that you’re too tall means that they’re never going to look at you ‘that’ way — but, on the other hand, it’s sort of wonderful because they listen to what you say and think about your impact. I feel that way about these guys: I can be truly proud of this work in a way I can never be proud of my own original work, because I don’t consider these works my masterpieces.” To Wurthner, the fact that there’s a little bit of herself in each piece is, as she describes it, “arrogant enough. I find it entirely satisfying that … I make the decision to elongate a form or change it slightly, so that it fits on the chair better, or I bleed it off the chair to make it work.”

Wurthner concedes that it wasn’t always easy to remain true to the artists’ original visions while adapting their figures to the curving shapes of lounge chairs (and one can’t help but wonder how each of these painters would react to her solution to that particular dilemma). “Part of the challenge was finding figures that would fit on the chairs and then adapting them to the chairs, without assaulting their anatomy too much or assaulting the artist,” she explains.

A further challenge arose when Wurthner decided to paint what she imagined to be each artist’s take on the same Southern California landscape, to be exhibited behind their respective chairs. Wurthner created the original vista, depicting her old Simi Valley neighborhood, in 1992, “before they moved the houses in. The mountains for a long time had sheep on them, and then suddenly the sheep were gone, and then the mountains were lowered to foothills, and then they moved the houses in.” The Wurthner painting is a study in the same blue skies and fluffy cumulus clouds that figure in the “Magritte” version, plus rolling, golden hills. And its singular Southern California theme is a perfect companion to the notion of lounge chairs — “such a big thing in that region, lounging about the pool,” she notes, adding, “I found the beautiful sky and the perfect days in Los Angeles hilarious. I mean, you’d just want to shoot the sun right out of the sky.”

But many of the artists whose figures she appropriated never painted landscapes, so Wurthner had to improvise. She executed the Beardsley landscape by means of the elemental lines of an Etch-A-Sketch — a medium in which she was wholly comfortable, having made something of a splash in the art world in the mid-’80s with her Etch-A-Sketch works (she appeared on The Today Show and garnered a write-up in People magazine, among other enthusiastic media attention). The de Kooning landscape is an abstract tour de force employing the artist’s trademark overlaps and undermining of shapes (“He required the void to be as dominant as the solid,” Wurthner points out, “and like the medieval painters, he contradicted each overlap, so that what was in front was also behind.”). The Corinth landscape is as turbulent as the complicated visage of his nude, the cotton-candy cumulus clouds now dark and blustery.

Wurthner feels strongly that each chair and corresponding landscape need to remain together. “Ideally, the entire collection — all the pieces — should be kept together,” she says, noting that the perfect place for the work would be the gargantuan Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas (“It’s designed around a museum that has artwork from these artists in it,” she explains). But since it’s unlikely that a collector will buy the whole shebang, keeping chair-and-painting together is the next best thing, in Wurthner’s eyes.

Through the delicate process of duplicating these artists’ most famous pieces, Wurthner believes she has also gained an unprecedented understanding of their work. “I mean, you can listen to someone blab on in a museum forever and take six master’s degrees in art history, but until you actually do the work, you don’t really understand it,” she asserts. And the day-to-day intimacy Wurthner has achieved with these Olympian figures sometimes leads her to approach them in a disarmingly casual way — as if they were slightly intriguing but otherwise unremarkable guys who lived down the block and happened to paint interesting pictures, instead of these celestial beings sprung from the hallowed pages of weighty art-history tomes. “I have nothing in common with Klimt and really would just like to write ‘etc., etc., etc.’ in place of all the decorative stuff he insisted on adding to his figures,” she reveals. “Magritte was cute and adorable and oh-so-silly, and he’d probably be designing the latest Star Wars toy if he were alive today,” she prophesies. “From a personal point of view, Schiele and Corinth are the guys I’d be afraid to date,” she confides, then pauses meaningfully before adding, “but I’d want to.”

Which brings us to sex. Wurthner often couches the artistic intimacy she’s achieved with these painters in frankly sexual terms. “I think the [sexual] rise women get — at least after a certain age and a certain amount of experience — is mostly intellectual,” she reveals. “So getting to know these artists well enough to know their abilities and their weaknesses … [is] really exciting. … I’m getting to know them on a level that you could spend a lifetime with an individual and not know, because I have to make decisions that they made all the time, so I have to get into their state of consciousness. It’s like the tango: It’s like, how close can you dance without necking? And also, because these are figures, I know how they viewed the human body — and, in some cases, why. What parts of the body do they always outline, and what parts do they never think of? And it’s just, really … I can’t describe it. It’s so intimate. It’s so erotic.”

Wurthner adds yet another level of eros to the show with the oddball chair that she calls “the period at the end of the sentence — the ‘Wurthner’s Wurthner.'” This chair depicts a partially clothed male — the husband of an acquaintance of hers; “I had no interest in painting a male-model type,” she notes firmly. “I suddenly realized I needed to do a male nude — or partial nude, actually, because that’s more erotic to me — for the very same reason most of these painters chose to do female nudes. It’s the idea of that obscure object; that’s where desire was for them and is for me. … What intrigues me is also exactly what annoys me, and that’s a tension that needs to be in the work.”

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