Bascove for The Three Tomatoes
BY THE LIGHT OF DESIRE
“Drawing the figure has as many variations as history itself. There is great enjoyment in recognizing the differences of lush romanticism of an Art Nouveau figure, one interpreted by the structural complexities of Cubism or the shimmering color of Impressionism. This season a gallery in Williamsburg, Figureworks, has been showing an extensive Three-part exhibition: “Exploring 100 Years of figurative Art”. Representational, traditional, abstract, commercial and decorative works have been thoughtfully brought together to consider fresh juxtapositions of this universal subject.
One of the featured artists is McWillie Chambers, an artist who brings us images of the male figure created with light and translucence. A Louisiana native, Chambers found a home in NY where his work has been justly celebrated for the past 25 years. His unique art radiates exuberance and tenderness. There is also a mischievous streak in Chambers that can surface in the most unlikely places: with his mastery of brushwork he is heir to David Hockney’s early masterworks of sensuality. His paintings of young men on the beach portray the light of the sun illuminating the sky, the water, and figures in colors of aqua, hot oranges, fuchsias, and rich ultramarines. They retrieve the memory of the heaviness of heat and the carelessness of summer. Chambers has made studies of the works of Thomas Eakins, capturing the essence of youth and innocence in those early days when the body is free to explore while dreaming in one’s own Eden. He has continued the narrative of the innate natural expressiveness of the male nude.
His fluid brushstrokes completely integrate his figures in to their surroundings. Light from a window dissolves a figure in to pure gesture. This spontaneity of movement is particularly eloquent in the otherworldliness of dancers surrounded by prisms of color, football player with the glare of sun on their bodies, and an easy, established camaraderie. A consummate draftsman, a few strokes can become the swell of the ocean, the setting streaks of sun or the line of a bare shoulder or neck. Intense emotion is induced through radiant hues. Faces often dissolve, like the rest of the body, into pure abstractions of color – heat and light pervade all.
And always, always, there is desire; there is eroticism, joy in the pleasures of easy movement and those of deep repose.
His ‘Dancer” series explores the fluency and strength of the trained body, the human form glows from the surrounding darkness of the theater. Strokes of violet and dark blue establish the background and continue, with only a confident change of color, to become the glowing pink/silver of the stage itself.
In “Yellow Vase – 8 figures”, with a gentle roguishness, and a few deft strokes, Chambers transforms even the commonplace in a subject of longing.
Figureworks is showing a luminous screen bringing together many of Chambers splendidly observed images with one magnificent work. With visions of the sun behind fragments of various artworks that resolve in the color of sand at the base, it culminates in the wit of Trompe l’oeil. “Revealing Screen” reinterprets several paintings, prints, and drawings to become both a record of a vacation and a true object of desire.
McWillie Chambers’ work will be on view at Figureworks through December 21st, 168 North 6th Street, Brooklyn, New York, NY, (718) 486-7021 The gallery is dedicated to exhibiting contemporary and 20th century Fine Art of the human form. Open the to public Friday, Saturday and Sunday 1-6 pm or by appointment.
Chambers is a regular at the John Davis Gallery in Hudson, NY. Check the gallery site for his upcoming shows. John Davis Gallery, 362 ½ Warren Street, Hudson, NY, 12534, (518) 828-5907.
His work can also be seen at the New Hope Sidetracks Art Gallery, 2A Stockton Ave., New Hope, PA, 18938 (215) 862-4586; and Madelyn Jordon Fine Art, 14 Chase Road, Scarsdale, NY, 10583, (914) 723-8738
“The Art of McWillie Chambers
By David Saunders
From Chambers’ humblest paintings of boats in sunsets to his most complex menage-a-trois groupings of nude men in nature, there is a disarming sincerity that confounds most traditional measures of aesthetic appreciation. Although the subjects of his paintings seem to step effortlessly out from the French Impressionist tradition, his brush strokes and color choices are determined by a criteria that is foreign to an Impressionist’s eye. In experiencing the unique vision of Chambers, I feel compelled to abandon the visual criteria I have learned from European Painting. The conventional love of light that inspired the Spaniards, the Impressionists, and the Realists, was an optical phenomenon that attracted those artists to create their own visual languages, but that is not the language spoken in McWillie Chambers’ paintings. The flashes and the depths of his colors have less conscious correlation to the effect of solar light upon his subjects, than to another kind of ‘glorious light’ that seems to glow from within a pervasive spirit of joy.
In searching for that distinct criteria which governs his works, I found a revealing clue in the following quote from the artist… “I’ll never paint if I have feelings of anger or frustration. I’m always waiting for the days when my spirit is its happiest! Fortunately, most days I’m very happy!” Apparently, Chambers will only touch his brush to canvas when the spirit moves him to revel in life’s fiery majesty. This spiritual approach to art may be the key to Chambers’ unique work, which invites its viewers to assume his viewpoint from that “state of grace”. I can best appreciate McWillie Chambers’ paintings as a joyous noise, a spontaneous dance of love, a testimonial to the spiritual majesty of life, spoken in tongues.
Through Chambers’ paintings, I can vicariously enjoy the experience of the artist’s own spiritual ‘oneness’ with life’s virile bounty. The Chinese invented this art form and DeKooning mastered it within the tradition of Abstraction, but McWillie Chambers has found a new way, from within the tradition of European painting, to make the experience of his own non-rational love of life accessible to me in an ostensibly representational painting. The artist’s own experience of ‘zoning out’ is rarely presented as the primary subject of a representational painting. This is an amazing accomplishment, which happily resolves a basic human conflict between doubt and faith, allowing non-believers, for once, to see before they believe.
Through his work, we can literally see that the human spirit really is. It is in life, it is in our awareness of life and thank goodness, it is in McWillie Chambers’ works themselves, for all of us to see and know better, shown to us a little more clearly through his own refined perception and mastery of his new language of painting.
David Saunders, New York City, 2002
Tricia Collins Grand Salon
for COVER Magazine
McWillie Chambers’ painting is not in any way confrontational, and yet he confronts a great dilemma and lets his own inherent graciousness resolve it. The dilemma is that most, but not all, of Chambers’ subject matter is the male nude. There is a man with an erection, and in past shows there have been sex acts portrayed. Some, but not all, of his sources are porno mags, beefcake and underwear ads. He also works from original photos, his own and others, and from people he remembers from the street – even briefly glanced. In fact, memory is the key to this work. Memory fueled by desire draws him to these innocent athletes. He doesn’t paint apples and flowers, or the destitute and desperate, the hopeless. He paints what he needs to paint, and is totally committed to a positive, affirmative view of life. An apple doesn’t turn him on, and his paintings are a respite from the suffering in the world we know all too well. If this is gay art, it must be most successful because that seems irrelevant. The sources of this work are actually beside the point. After all, this is not exploitation. Rather it is a celebration of desire, the memory of desire. This work flirts with you, engaging in an erotic dialog rather than being voyeuristic. Never were men and places so desirable. And place is why, as much as the men.
Chambers grew up in Louisiana, the home of deep south graciousness and sophistication. The only landscape in this show tells the whole story. How less the show would be without it. Chambers was raised with the rare attitude toward life, difficult for us New Yorkers to actually believe, and so we look for the falsity. Bigots will find it in gender preference, but even they will be seduced by the paint. The paint flows and moves across the surface, and in the space. Not for a moment does its sensuousness relent. The paint is hot, the color dazzling, the light subtropical. We are given the climate of New Orleans, the heat, the humidity, the air you can really see. In this place he remembers and desires, he puts men he remembers and desires, and every one of them is a portrait that transcends likeness and makes instead an erotically spiritual connection with the soul. Even when the sexuality is frank to the point of being blunt, an innocence is retained, and this innocence is the true content of this work. With great honesty, we are given an innocence that many of us have forgotten or never knew. Chambers’ Memory stimulates our own desire.
In the catalogue essay by Bill Arning, this work is put in the tradition of Cadmus, French and Tchelitchew. These paintings seem very different in attitude, style, sense of time and message. The only similarity is subject matter. And even that’s different. If he painted apples would he be in the tradition of Cezanne? Charles Demuth and Duncan Grant are mentioned as sharing a personal, private point of view. This work is so out of the closet that the comparison is hard to understand. And finally, even poor latent Tom Eakins is brought up. Better to have considered the case of David Hockney or Janet Fish if she were a gay man. Hockney and Fish are artists who indulge in joy, who epitomize the uniquely American constitutional right to pursuing happiness. The self absorbed narcissism of gay culture and its clichés keep us from Chambers’ paintings. If we can get beyond this and accept the true nature of these paintings we will be embraced by innocence.
Catalogue text by Bill Arning for the exhibition:
“McWillie Chambers Paintings 1997”
Tricia Collins. Grand Salon, New York 1997
“Nudity is Good For You”
Nudity is good for you. Improved health is a direct result of letting the sun shine on your naked flesh. Sure, this notion may seem a little simplistic, but throughout recent history naturist movements, from the early twentieth century cult of the body to the Woodstock nation, have drilled into us the image of smiling buck nekked folks partaking in this charming collective delusion. And even if it really isn’t true, so what? It would be an altogether nicer world if the simple act of shedding ones inhibitions with ones underwear, and just breathing deeply and stretching could cure whatever ails you.
In Amsterdam one summer – At first I didn’t know my hotel was by the section of Vondel park where nudity was de rigueur. I strolled into the park and there before me was a blinding sea of thousands of butts. “Cool” thought I, and ran back to the hotel, grabbed a towel, my address book and the stack of postcards I had bought earlier. I ran into the middle of the field, shucked my clothes as unclumsily as I could manage given my nervousness, settled down and began writing postcards back to New York – “I am sitting stark naked in the middle of a crowded city, Feels great, Wish you were here, Love Bill” each one said. After about ten postcards I began to notice one little problem with the field, bumblebees hovered everywhere. I obsessed over the unimaginable thresholds of pain of a genital sting. I tried rolling over on my belly – somehow I didn’t think my fuzzy butt was the right way to make a first impression on the good citizens of Les Pays Bas so I cut my nude holiday short. But I had achieved my ultimate Amsterdam experience if only briefly.
It is difficult to figure out why the simple act of exposing one’s body in a communal setting feels so profoundly like liberation. Intellectually you know that there really is no revolutionary power in it anymore, if there ever was. The empire does not crumble at the first site of pubic hair. But perhaps getting back in touch with the simple school child’s pleasure of mooning some figure of authority refreshes whatever beaten down spirit of desublimated contentiousness has managed to survive in our overly practical adult selves.
Which brings me to the recent paintings by McWillie Chambers. They celebrate male pulchritude with such innocence and playfulness that it is easy to forget that his sources are often queer porn and that more than a few of his models sport major un-ignorable woodies.
We know all the problems with porn and gay culture – gay men are overly branded by our sexuality, to the point where straight friends assume that at anytime we are out of their sight we are hanging around in a sling with a perfect stranger’s fist up our butts. But while the debate rages about whether we are too sexual, by whose definitions are we judging the meaning of “too sexual”, whether the dominant culture lets us have our sex clubs, bath houses and cruisy parks as a way of distracting us from achieving real political clout, etc. … I am still drawn to the notion of gay men as “An Army of Lovers”.
Porn culture has a lot to answer for – as its ubiquity, and the depths to which we absorb its messages in to the inner crevices of our psyches, makes the apotheoses of the Chelsea Boy identity – muscles, shaved chests- seem unavoidable. (Thankfully there is significant rebellion against this norm today, See anti-Gay ed Mark Simpson 1996)
It is difficult to explain why upon leaving Chambers studio my first thought was of innocence and sweetness, for I knew intellectually that many viewers of his work will remember nothing about the paintings except for the glistening muscles and boners, I wish now that I had installed on my computer the pornographers thesaurus’ 2000 slightly comic, dysfunctionally euphemistic synonyms for erection).
Chambers sources range from photographs taken by him or others, including clothes catalogs and soft core porn. Perhaps to me the porn image is so much the vernacular of urban gay life, that a Chambers painting is no more shocking than landscape or a vase of flowers. When I ask Mac Chambers about the general similarity of body types in his work, given how much politization has occurred over the issue, he just smiles sweetly and attributes it to his taste. The men are generally young of tight but not overly buff muscularity and pretty hairless. Well, no, this does not exactly challenge oppressive Chelsea Gay culture ideal, as masculine ideals go, this one is art-historically grounded and familiar from queer artists like Cadmus, French, Tchelitchew etc. – even if today’s body ideal is less epicene in its curves.
Then I realize why I am perceiving innocence in Chambers’ paintings. While the sources include the dreaded Chelsea-Shaved-Chest-Muscleboy, the sensibility and the delicately colorful paint handling is definitely reminiscent of the pre-Stonewall era as it exists in the collective memory of those of us who are too young to actually remember it. Even the porn erections remind me not of (overly-cited) Robert Mapplethorpe, or nineties practitioners Patricia Cronin, Lee Gordin, Robert Clarke or Keith Boadwee, but of Duncan Grant and Charles Demuths private drawings, ones done for person or only slightly shared pleasures rather than public display. Or the homoeroticized Eakins swimming hole, or even such ferreted out gay icons as Frederic Bazille.
I have a particular love for pre-Stonewall male nudes with the scintillating seasoning of repression. Despite Jim Shaw’s excellent and comprehensive archaeology of thrift store paintings, his investigations ignored my favorite sub-genre. There are many abandoned paintings in which you can smell the painting’s reason to exist was the only conceivable way to get the model out of their clothes. I enjoy fantasizing about the putative artists talking the model out of their shirt first, pants second and then practically begging them to shimmy down their shorts.
A slightly awkward academic sketch remains the only evidence of a blow-job that may have occurred thirty years ago, after which the artist/seducer had to comfort the model/idol that no, coming in a guys mouth did not mean he was queer. My boyfriend Erik brought home an excellent example of this genre, a crotch up charcoal sketch of a particularly butch model, signed Christof and dated 1965, which made me just a little jealous until he pointed out the models resemblance to me.
Many of Chambers outdoor scenes take place on the beach. I was watching Longtime Companion on TV – I had not seen it since it first came out – pre-AIDS gay life is frequently depicted as more than just being at the beach, it’s being embodied by the beach itself – an endless summer day – nude, or barely covered, on a towel, lubricated with a thermos of Margarita’s and an enviable choice of available sexy men. As the movie ends, three survivors walk down the beach again and imagine being alive for the cure. Suddenly hundreds of men come running down the walkway including all their friends that have died. The end of our nightmare is literalized as a return to the beach.
I am sometimes amazed that gay men can possibly be so resilient, so strong that after fifteen years of the constant presence of death and intense suffering surrounding the most basic joys of life, our sex lives, our love lives, our creation of caring families, that we can still feel pleasure, that we can celebrate our bodies. But we do, perhaps because we must, because if we don’t no- one will.
McWillie Chambers as he lovingly moves his brush over our collective breathing loving and cumming bodies reattaching us to the great narrative, the great tradition that is gay men’s history of corporeal knowledge and bonding. Because the first time an eithteen year old finds the local gay beach or swimming hole, gets over his nervousness, realizes his beauty – and shimmies his shorts down and sits bare-assed amid the other gay men, and knows he is part of and connected to a wonderful and timeless tradition it is something that deserves celebrating in art. We can thanks Chambers for doing just that.
New York, December 1996
“Art and Sensual Drive”
Jane Thurn Gallery
This inaugural show was jam-packed with paintings and works on paper by Eric Fischl, Hunt Slonem, McWillie Chambers, and Lynda Gudde. Organized by Ronny Cohen, “Art and Sensual Drive” attempted to make an airtight case that sensuality is now a driving force in art. The result, however, was basically a fun, modish, multifaceted display that was nicely complemented by the salon-style space with its ivory and red walls.
The bulk of the show was devoted to Slonem and Chambers. Chambers showed elegantly composed paintings of men, many of which gave a sweetly intimate edge to mildly pornographic scenes. Slonem, in some intricately wrought oils, eschewed his usual subjects – go-go boys and birds – for moments in the life of Rudolph Valentino (which he reports were communicated to him by a medium).
The most appealing work came from Gudde, a recently deceased choreographer who was probably the least-known artist here. In her jewel-toned gouaches, allegorical landscapes are peopled with droopy, Stettheimer-esque women, bent upon some metaphorical task. In Egg Bank, for instance, they roll eggs down a long path into a building nestled between beastlike hills. But it was Fischl who weighed in with the biggest surprises – a stunning color woodcut of two women, one standing,the other reclining, and “Boy, Woman, Dog” a suite of etchings in which the title figures appear in various combinations. Curiously, in these media, his figures are marked by a painterly sense of volume and heft that is usually absent from his paintings. C.K.
4 November 1994
McWillie Chambers skips back to the beach with curiosity, wonder and vulnerability. His series of male nudes and oceanic figures tread on the sparse white-hot edge of innocence, radiating ease and simple pleasure through a series of sharp, colorful canvases.
“McWillie Chambers: Return to Innocence and other paintings”
Peter Madero Gallery, New York, NY