By Dawn Watson
It’s not just beachgoers who dare to go bare this summer in Sag Harbor. RJD Gallery on Main Street is taking it all off with “Skin Deep.”
The group exhibit, featuring the work of artists Thomas Wharton, Tracey Harris, Johnny Caruso, Drew Ernst, Pam Hawkes, Sherry Wolf, and Adrienne Stein is on view from Saturday, May 30, through June 21.
Sure, nudity can be titillating, but this grouping of art is no peep show, says gallery owner Richard Demato.
“There’s a subtle sensuality to all of the work,” he says. “It’s a sexy theme to kick off the season, but it’s also about exploring distinct, individual visions of beauty.”
Take Thomas Wharton’s “The Escape,” a 36-by-36-inch oil on linen, which portrays a male nude outstretched and diving, seemingly into a black void. The piece, which will hang in the gallery’s window, leaps off the canvas. It’s so visceral and detailed that one imagines they can see the blood pumping and the muscles and tendons straining with the effort. The finely chiseled form is nearly photo-realistic in its representation of the human form.
“I don’t know how he copied my body so well from so far away and under all these clothes,” Mr. Demato joked of the painting.
Kidding aside, for some, “The Escape” is a sexy piece. Others might see it as a study in vulnerability. Yet other viewers might be held in thrall with the fine points of the biology of the subject. Complex and striking, there are many layers to be viewed and enjoyed.
Mr. Wharton, who lives in Santa Fe, says of his work, “I believe that everyone has sacred precincts where their important emotions live, and I try to make paintings that allow people to recognize them in themselves. Being visual, those places have a meaning beyond words.”
Show co-curator Eve Gianni says the idea behind the figurative paintings she and Mr. Demato have selected for the exhibit is much more than “Skin Deep.”
“It’s about challenging the viewer about what’s going on,” she says. “The juxtaposition of interior and exterior beauty, the perception of beauty in narrative portraiture—that’s what it’s about for me.”
The work in the show, while beautiful, certainly raises questions, says Mr. Demato. And that’s what’s so compelling for him.
“What do we see when looking at the human form? Is skin a barrier, or an invitation to touch?” he asks.
Manifold and evocative, Tracey Harris’s “The Swing in My Backyard” a 40-by-30-inch depiction of a nude female boxer from behind, also has more than one meaning. The painting celebrates the beauty and strength of the female form, and it also makes a statement about sexism, says the Denver-based artist who created it.
“The title on the boxing piece is based on an annoying phrase that men use as a ‘pick-up line’—it is disgusting—saying, “I wish I had that swing in my backyard,” she says.
The “battle of the sexes” in “Skin Deep” is much more even than usual for exhibits involving nudes, says Mr. Demato. He notes that the naked male form is well represented, which is rare.
“There aren’t a lot of people showing male nudes,” he reports. “So we decided to add some men painting men.”
One such artist is Johnny Caruso. The Manhattan-based hairstylist to the stars is quite well known in fashion circles for his work for Ralph Lauren Calvin Klein, Elie Tahari and other bold-faced design names.
Though much of Mr. Caruso’s styling work ends up being photographed right here in the Hamptons for editorial spreads in top fashion magazines, Mr. Demato discovered his other artistic talents when he went, upon his son’s urging, to get his hair cut at his West Village salon.
“He has these little photos all over the shop. They were tiny but they were really good” he recalls. “I said, ‘Johnny, make ‘em big!’ Now he takes the photos, blows them up and paints on them. People are quite taken with them.”
As is Mr. Demato. Mr. Caruso’s photographs-cum-paintings, such as “The Transitioning,” will be right up front, near the work of Wharton and Harris. These three artists are part of a larger group of accomplished creators who should make up what will be a strong show, he predicts. And hopefully one that will be well received by buyers.
“We wanted something fun for spring,” says Demato, pointing to the gallery’s window. “One thing we know, it will be impossible to ignore.”
“Skin Deep” opens with a reception on Saturday, May 30, from 6 to 8 p.m. The group exhibit will hand through June 21. For additional information, visit www.rjdgallery.com.