Walt Whitman’s 1855 poem “I Sing the Body Electric” has lent its title over the years to everything from a classic “Twilight Zone” episode (you remember, the one with the android grandmother) to the musical finale of the 1980 movie “Fame.”
Now, it’s the name an exhibition of body-focused art at the Foundation Gallery on Royal Street in the French Quarter.
“The Body Electric” was curated by gallery manager Alice McGillicuddy and assistant gallery manager Erica Amrine. The two used Whitman’s poem as a point of departure for assembling work by a group of mostly New Orleans-based artists.
“The human body is endlessly fascinating, and Whitman’s poem is an all-encompassing celebration of it,” said Amrine. “I was intrigued to see how six different visual artists would conceptualize the subject.”
Along the way, the show also became a vehicle for the curators to consider the purpose and value of visual art in a larger social context.
“I’ve always been inspired by Whitman and his ability to capture the rawness and beauty of the human condition,” McGillicuddy said. “I also believe work that connects us to our physical self has the ability to improve our sense of humanity and in turn better our treatment of one another and our communities.”
Whitman’s poem is a paean to the human body in all of its sights, smells, wonder and majesty. He wrote:
“There is something in staying close to men and women and looking on them, and in the contact and odor of them, that pleases the soul well”
But the concept of Whitman’s glorious “body electric,” which reflects the “measured and perfect motion” of the universe, is treated by the six artists in the Foundation Gallery show with deeply personal introspection and a dose of occasionally unsettling irony.
At the heart of the show, literally and figuratively, is a suite of embroidered photographs by Pinky Bass. Of all the work in “The Body Electric,” Bass’ most calls to mind Whitman’s catalogue of not only the outward manifestations of the body’s glory but its interior ones as well:
The lung-sponges, the stomach-sac, the bowels sweet and clean,
The brain in its folds inside the skull-frame,
Sympathies, heart-valves, palate-valves ...
Her work also comes closest to replicating Whitman’s description of “the curious sympathy one feels when feeling with the hand the naked meat of the body,” as the eye traverses over the texture and line of the thread she uses to highlight and embellish her black-and-white self-portraits and nude studies.
Other works in the show also focus on the body’s mysterious inner workings. Doug Baulos’ fantastical life-sized man-bird hybrid creature is embellished with thread and gold leaf and depicted with part of its skin stripped away like an illustration in a medical textbook, blurring the distinction between the body’s surface and what lies under the skin.
Sadie Sheldon’s mixed-media assemblages are a kind of artistic metabolism. Metal food containers (including old tomato cans from Pizza Delicious in the Bywater) are transformed through paint and oxidization to create giant cell samples and an outsized pair of lungs.
Elsewhere, Kelwin Coleman’s remarkable monotypes fuse multiple self-portraits with body fragments and colorful biomorphic abstractions to create densely layered visual narratives rife with autoerotic (and homoerotic) subtext.
And in the show’s nod to traditional canvas painting, Barbara Groves’ intentionally garishly lit and awkwardly posed and cropped figure studies comment on the ways the body is manipulated and distorted through the lenses of fashion and advertising.
But it’s Heather Hansen’s large-scale work on canvas that commands the most attention. A physical record of one of the artist’s motion-based performance pieces, Hansen’s “Strange Attractor” reads like a giant magnetic field with the implied presence of the artist at its center.
Hansen will create another one of her large-scale charcoal drawings in a performance at the gallery on Feb. 27.
And 25 percent of total show sales will benefit The Body Electric Fund, set up by the New Orleans-based band Hurray for the Riff Raff (who included a song titled “The Body Electric” on their critically acclaimed latest album) to promote nonviolence in communities across the country.
For McGillicuddy, their mission dovetails perfectly with the impetus behind “The Body Electric” exhibition.
“Their message is one we fully support: that all bodies and all lives deserve to treated with respect and care.”
John D’Addario writes about visual art. He can be reached at email@example.com.