Mairi Budreau Turns the Female Gaze on the Nude Male Body

Deep, Paintings 39 x 22

The Male Gaze was the term that art historians came up with to characterize the way male artists objectified female models down through the centuries. It was a provocative act of turnabout when Sylvia Sleigh started painting male nudes at the height of the feminist movement in the 1970s. Sleigh’s mural-scale oil on canvas “The Turkish Bath, 1976,” even includes the ornate Turkish rugs and wall hangings of the type that were often featured in the harem scenes –– or “odalisques”–– of 19th and 20th century male artists.
    The Canadian painter Mairi Budreau, however, who belongs to a later generation that takes its liberation for granted, takes a more intimate and affectionate approach to the naked male body. Her realist paintings rival those of the late gay male photographer Robert Mapplethorpe for their unabashed sensuality. (Indeed, with the advent of gay liberation, the male gaze was frequently focused on the male body in recent decades.)
    Unlike Sylvia Sleigh, whose male nudes often adopted the trappings of classicism and mythology, just as male artists did in their female nudes to avoid the impression of lasciviousness, Budreau makes no coy excuses for her naked figures. Her photorealism suggests not myths, but the actual world of today.    
    “I take photos aiming for gestalt, this is the departure point to begin a painting,” she says. “Not formally trained, I recognize an academic approach. My sensibilities respond most often to sensual elements. I explore portraiture and anatomy mostly through the male figure, man-scapes, in search of the soul.”
    Budreau’s kinship with the aforementioned Mapplethorpe comes to mind most specifically in two oils on canvas of a muscular black man with a shaven head. An important difference, however, is that while Mapplethorpe (like many photographers who eschew the coloristic possibilities and image manipulation of the digital era for the “purism” of the media’s modernist innovators) worked exclusively in black and white, color is an important expressive element in Budreau’s paintings. 
   In one canvas, its title “Man Ray” making witty reference to an earlier photographic predecessor, the black model is set against an orange background that harmonizes with the warm brown hues of his flesh. He is painted from behind, from head to mid-torso, his weightlifter’s biceps held out on both sides of his body. But the real center of the picture is the man’s back, with its impressive bulges and crevices, affording the artist an opportunity to make their areas of light and shadow evoke a mountainous mass without departing from her meticulous mode of photorealism. Apparently, the same model is the subject of another oil, entitled “Deep,’ a title also revealing the artist’s wit, since he is posed as Rodin’s “The Thinker.”
    One can surmise from this enlightening solo show that, apart from one painting revealing just a partial glimpse of the longhaired model’ s penis, the female gaze is not as genitally fixated as the male gaze. Yet a subtler, one might say more wholistic, sensuality is implied in a close-up view of a male nipple, pointedly called “Sensitive,” and “Back II,” another severely cropped composition in which a masculine back culminates in the androgynous curve of shapely upper buttocks.               
                                                                                                                                                                          –– Byron Coleman

Mairi Budreau, Agora Gallery 530
 West 25th Street, October 4 – 24, 2013
Reception: Thursday, October 10, 6 – 8pm

View press release and exhibition information

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