New York

Aziz + Cucher

The first thing everyone notices about the nude figures in Aziz + Cucher's new series of digitized Ektacolor prints, “Faith, Honor & Beauty,” 1992, is that they appear to have had their penises and vaginas rubbed out. Closer inspection reveals that they also lack nipples and navels. How ever, these mutations of the body are more idealizations than mutilations, more along the lines of those practiced by Polyclitus than by Jeffrey Dahmer. Each of the roughly life-size photographs presents a single figure—generally a handsome, muscular man or pretty, shapely woman—in contrapposto. Echoing historical conventions of portrait painting, each figure in these photographs is identified with or by a thing of some sort: a powerful-looking man with long, dark sideburns holds an M-16 across his massive chest; a woman with straight, straw-colored hair and cherry-red lips parted just enough to reveal a flash of white teeth holds a bowl of red apples; another barrel-chested man stands in a pose nearly identical to that of the Augustus of Primaporta, but holds a Macintosh Powerbook in place of a staff. These emblematic objects further idealize the nude figures, giving them the appearance of archetypes: Soldier, Athlete, Mother.

While prima facie it might be tempting to see some collapse of gender boundaries in the removal of genitalia, nipples, and navels, distinctions between the sexes abound: the women often wear makeup but the men don't; tan lines conform to the different body parts men and women can reveal in the light of day; and no matter how bulky the men's muscular pecs, they still don't look like breasts. As if to reinforce these distinctions, Aziz + Cucher have photographed the men against blue backgrounds, and the women against red (which isn't quite pink, but still. . .). The idealizations wrought on these bodies would thus appear to have less to do with erasing gender distinctions than with forming a new race altogether. They look less like androgynes than superhumans, like archetypes that become extreme caricatures of the kind of values you might hear touted at a Republican convention (family, religion, capitalism, etc.). If men are supposed to be macho, then the males in these photos are the size of American Gladiators and proudly display the emblems of work, war, and sport. If good citizens are supposed to be conspicuous consumers, then the exhibitionist tendencies of these figures sate themselves in the display of their goods rather than the flashing of genitalia. In the final analysis, if this work's subtly ironic title “Faith, Honor & Beauty” has a rather malevolent, even fascist ring to it, no doubt this is because what are ideals to one can easily be nightmares to another.

Keith Seward