The shapes of things 

Even though it's been going on for four years now, I've been unable to correctly divine the continuing appeal of "Nude Nite." Is the annual exhibition of art-in-the-raw a success because its patrons are in sore need of an aesthetically edifying experience, or because they're seeking simple titillation? Or is it because they want the luxury of surrounding themselves with the former while they're secretly pining for the latter?

Last Wednesday's 1999 edition again offered no clear answers, but it sure was fun being confused. A clientele that encompassed the wide range of the downtown lifestyle waited patiently for the 7 p.m. opening of the doors to host venue Elena's Cafe -- a cute Latin eatery on East Robinson Street, where copies of La Prensa were available in the foyer and the surprisingly roomy interior provided ample space for the hanging of figure studies by Central Florida artists. Power ties and mohawks were in equal abundance as the crowd shuffled inside, spurred on by the promise of food, drink and fresh interpretations of the human (and sometimes not-so-human) form.

Staffers were still tagging the exhibited pieces as we all surveyed the scene, making mental notes of particularly impressive offerings. The names were less recognizable than at last year's event (Cindy Anderson's mythically flavored grotesques were particularly missed), but oil works by Gustavo A. Llenas and Dan Erminger provided a foundation of formality across which the more obscure young lions could roam.

The absence of many of Orlando's visualist luminaries might have been due to either economic factors or poor planning. Earlier in the week, a painter friend had told me that he had initially blanched at the show's steep entry fee, then changed his mind and decided to participate anyway -- only to have the submission forms he had requested never arrive.

Lack of definition

The affair did have something of a rag-tag feel about it: The lights weren't positioned to properly show off the exhibits, and the promised live-modeling sessions never materialized. One of the solicited subjects said that the money she was offered just wasn't good enough. If you're going to take your clothes off in front of a room full of Merlot-holding strangers, you're probably justified in at least asking for cab fare home.

Instead, the stage area was devoted to the projection of a live camera feed that panned across the room to follow the schmoozing action in real time. "It's an installation!" a pixielike pal of mine cooed. "I love that word! 'Installation!'"

Installed near the front door was a guestbook, which I belatedly signed as the night's ratio of human bodies to two-dimensional ones edged closer to one-to-one. I almost put my John Hancock on the nearby artist-registration form by mistake, but maybe that wouldn't have been a terrible error. It might have increased my chances of actually being near a naked person in the coming year.

As always, the spectrum of artistic interpretations ran the gamut from the beautiful to the disturbing. I was particularly distressed by the appearance of two photographs (by two different lensmen) that depicted prone women holding nasty-looking objects to their crotches -- one a snake, the other a skull that appeared to have once belonged to some form of goat. Was it thoughtful symbolism, or just the aftermath of a pair of really bad camping trips?

More challenging was a mixed-media musing by Paul Bodoia, whose graphic virtues overcame the most awkward, unwieldy title of the show: "The Gods Have a Temper & They've Been Drinking Heavily All Day. Whisper." A female form captured from shoulders to hips, it was topped by a collage of newspaper clippings, through which protruded a series of viciously thick screws. Its surfeit of attitude was matched by its price, which was identified only by the warning "If You Have to Ask, You Can't Afford It." How were we supposed to haggle over this one, in American Sign Language?

Here's looking at you

As the eroticism of the surrounding objects took hold, the attendees followed suit by getting noticeably friendly with each other. My "installation" buddy correctly assessed that 75 percent of those on hand were "eyeballing each other and not the art." As soon as the observation left his lips, one of them threw down the gauntlet by striding over to us and making the most brazen, profane proposition I've ever heard used as a conversation-opening gambit. The subtle pickup line, "Do you have a piece in the show?" clearly would not suffice for this bunch.

You know the boldness level has reached the red zone when even "Ballyhoo!" hostess Anne Deason seems tame, but the diva of Time-Warner Cable was content to hang at the bar with producer/beau Jason Neff, excitedly chatting up their plans to bring their program to the airwaves of far-off Kansas City. Deason confided in me that she'd almost like to see "Nude Nite" busted by the Orlando Police Department on trumped-up obscenity charges, if it would "wake people up" enough to motivate them to register to vote in our highly conservative district. Across the room, featured artist Vol Quitzow revealed himself to be at greater risk of a potential sting, telling painter Carl Knickerbocker that his home was overflowing with 10,000 nudes of his own creation. Try explaining that one to the feds when they come knocking at your door. "But officer, this is my WORK!" "Sure it is, sir. Get in the car, please."

No one was carted off in handcuffs from "Nude Nite IV," but we were instead treated to a valuable lesson in the way we as people see ourselves when we're stripped of all of society's adornments. Event organizer Victor Perez had simplified the philosophy with the challenge, "If you don't like nude, you're sick," but the truth is more complicated than that. As gatherings of this nature demonstrate, artists are no more noble or enlightened in their notions of beauty or sexuality than the rest of us -- they're just better at getting it down on canvas. If the finished products appear flat or unoriginal (and this night had its share of blandly mechanical offerings), well, there's only so much you can do with a human body, unless you're Larry Flynt.

And if the visual outpourings of the physically minded come off as bizarre and threatening, maybe they merely reflect attitudes and behaviors that plenty of us privately share. Especially after spending four hours together in a tight space while downing a lot of alcohol. At least I didn't see any pictures of chickens.


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