The gallery's windows were blacked out with garbage bags. It was the last Saturday night in July and the place might've appeared closed. But, promptly at 8 p.m., its doors opened to the sounds of crying and howling. Then came the drums, followed by layers of humming, singing and muddled spoken words. Some several dozen attendees walked with cautious interest into the gallery where, in its center, artist Jaclyn Schanes stood on a two-foot pedestal cordoned off with red velvet rope. She was barefoot, her back to the door and the entering crowd. She was naked. Almost naked. A thin web of white chain draped over her body. On it hung a collection of 35 small self-portraits, the only barrier between her fully exposed figure and the eyes of the audience.
The one-night-only exhibit at Re:View Contemporary Gallery had been built on secrecy. No one knew they would be entering a room with a near-naked woman. A prude might have accused Schanes of producing and starring in an ambush of artful strip tease.
Although she works in many mediums, Schanes produced these paintings in watercolor, all streaked with bright, counterintuitive shadows. In one, Schanes gazes through heart-shaped glasses, in another she looks out from within a left ventricle.
The paintings carried wild price differentials, with little apparent rhyme or reason. Insecurities could be had for as little as $30, while Taste cost $400 (perhaps insecurities ought to be less valued than taste, after all). Purchased paintings had to be removed from the artist, revealing that much more of her body. The arrangement was clear: If all the art sold, she would be fully naked.
After about 20 minutes, someone finally went for one of the "money" paintings and uncovered Schanes's left breast. Buyers were welcome to take their paintings directly off the artist. A bit timid, most asked gallery assistants to do the honors. A woman in a yellow dress summed up the conundrum: "Do I want to be a part of commerce and buy the art? Or how vulnerable do I want to make her?"
By placing her body at the center of a transaction that almost dared the crowd to fully undress her, had Schanes created a crowd of unwilling voyeurs? Or worse, perverts? There was certainly an enthusiasm among the buyers to see the paintings go — and quickly. But that enthusiasm petered about an hour in, when only four paintings were left: right breast, left side, and two on her behind.
"Some of these are pretty cool," one attendee whispered to another, "especially if they were framed." She must have meant a traditional matte and mount, for Schanes' thin limbs certainly acted as a sort of frame.
Rebecca Hart, contemporary art curator at the Detroit Institute of Arts, watched from the gallery's back wall. She said she found the project "unique" and "especially interesting in the context of what Marina Abramovic is doing in New York" — referring to a performance by the artist earlier this year in which she invited Museum of Modern Art attendees to sit in front of her while she stared directly into their eyes.
Hart also recognized the connection between Show Pony and Yoko Ono's Cut Piece (1964) in which Ono sat on stage with a pair of scissors and a simple command: Cut. Audience members approached one by one and snipped scraps of her clothing until she was naked. Schanes essentially asked the same thing of her audience, but she wanted them to pay for the experience too.
Once purchased, these paintings will exist as finished works in themselves but also as souvenirs, trophies of this night, this performance, and that moment of tension between desire for the object, desire to participate in the unveiling of the artist, and the awkwardness of publicly undressing her. Schanes' choice to paint self-portraits furthers the ambiguity between a painting and a Jaclyn Schanes brand. Moving from performance prop to framed object, her face becomes an icon.Simone Landon is a Metro Times editorial intern. Write to [email protected]