Perfect bodies

Dec 24, 2008 at 12:00 am

The summer before entering college as a pre-med student, artist Robert Schefman prepared himself by working in a morgue dissecting corpses for autopsies, or a diener for short. For a guy fresh out of high school, gazing and dismembering lifeless humans is a creepy summer job (wasn't this an episode in a Philip Roth novel?), but probably a more hands-on way of learning about the human body than spending, say, the summer at the beach perusing a copy of Gray's Anatomy or sitting by the pool studying anatomy. But instead of continuing to cut bodies, he became a sculptor, and the rest is, thankfully, history.

"Politics and Religion," the title of a collection of Schefman's recent paintings and drawings at the Robert Kidd Gallery, is all bodies: there are animated, muscular bodies; statuesque, nude (male) bodies; voluptuous maternal bodies; dead bodies; and there are erotic, shapely, female nudes. And stories abound around these convincingly classic paintings.

The two title works are animated with flesh and drama and function, both visually and ideologically, as polar magnets. "A Short Treatise on Religion," the humorously titled in-your-face painting that greets you in the gallery, is a classic, dark-and-light shadowed rendering of four sculpted, male nude torsos. It's funny because like many classic marble sculptures, the heads are missing and the legs are cut off at the knees. While all are idealized Greek-statue-like bodies, their complexions and penises are the distinguishing characteristics.

Each of the four represents a stereotyped racial color, while two have been surgically altered and two are au naturel — two are circumcised and two aren't. The title's humor part is in the modest size of their sexual organs. It's a one-liner that supports Schefman's sardonically irreverent view of history and religion, which might be that the only real difference in man is ideology, and the nightmare of human history is laden with this small difference.

Schefman talks of his career as an artist and how the landscape is large and shifting. It not only includes art and art history minutiae, the nuts and bolts of the psychology of perception, but the relationship between language and art, lots of stories about New York, as well as what a diener is. Schefman is all about language. The art students at the College for Creative Studies, where he's the foundation department chair, extol his teaching strategies and storytelling abilities. Schefman's an energetic thinker who's constantly building contexts and contingencies in which to portray reality. Schefman's an engaging conversationalist and a provocative and perhaps self-effacing artist.

Until about 1980, Schefman had a successful career in New York where he created non-objective sculptures. He supported himself constructing stage sets for theater groups as well as fulfilling special projects for other sculptors such as Claes Oldenburg, George Segal, Lynda Benglis and Ron Gorchov. Somewhere along the way, he realized a shortcoming: His sculptural project lacked illusion, which might translate loosely into the inability to create a viable context or tell a story. This might be a dilemma for someone so engaged with language. So he taught himself to paint by translating his skill in making preparatory watercolor sketches for his sculpture into figurative painting. Some viewers call him a master. Schefman says, "I'm learning."

The other half of the title "Politics" is a painting that mimics neoclassical painting of such artists as Caravaggio or David. Composed of a group of intertwined, gesticulating men and women, it's a marvelous parody of neoclassical political-narrative painting. Lit like a Broadway play, it's fun to explore the melodramatic, multicultural Westside Story-like cast he depicts all dancing and singing their irresolvable Babel at once.

"Politics" is an allegorical tale of contemporary cultural politics filled with a stereotypical cross-section of militant white, gay, lesbian and racially mixed characters. It showcases all of Schefman's talents and illustrates Schefman's artistic agenda of being literate in the artistic medium in which you speak. For example, "Politics" highlights all the characters evenly so that — unlike most narrative paintings — they all speak at once. The dramatic formal arrangement of gestures of arms and hands almost speak a secret sign language, with the central figure flipping the universal sign of defiance.

The most emotionally moving painting here is "Intelligent Design: God Making Birds." Schefman tells a story about the origin of the painting, which is essentially how — in searching for an alternative to the white-man-as-God-the-creator image — he found a black woman as the image of God. Based upon a small, 25,000-year-old black goddess sculpture, the Venus of Willendorf, Schefman constructed a magnificent image of a solitary, contemporary, black woman designing the world from her kitchen. That she's struggling with the design of black crows, the symbol of segregation, introduces a humorous invective on God and the concept of intelligent design in the universe.

Fraught with parodies of contemporary culture as well as personal allegorical narratives and wonderful plays on classical painting genre, Schefman's "Religion and Politics" is a perfect antidote to the spasm of the religious holidays that are upon us.

Robert Schefman's "Politics and Religion" runs through Saturday, Jan. 10, at the Robert Kidd Gallery, 107 Townsend St., Birmingham; 248-642-3909.

Glen Mannisto is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]