“send nudes plz”: Frances Waite’s Selfie-Portraiture
Frances Waite: Slap the Void
Elijah Wheat Showroom
1196 Myrtle Avenue, Brooklyn, NY
December 16, 2017 to January 14, 2018
When art historians speak of “the Nude,” they are generally referencing the classical tradition of representing the unclothed, usually female, body in painting and sculpture. The Nude is an academic exercise in restraint in which the body is separated from its sexuality and subjectivity in favor of a detached view of it as an aesthetic object. “Nudes,” as the term is used today in reference to erotic selfies, operate essentially in reverse, oozing sexual affect but lacking overt aesthetic pretensions. While nudes are functional digital objects, their purposes are as varied as the people who send and receive them. Some nudes are used teasingly or flirtatiously, perhaps in the context of a long-distance relationship, or sent unsolicited as a form of harassment; some may be created for an exhibitionistic thrill, while others become “revenge porn” leaked online in a betrayal of trust. Frances Waite’s drawings, on view at Elijah Wheat Showroom in Bushwick, depict the artist posing in various states of undress. Drawn from photographs that are left unseen and featuring paintings that don’t exist, her work operates at the intersection of the Nude and nudes, using her technical abilities in depicting the former to explore the provocative power of the latter.
Frances Waite has been working in this manner for a few years: Previously she solicited anonymous donations of selfies and nudes as source material for a series of drawings. This project got some online press coverage that emphasized its sensationalistic overtones—the “look what kids these days are doing” school of clickbait journalism—or played to the trope of the artist as savior, framing Waite’s intention as being to elevate these images from sinful internet garbage to valuable, “real” art. Whatever the interpretation, selfies became drawings and were moved from the camera roll to the gallery wall, and in that transformation glancing snapshots of body parts were solidified into line and tone through the artist’s hand. Whether this is an elevation or a lateral shift in context is up for debate.
In the years since, Waite has turned inward to focus on images and representations of herself. Elijah Wheat Showroom’s largest wall holds an arrangement of her drawings that recalls a phone’s camera roll. Within the pictorial space of each drawing are images of paintings she never made, a mise-en-abyme scenario of pictures in pictures in pictures. Some of the hypothetical paintings are done in a charming illustrative style that Waite has cultivated alongside her other bodies of work, as in Me Waiting to be Fucked by a Boy That Wants to Love Me Under A Painting I Never Made Called “She Said Yes” (2017), which depicts the naturalistically-rendered, topless artist posed rear-up beneath a large painting that features a penis-headed man holding his hands over a naked woman’s mouth.
Another drawing, Cumshot That’s Not Interested in Landing on a Painting I Never Made of Nothing In Particular (2017), shows a view from the other side of the proverbial looking glass in which a realistic drawing of the artist kneeling on the sofa hangs in a perspectivally-unique bedroom, to be used as a cartoon character’s onanistic inspiration. Probably Born to Take Care of You with a Painting I Never Made Called “Something About Men Always Making Me Into a Mommy by Any Means Necessary” (2017) shows what might be a tender moment between two worlds in which the artist, sitting awkwardly on the back of a sofa, offers her breast to a figure in the painting next to her. Ultimately, neither of these dimensions can be considered the “real” one, as they are both fictional to us on this side of the frame.
It would be cliché to suggest that the variety and density of imagery in Waite’s drawings is emblematic of our time, but it’s difficult to see her work outside the context of the post-Weinstein moment. In contorting ourselves to see them as something else, perhaps as unaffecting aesthetic objects or as unartistic post-internet pastiche, their complexity and tension falls out of view. Waite has put her body on display in a show of public intimacy, and the resulting images, drawn by her own hand, have been twice filtered through her subjectivity. Sharing pictorial space with her imagined and unrealized paintings, she presents herself on her own terms, something that many “Nude” models, or some subjects of “nudes,” aren’t able to do.