The Sophie Davis Art Gallery is pleased to present Bodies Mapping Time, by Los Angeles artist J Michael Walker. This exhibition of nude, collaborative portraits elegantly captures women’s bodies through each stage of life — youth, pregnancy, illness, and advanced age – illuminating how aging over the life course physically impacts women, and their view of their changing bodies as they age.
A woman’s body is a map of her life’s journey. Yet, it hasn’t been widely treated as such in art. The traditional portrayal of the female nude – codified in Western Art some 500 years ago – has been generally acquiescent, docile, and desirable, in idealized visions that evince little interest in women who fall outside a narrow range of ethnicity, body type, health, or age.
Walker, himself an older artist, explains that, although traditionally a woman’s nude body is on obvious display, the woman residing inside that body is frequently absent: masked, insignificant, at best an afterthought. Part of his aim in Bodies Mapping Time has been to restore the woman to her body; to have her be powerfully present and fully integrated into her portrait. Additionally, by artistic and socio-political inclination, Walker emphasizes women whose ethnicity, age, and body type have been marginalized and devalued.
By working photographically in this series, rather than through the drawings and paintings for which he is most well-known, Walker affords the 83 women he has worked with – a few of whom have ever modeled – a more direct voice in how they are seen; and by using only natural light and not “photoshopping out” supposed imperfections, an even truer image of each woman emerges.
Keenly aware of the inherent power imbalance between a nude female model and a male artist, and of the shameful history of white artists depicting women of color in demeaning and fetishizing ways, Walker works assiduously in each portrait session, with focus and intention, to mitigate the imbalance of power; to activate safeguards for each woman; and to offer each woman equal voice in deciding how she is seen, identified, and represented. This offer of editorial control to one’s models is, perhaps, unprecedented in an art historical context. Yet, counterintuitively, Walker’s approach reaps great benefits for both him and the women. The model, her safety and agency ensured, enjoys full freedom of expression, in turn enabling Walker to create more honest, complete, and beautifully powerful portraits of the women whose bodies map time here.