The Penis Panic

kevin-gillentine-artWhen I was in my twenties, and weighed 150 pounds, I went to a beach in France and got a sunburn on my ass. Many people in France go nude at the beach and so I thought “why not?” Being from a small town in Mississippi I had never been “exposed” to such an open and natural attitude towards nudity. I mean, the folks down at the Baptist church just didn’t spend weekends naked at the Sardis reservoir and spillway. Too bad for them. I did not by any means become a nudist because of that experience, but I remember it as a comment on the ridiculousness that can often surround the subject of nudity.

Having these hangups in daily life is one thing, but when it comes to freaking out about nudity in art, I lose patience. And nothing causes more swooning, more immature giggling, more righteous indignation, more blushing, more self consciousness, more complaining, and more noses out of joint than a male nude with an exposed penis.

It’s 2014 and penises have been the subject of art since art existed. So what is it about male nudity in particular that still sets people off? It’s funny how many more people will accept complete female nudity – even to the point of virtual pornography – without batting an eye, but full frontal male exposure can often bring out almost violent reactions. And obviously that is part of the reason many artists include the penis in their work – because even after thousands of years of human culture, it still has shock value.

Some of you may think that I am exaggerating about this, but I have been in the art business for 25 years, and I can tell you that even in the most benign and universally respected artwork, the male genitalia can always cause a commotion. Once I had a man walk out of the gallery over an antique print of the statue of David. Really? And it’s not like the walls of our gallery are covered with naked men. I’m not a penis peddler. It’s just that in an art gallery they do tend to turn up now and then.

For me, painting a nude is all about the simple yet complex grace of the human form – how vulnerability, confidence, innocence, provocativeness, strength, and frailty all can be represented at the same time in a piece of art just by showing the nude human body. I have so much demand for landscapes that I don’t often get the chance to do nudes, but I’m planning to do a whole exhibition of them at some time in the near future – dicks included… and I can already hear the whispering.