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Last week I went to the opening of Artsy Nudes, an exhibit presented by The School of Visual Arts’ photography division. As the elevator opened onto the 6th floor, I remembered that Robyn Byrd, the former porn star and public access sex icon attended the school. I heard live cello music coming from down the hallway and as I turned into the classroom I saw Matisse’s famous painting Dance on the far wall recreated as a photograph.


The exhibition of student work was curated by SVA instructor and VICE photo editor, Matthew Leifheit. The works include “knockoffs” (as Leifheit refers to them) of famous nudes by artists ranging from Diego Velazquez, Helmut Newton, Mert and Marcus to Ryan McGinley. The earliest form of human art known today are depictions of nude figures. The power of the nude image has echoed down through the years of art history ever since. In fact only a four months ago McKinley presented an exhibition titled Yearbook in which he covered the walls and ceilings of a gallery echoing  the way early artists depicted nude engravings in places like the Auddaura Cave in 10,000 B.C.


Photo by SVA students inspired by photographer Ryan McGinley

The gallery at SVA was packed as I moved around the exhibit. When I reached the back of the room I noticed that the cello player, an old man straddling his instrument, was completely nude. Allison Schaller, the student who helped curate the show, told me they had posted an ad on Craigslist for naked musicians. “We wanted to make an impression and give people something to talk about after the opening,” she said. Leifheit added that someone even answered the ad offering an entire nude quintet but the asking price was too high.

Obviously it was exciting having a photography teacher who is also the photo editor at a magazine as influential as VICE. Leifheit even included a spread of selected student’s work in the latest issue. He’s encouraged his students to be daring, learning as if they are in the field rather than the classroom.

Schaller tells me that one of the exercises Leifheit gave them was to practice buying and returning items for shoots.  It’s expensive to live in New York, especially as a student, and more specifically an artist. So best to buy your props and know how to return them.


Above left: photo by SVA students inspired by painter Jenny Saville Above right: inspired by photographer Helmut Newton

Allison was bold with her choice of what to buy and return, a neon green human size section of plexi glass. The photo was fashioned after the work of painter Jenny Saville showing a model’s body pressed against the plexi.

Humans have included their “bits” in pieces of art for centuries, but although expressing the most natural human state the naked form still offends. VICE chose not to include Schaller’s piece in their spread  deciding it was just “too much bush.” Bush can be found on the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art or in Robin Byrd’s classic Debbie Does Dallas, but somehow bush always seems to get the shaft!

Artsy Nudes at SVA Photography Building, 214 E 21st St, NYC through March 20th.


Image via flcker user Ralph Daily and VICE