January 2009

Eryn Loeb

Girl, Interrupting

All a Pose

Kathleen Rooney’s “occupational memoir,” Live Nude Girl, is premised on the idea that there is something intriguing about the role of the nude artists’ model, and the women who fill it. On a basic level there is, almost by definition -- even though these models work in the service of art instead of sex, people still have particular ideas about a woman accepting money in exchange for taking off her clothes. And there’s something a little mysterious about it, with a thrilling touch of the unsavory. Ironically, Rooney -- a poet, co-founder of Rose Metal Press, and author of a book about Oprah’s book club -- took her first nude modeling gig as a respite from a crappy retail job, after which “being looked at and not touched or harassed sounded fine.” She was drawn to the work because it paid pretty well, but also because the idea of it was seductive.

“When I first started [posing], I couldn’t get that Robert Herrick poem out of my head,” Rooney writes, a telling confession regardless of your acquaintance with that particular poet. That wasn’t the only thing she couldn’t get out of her head -- spending so much time silent and immobile on the modeling stand was, if nothing else, an opportunity to think. And so, along with forays into art history and philosophy, Live Nude Girl is a series of attempts for Rooney to figure out, “How did it become second nature for me to do this? Why am I so comfortable displaying my own nudity?”
Fair enough, but it’s not clear these questions really beg to be answered. Because this is a book ominously (and misleadingly) subtitled “My Life as an Object,” an interrogation of everything in Rooney’s own life that might possibly relate to her work as a nude model is expected. That doesn’t mean it’s necessary; rather predictably, Rooney discovers “nothing in my upbringing or background [that] appears as though it would push me to be positively inclined towards this job.” And though nude modeling (as Rooney rightly emphasizes) is decidedly not a form of sex work, this book will be shelved alongside a number of increasingly high-profile looks at, and firsthand accounts of working in, the sex industry. Since many of them also involve intelligent, John Berger-citing meditations on the female body, Rooney’s study of what seems a safer, less loaded kind of nudity is perhaps bound to seem a little slight.

Throughout the book, Rooney presents the distinction between nakedness and nudity as the key to understanding the uniqueness of nude modeling, and by extension, the way we view bodies in general. “There’s power that comes with nudity,” she writes, “a naturalness, and an intimation of public acceptability, as opposed to nakedness, which is more personal instead of professional, and for me is best kept private.” If not an original argument, it is a resonant one, as she describes what it was like to pose for individual artists working in a variety of mediums, for art classes held at universities, in galleries, and in private homes -- and to see her face and body reproduced (with varying degrees of accuracy) in paint, pencil, and as a series of life-size sculptures.

Given her role in the creation of art, it’s not so surprising that Rooney would have a sort of quaintly classical, romantic approach to it, focused mainly on traditional styles of portraiture. “It never crossed my mind that I could appear in paintings or sculptures myself,” she writes of the days before she started posing. “I was not that classic, that eternal, that worthy of depiction.” She devotes a whole chapter to her experiences posing for photographers, and while it rings true that the act of being photographed would be more severe than being sketched, her overall take on the medium seems simplistic and a little dramatic: “Death has been a third party present at every photo shoot I’ve ever done. Photography is inherently colder, more mechanical, than the other arts… The camera is an eye, but it is a disembodied zombie eye with no feeling of its own, a chilly little machine I couldn’t interact with like I could with a painter.”

In passages that are both perceptive and short-sighted, she does directly address the difference between nude modeling and various kinds of sex work, taking pains to distinguish what she does from anything resembling prostitution or stripping. “Women who strip are objectified and so am I,” she writes. “The difference -- and it’s a huge one -- is that they are transformed into objects of lust, whereas I am transformed into an object of art. I’m not saying that strippers can’t be artful, or that artists can’t desire their models, but given the context and intent of the respective performances, the jobs can be only slightly similar.” Though noting the longstanding presumption that “only a loose woman would take up a career in art modeling,” Rooney balks at the suggestion: “If artists’ models did get paid to have sex with their clients, they could earn a lot more money, but the thing is, that’s not the job they’ve chosen.” There are uncomfortable moments of judgment, too, coming from someone who admits to being judged for her own job. “For every kinked-out wannabe stripper I run into, there are a dozen down-to-earth, intelligent, confident models who have decided to supplement their incomes with what can be a fulfilling and satisfying second or third job,” she explains, protecting the reputation of nude modeling by dismissing women in the sex trade. Rooney is absolutely aware of the transactional nature of what she does, and insists that she gains something immaterial from it along with the cash -- some sort of satisfaction or validation.

Nude modeling, you see, is personally fulfilling aside from being semi-lucrative. “Each time I model, I am grateful for yet another opportunity to find someone who gets me, or at least to spend time with somebody who spends hours of painstaking effort on some level trying to get me,” Rooney writes, somewhat confoundingly. For her, posing is therapeutic, giving an otherwise busy person time to do nothing but think. Supposedly it’s also a way of fighting mortality; Rooney confesses that she poses in part so that, “even if, heaven forefend, I meet an untimely end, I will be able to enjoy some kind of earthly immortality, if only in the surviving works for which I’ve posed.”

In fact, holding one’s nude body absolutely still for long stretches of time as strangers scrutinize every curve probably is as rich as it is mundane. To take nude modeling seriously enough to write a book about it, though, means to deny its tediousness -- and that doesn’t mean readers won’t pick up on it anyway.