When the Nude Gets Naked

Reading Kathleen Rooney’s art memoir “Live Nude Girl” on the train will get you some strange looks.  The word “nude,” it seems, buzzes neon in peoples’ minds whether or not it comprises part of a 50 foot tall sign on the side of the interstate.  Rooney makes clear not only the difference between the artist’s model and the topless dancer, but also the difference between nudity and nakedness.  When nude, you reveal yourself proudly to the world of your own volition, rather than having the world catch you without your clothes on. This is best explained when she describes the end of one particular gig, where she’s spent two hours posing for a painting class: “It’s nine o’clock and I’m free to go.  I’m nude on the stand, until I hop down, and then I’m naked for a few seconds, in motion, walking to my bag…”

This marked distinction guides us as we follow Rooney through the various studios, classrooms, and living rooms throughout the city of Boston, in which she is alternately painted, sculpted, and photographed over seven years.  Why does Rooney model?  The same reason she writes her award-winning poetry–she is obsessed with death, and like the artists she poses for, like most of us, perhaps, she wants to leave a piece of herself in the world.  She is making an effort not to disappear.  Rooney describes walking through an exhibition, which featured dozens of sculptures of her likeness in various poses. “It pleases me to think that I could be in more than one place at once, that I could have a staff of selves seeing all the things I’ll never get a chance to see, reading all the books that no one could hope to have the chance to read in just one lifetime,” she says.    As she explains, sculptures are like corpses, still and silent representations of the person you were in one moment, a person who, now that the moment has passed, is gone.   She is interested in getting to know interesting people.  Posing nude in a stranger’s house, as she does with Jeremy and with David, inspires an expedited intimacy, an exchange of confessions, that when the artwork is finished, dissipates.  The nude model seems to present an occasion, her nudity a partition between priest and penitent, which vanishes as quickly as it arose.  The dynamic between Rooney and her male artists, she explains, is always at least somewhat sexual, however briefly, while the atmosphere between herself and other female artists, is distinctly a sisterly one.  In the meantime, she discusses the nude’s place in history, psychology, and of course, art.   The other question Rooney raises is why she likes attention so much, and how this need factors into her choice to model.  This is where we catch her naked.

She first wanted to be a nude model when a college acquaintance scored a gig and Rooney thought, “She’s cute, but I’m cuter.”  She goes out of her way to make fun of one photographer,  mostly for not being as cool as she is, but also for taking pretentious nudie pics under the guise of being an artiste.  Well, several times throughout the book I had to wonder if an (albeit interesting and informative) historical exposition or personal musing was merely an excuse to be self-reverential.  She discusses the inevitability of aging and its corrosive effect on a model’s opportunities, but assures us that she’s “…still young, and always gets carded, even at the movies where no one gets carded.”  She admits she wants Jeremy, with whom she has a particularly touching rapport, to find her beautiful.  Fair enough.  Jeremy says that it’s far easier to paint ugly people, because you can shape them into a beautiful work without pressure of maintaining a beautiful person’s aesthetic. Sure enough, “Jeremy concludes that (she is) extremely difficult to paint.”  She explains that photography can feel predatory, the way the camera so rapidly traps you in its eye, and that being painted at slow pace feels much more comfortable and intimate.  She then likens the sound of the camera shutter snapping to tiny coffin lids closing on her, as she flips herself over like a piece of meat. And yet, she put herself in this position and had no problem accepting the generous hourly wage.

These snarky digs, whines, displays of arrogance might seem less awkward if we were offered insight into what motivates her to disclose them.  However, at the end of the book she flatly admits that she has no answers to the questions she continually raises about herself, which not only feels like a copout, but makes the above comments seem, even in a personal memoir about a very self-focused subject, apropos of nothing.  Perhaps, I see all of this as nakedness because my knee jerk reaction to it is discomfort.  Perhaps, I the reader, am (gulp) projecting my own flaws onto the object.  Maybe, I’m just completely wrong.  Even if I’m onto something, Rooney doesn’t owe these vulnerabilities any acknowledgement or explanation. As she makes clear at the very beginning of this equally interesting and trying book, it was never her job to be naked.