This issue marks four weeks since I started churning out my column of cultural commentary, and I’ve gotta say I’ve been overwhelmed with the volume of arts experiences Orlando has to offer. With such diverse diversions to dish about, I’m tempted to touch on each and every one, but then the AP English teacher in my head starts red-penning about finding a common thesis, and you the reader end up wading through tenuous themes like “early spring” and “geek grab-bag” (yeah, sorry ’bout that). So instead, this week’s theme is simply “crap I saw last weekend” – and the crap in particular that I want to fling at you is Nude Nite.
For those not in the Nude Nite know, the event originated in 1996 under the guidance of artist/impresario Victor Perez as a bohemian celebration of the flesh in all its artistic forms. The current annual incarnation of the event is overseen by full-time real estate broker and part-time arts booster Kelly Stevens, who has traded some of the former intimate edginess for more mainstream appeal. The Nude Nite name is really a double misnomer: For one, it covers three nights (Thursday-Saturday); for another, while there was plenty of barely clad skin on display, both in the artworks and around them, the only completely nude person I saw was a gray-haired gentleman modeling for a sculpture with nothing to his name but a long, wooden, um … staff. So if anyone arrived at the former Cruises Only building expecting a peep show, they probably would have been better served driving a couple more miles down Colonial Drive to Dancers Royale.
And, live nude girls or no, arrive they did. After a couple of preshow summer rolls at Little Saigon, I ambled across the street and was stunned by a sight not often seen in this town: It’s one thing to see a queue in front of a club or theme park attraction, but quite another to see a line of people waiting to get into an art gallery. Torn between my joy at seeing such an outpouring of support for the arts and my distaste for crushing crowds, I joined the shuffle and forked over my $15 admission. Once inside, the magnitude of the madness became clear – a sizable swarm of patrons combined with a poorly planned layout created complete gridlock. From the bar bottlenecking the front entrance to the sightline-challenged stage stuck in the middle of the floor, everything seemed engineered to grind crowd flow to a halt. Navigating the ground floor was an adventure in agoraphobia, and getting to the upstairs gallery was like spawning up Niagara.
Unfortunately, once I fought my way through to the actual art, I found that much of it wasn’t worth the struggle. Nude Nite’s website describes the event as an “evening of provocative art expressions” and reports that “artistic presentations are preferred over vulgar and pornographic.” But the curators of the event seem confused by the distinction between provocative and simply shocking, between nude and “nekkid.”
To be sure, there were genuinely intriguing efforts on display – I found Eurydice’s massive quilted tapestry of female suicide bombers compelling and confrontational in its crude complexity, and I got a grin from a dildo-decorated table designated a “Tribute to Bauhaus.” But much of the rest of what I saw failed to engage with the emotional or intellectual elements of nudity, settling instead for naughty bits bereft of context. Don’t mistake my disappointment for prudishness; I have much more respect for unrepentant pornography than pretentious perviness. Regardless of content or format, the common thread between a distressingly large percentage of what I saw was weak technique: Whether you’re a painter or a performer, style can’t substitute for craft. It all would have been sad if the outrageous prices being asked for some of the works hadn’t made it a laff riot.
It pains me to pooh-pooh any cultural event, especially one that gets so many people off their asses and into a gallery, but someone needs to say it: This emperor’s got no clothes. Which leads to the first mystery of Nude Nite: If the event has such appeal (the name is even trademarked), why isn’t the art better? The second mystery: With plenty of corporate sponsors (including this newspaper), but no mention made of the charities that benefited from Nude Nites past, where does the money go? Hopefully, toward buying that naked guy a sock ….