The naked truth

In his seminal 1956 book “The Nude,” art historian Kenneth Clark considers the difference between the words “naked” and “nude.”

“To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word ‘nude,’ on the other hand, carries in educated usage no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a huddled and defenseless body, but of a balanced, prosperous and confident body — the body re-formed.”

Still, Hudson Valley artist Nadine Robbins, painter of strong nudes, sees no such distinction.

“I see nudity and nakedness as artificial definitions,” she says. “Whether you pose nude or naked, it takes confidence. I don’t see a difference between the two.”

Robbins does, however, draw a line between her paintings and the pages of Playboy.

“I don’t see my work as sexual,” she says. “I think it’s stronger. Each work tells a story.”

“Davida,” a 2014 oil on linen, is Robbins’ womanly response to Michelangelo’s “David,’” right down to the directed gaze and the spread-legged stance with the weight shifted to the right side of the body. “Mrs. McDonald” (2013) offers the viewer a meditation on our pleasure in American consumerism while “In Memory of Henry” (2015) marries the nude body to naked emotion in an open-armed, tattooed study of remembrance and loss. (All three works feature Robbins’ friend Kaitlin, she of the Titian hair.)

Robbins sees her realistic nudes as “raw, honest, strong, vulnerable — kind of like me. I say it like it is.”

But she adds that the storytelling in her pictures “a lot of times comes from the person I’m photographing.” Robbins begins with photographs of her subject. “Basically, it’s the equivalent of a sketch in which you’re able to capture the uninhibited moments immediately.”

“A morning person,” she rises early and gets into the studio of her home in Milan, just outside artistic Rhinebeck in Dutchess County, to ignite the process of turning a photograph into a painting. She begins with a drawing using thinned oil paints on stretched high-grade linen. (Robbins keeps her paints wrapped in plastic in her freezer so they won’t dry out.) Then she blocks in the colors “to give a sense of shading and build layers,” adding more and more details.

“Skin tones are a challenge,” she says. “Every dab has to be well thought out.” Hence one of the reasons she favors oils, which, unlike watercolor paints, dry slowly and can be layered on to achieve the nuances of flesh tones and skin particularities.

Such is the intensity of Robbins being “in the zone” that four or five hours may pass with the artist at her easel before her neck tells her that it’s “time to stretch or get some exercise.”
“I have from the get-go always been an artist,” Robbins adds. Her mother was an artist and when Robbins was a child of 6 in the early 1970s, she took her to a bullfight in the south of France — where they lived part of the time — on the off chance of seeing Pablo Picasso. They didn’t. But Robbins absorbed the great French traditions of art as well as the more casual European attitude toward nudity.

“I don’t see nudity as something to hide from,” she says. “The choice to pose nude says you’re pretty strong.”

Back in the states, Robbins studied graphic design along with drawing and art history at SUNY New Paltz. In 2008, though, she “shied away” from commercial art.

“I needed a challenge,” Robbins says. “I always loved painting, particularly portraits.” Female nudes have offered her that challenge.

Not that she hasn’t done male nudes.

“I haven’t painted one in a long time,” she says. “But it doesn’t make a difference to me. If the opportunity came along, that would be great.”

Nadine Robbins is working on a series, “Guilty Pleasures & Bad Habits,” that  includes “Double Gulp,” about art collector Howard Tullman’s love of Diet Coke; and “She-Ra,” with poet Matthew Hittinger dressed as the animated character. In the meantime, Robbins’ nudes “Davida” and “In Memory of Henry” are featured in the seventh annual “Nude” exhibit at the Manifest Gallery in Cincinnati through Sept.  11.

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