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Shortage of willing models poses challenge for Minneapolis artist

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Kristen Copham (MPR Photo/Chris Roberts)
For centuries the female nude has been an iconic figure in art. Society's comfort level with the male nude has been quite a bit lower, especially in modern-day America. In Minneapolis an artist has confronted what some may view as a double standard about nudity by painting a bunch of naked men. The exhibition is called "Male Artists Exposed."

Minneapolis, Minn. — For painter Mark Barsness, the idea of posing nude for another artist wasn't a big deal, especially when that artist was his friend, Kristen Copham. But when it came time for Barsness to shed his clothes, he hesitated.

"Me being Norwegian and a little shy, I kept my underpants on for as long as possible. I don't know why I just didn't feel comfortable taking it off all the way until it was absolutely necessary," he said.

You can probably chalk up Barsness's hesitancy to his own modesty, but male nudity, especially the full frontal variety, has long been an unspoken -- but very discomforting -- subject in America. Which is why Kristen Copham decided to address it -- or undress it, directly.

Copham says depictions of nudity in art haven't changed much over time. She says it's usually women with a certain look who are portrayed in the nude. And it's usually men doing the painting "like they might paint fruit on a table."

"Historically, models and human bodies have been just that; they're an object in a composition. I wanted them to be subjects and I wanted the paintings to be a little bit about them as well," she says.

As a portraiture artist, Copham considers herself a storyteller. She chose male artists she knew in the Twin cities as subjects for her nudes because she thought they might have colorful stories to tell. Before every session, Copham conducted lengthy interviews with each one, about their background and their art. She wanted them to have input in the paintings, as if they were her collaborators.

"Which is perhaps a more traditionally feminine way to approach something. 'Let's collaborate' versus 'I'm hiring you to be my model and I want you to pose like this...put your arm up here, put your leg over here, sit really still, I'll tell you when you can take a break,' it wasn't like that at all," she says.

Copham's show, at Gallery 13 in Northeast Minneapolis includes 20 large-scale, oil-on-canvas male nudes. They all contain some aspect of the subject's personality and art.

The painting of artist Mark Barsness shows him lying nude, on his back, on a manhole cover, head upside down, gazing back at the viewer. Barsness's specialty is painting manhole covers. A portrait of the unashamedly rotund Minneapolis poet, Dick Houff, has him lying rather luxuriously on his stomach in a field of books. Copham says trying to find enough models wasn't easy. Some artists had a somewhat juvenile reaction when she asked if they would disrobe for her.

"A very common response I would get would be, 'yeah I'll take my clothes off and pose nude if you're nude when you're painting me,'" she says.

Even though Copham sought to include a range of body types, ages and backgrounds in the exhibition, she found that men have as many body issues as women. Many artists she thought would say yes, quickly declined, saying they were too fat, too old, or both. Another artist asked Copham not to use his name with the media. He was concerned it would hurt his chances for a promotion at work, even though his day job is arts-related. Then there was the artist who came to her with a set of stipulations.

"He shows up with a contract saying that... he had to be anonymous, and then it had all these rules about how I was going to portray his private areas," she says.

Though Copham says the show has been farily well attended, she's sold only one piece. She believes that's partly because Minnesotans just don't like to spend money on art, especially if it's this kind of art. She says in New York, male nudes would probably elicit a yawn from many galleries.

"As adults hopefully we've all seen this some time in our life in some form, and these paintings certainly aren't pornographic in any way, so, what's bothering you?"

She's also selling a 2006 calendar featuring 12 of the paintings. She calls it "The Male Muse."

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