on Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object, a memoir by Kathleen Rooney (Univ. of Arkansas Press)

In Metamorphoses, Ovid retells the story of Actaeon, a hunter who leads his men on a successful quest for game. After the nets and traps have been hauled in, Actaeon takes a solitary walk in the woods. He enters a grove where the goddess Diana is being bathed by her handmaidens (they struggle to pour water over her towering figure). The blushing deity is not only virginal but proud of it. Watching Actaeon watching her, she “scooped up water and flung it in Actaeon’s face, sprinkling his hair with avenging droplets, and adding the words that prophesied his doom: ‘Now you may tell of how you saw me naked, tell it if you can!’” She turns him into a stag. The nature of his fate bewilders him: I’m innocent! Why has this happened to me? His hunting dogs approach. As he cries out, “It’s me, Actaeon, recognize your master!” the dogs rip him to shreds.

rooney7.jpgActaeon is generally regarded as the more interesting character in this myth since his situation (voyeur? unlucky bumbler?) lends itself to debate. But the complexity lies in the interactive natures of the two bodies and psyches. She is naked, not nude. In this story, the naked female surrounded by her minion of bare-assed beauticians has power over the solitary clothed male. Diana the Huntress dominates the artful Hunter. Once he gazes on that nakedness, his own body changes. He becomes aware of his body as never before (“I’ve got antlers!”). Now he is naked. Actaeon’s vaunted skill or “art” is to gaze at a desired form and “capture” it. Obviously, he would have been better off to have encountered a professional model instead of a wrathful goddess. In that case, he may have been able to tell of how he saw her nude, but not naked. But the potentially dangerous dynamic, saving or sublimating them both into art (a kind of death, a kind of life), would have been quite similar. The model may sometimes feel like prey, depending on the level of empathy in the artist.

rooney2.jpgI draw these conclusions by way of Live Nude Girl, Kathleen Rooney’s seductive essay-memoir on her experiences as a twenty-something art model for painters, sculptors and photographers, in the classroom and the private studio. She writes, “There’s a power that comes with nudity, 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, and which leads to a slight but unmistakable vulnerability if someone happens to publicly see me in that state … What I’m getting at, I guess, is that I like that garment; invisible or not, it provides a lot of protection, a lot of freedom.”

rooney1.jpgRooney recounts her experiences doing business with and posing for various artists and students, digresses to stitch in the perspectives of thinkers like Roland Barthes and John Berger among others, and drops in anecdotes about famous muse-models and their relationships with the artists who took them as inspiration. But she also has the patience to answer the commonly asked questions: Why do you do it? What’s it like to remove your clothes in front of a class or a camera? What does it pay? What do you think about during those long poses? Aren’t you just reinforcing negative female stereotypes? Although her insights have a charming psychological acuity, Rooney’s respect for herself and her subject insists on a refreshing open-endedness in her outlook:

“I want to tell these people who ask me that I’ve learned this: this is not now, nor has it ever been, a journey of self-discovery. At best, it has been, like some sculpture, a subtractive process, a process of reasoning to come to an answer to the question: why do I behave the way I do? And that answer has something to do with repetition, compulsion, and the fact that some truths needs to be proven not once, but over and over … this is not a coming-of-age memoir. It is not, because I have not. Come of age. Nobody comes of age. Nobody’s life has the traditional narrative arc of Freytag’s Pyramid.” This resistance to the typical memoirist’s “arc” – and her surrender to the shape of experience itself while maintaining the shrewd writer’s feel for recurrence, context and backfill – lift Nude Live Girl to the top rank of recent memoirs. Each of her six chapters is a shapely and speculative essay.

rooney3.jpgRooney has written a book largely about forms of intimacy – conventional and disruptive. But Live Nude Girl is also an act of intimacy between Rooney and reader during which she tries to bare and understand her motivation to pose in the nude. This is the beauty of her prose narrative – a telling that seems utterly without pretension, never trying too hard to analyze or provoke, but consistently coming up with apt and wise statements as she wonders “why I and other models seem to have a higher tolerance for self-exposure than the average person.” The opening essay, “Naked If I Want To,” begins the probe, but she extends the query through the final chapter, modestly glossing her previous hunches. Early on she writes, “I went into this line of work out of a craving for the attention of others, but over the course of doing it, I’ve managed to become somewhat numb to that attention.” In the second essay, “Would You Like Me to Seduce You?” the deeper pleasures and excitement of her work emerge as she details her time with two quite different artists:

“With both Jeremy and David I let down my guard, permitting myself to be more naked with them than with almost anyone else for whom I pose. I am trying to show them something; something they can’t see physically, but that they are capable of seeing in other ways. Something I can see in them, as well, as if we are all in on a joke that nobody else gets. As if we are part of a club that facilitates a meeting of the minds … Like we are in what F. Scott Fitzgerald calls ecstatic cahoots.’”

She agrees with Jeremy when he says, “I like that brand of intimacy with a quote-unquote stranger. I almost like that better than with a lifelong friend … I like the idea of having just met somebody and then getting involved in a really intimate conversation” – which they do as he paints and she maintains her pose. This kind of unconstrained relationship is what Leo Bersani calls “impersonal intimacy” – a pure potentiality in which each person gives up his/her grooved subjecthood only to newly receive it through the empathic efforts of the other person. After socializing with her artists, Rooney experiences the dulling of a narcotic high as more information accrues: “Less fantasy and more reality guaranteed that the initial sense of possibility, of the forbidden, was lost.” But as for Jeremy and David, “I never hung out with them … My thoughts about them can continue to open out, to swell to mysterious heights. This mystery, this deferral of satisfaction, is why I feel my collaborations with each of them were so seductive. That was sort of a typo. I meant to write productive, but I’m going to leave it, because I think they were both.”

rooney.pngOccasionally Rooney runs into a more suspicious “artist,” such as Jon the photographer whose “elaborate and pretentious artistic vocabulary” and placement of glass figurines on her body (“a purple glass horse galloped across the pale and rippling plains of my ribs before scaling the small peak of my breast, coming to rest near my nipple”) tag him as a neurotic but perhaps harmless client. With him she ultimately felt “that sense of relief we feel when we realize that an external threat, a worldly disorder, does not really threaten our life, that while our internal order may have been in danger, it has been somehow spared.” And so like Diana/Artemis, Rooney knows how to regard an intrusive Actaeon:

“Each time you pose, you hurl yourself headlong into the unpredictability of human nature; you never know when someone will do something unexpected, unsuitable, wild. But you know, too, that as a model, you will always be safe, because you are protected, clad in your nudity; because you have power. And thus you are free – and it is fun – to fantasize.”

rooney5.jpgRooney is technically adept at arranging her materials and pitching her voice “not just to wear a certain kind of mask, but also to be looked at with a certain kind of interest” – by the artist with brush in hand, and by the reader. Anecdotes of summer roadtrips with her family and later with her fiancé yield imagery that amplifies her themes – for instance, regarding death and immortality in whatever is captured or petrified in an artwork. The famous terra cotta soldiers commissioned by Qin Shi Huang, replicated at a Texas theme park, trigger such meditations. Yet she refrains from mining her background to explain the present. She asks us to accept her as an affable, sensitive, inquiring surface, and that we gauge and exploit the distance between her and us not to amass self-knowledge alone, but to appreciate the risky transit across that distance, the sense that something is at stake. Perhaps this is why her chapter on working with “more solicitous” female artists, “What It Feels Like for a Girl,” seems to dilute the dramatic effect.

“The best models have a sense of the dramatic, an ability to lose themselves or to take on new selves as the project necessitates,” she says. “This idea of becoming someone I am not pleases me.” So we understand that she has cooked up a talky “someone” to tell these stories as well. Completely taken in by her pose, I have been granted the opportunity to gaze upon the slender frame of this apparition as she stares back (she mentions this body's attractive qualities often enough, and so I’ve been enticed, perhaps entrapped) and I have found it to be pleasing.

[Published January 26, 2009. 184 pp., $22.50 hardcover]

re: Models and Coming of Age

My father-in-law is an artist. He's 85 and has been painting or drawing seriously for at least 70 years. He loves to talk about painting and what he likes to talk about most is the models he's painted. Some were naked and some were clothed but they all had personalities that he wanted to discover.

He talks about the conversations he had with them, the way they held themselves when they stood smoking cigarettes after the modeling, the lives they lived outside the studio, their children, their lovers, their favorite books and music. Don't get him started!

All of this was amazing to me when I first heard him talk about models. I always thought that they just come in and the artist draws or paints and the work appears on the paper or canvas.

I also want to say that I am in total agreement with Kathleen Rooney about coming of age. It's a myth!

Here's a poem I wrote about it 6 years ago.

Coming of Age?

I'm 54 and next year will be 55
(on June 22 if you want to send flowers
or candy), and what I’ve learned about
coming of age is that we come of age

the way the great glaciers come of age.
Slowly. One year we melt a little.
The next we freeze a little. A wind
comes from no place and shines up

our northern walls. The next year
the wind is a little stronger or weaker.
We don’t change the way people in books
change. Today’s hero, tomorrow’s fool.

Our future—a patient grandmother
with a toddler in hand—comes slowly.

A Life Drawing Anecdote

Thanks John. Your note reminded me that when my wife Nancy attended the California College of Arts & Crafts in Oakland in the early 70s, she brought her very proper grandmother to a life drawing class. The model was a woman in her early 60s perhaps, and quite fleshy. I asked Nancy, "What was your grandmother's reaction to this?" She said, "Nana just blinked a few times, and then she started drawing." Kathleen Rooney's book often made me wonder about our blinking moments, and in fact she talks about those first few seconds after she has disrobed. Ron