Sex, Foibles, and Off-Color Jokes

There is some deep, dark stuff going down, both on the surface and below, but there is more gritty strength here than self-pity or melancholy
Judith Hudson’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” series incorporates many cross-species couplings, such as in this “I will roar you as ‘twere any nightingale” watercolor on paper.

Text and subtext rule in Judith Hudson’s most recent work. First there was the “Sex Advice Drawings” series, beginning in 2008 and continuing up through the present. Now comes a related “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on view at Tripoli Gallery in Southampton.

The “Sex Advice Drawings” were a brilliant feminine usurpation of what has been a male-dominated milieu: the off-color joke as art. Richard Prince has made Playboy-related themes and sex jokes his subject matter for decades. It’s fresh and lively to see a woman not only take on the mantle but do it with such brio and her own sense of truth and irony. There is some deep, dark stuff going down, both on the surface and below, but there is more gritty strength here than self-pity or melancholy.

In the new works she uses watercolor to depict flesh and skin in a rich and subtle way. Sometimes pink and dewy, other times more sallow and aged. Often the placement of skin on skin, be it bodies touching or hands or feet, is the subject. As the different series developed, it is clear that she shifted from the low, coarse humor of the modern day to the subtler but no less bawdy classicism of Shakespeare.

As the artist said, “Shakespeare is the master of one-liners, which are funny because they are forever relevant and contemporary. When he wrote ‘truth, reason, and love keep little company together nowadays,’ ‘nowadays’ will always apply.”

Sure it’s all in good fun to be tricked into falling in love with an ass when it’s literally depicted on stage, but what about when it happens more figuratively with devastating emotional consequences? There is a lot of empathy here for human folly, and often the drawings with their bleeding color and the vulnerability of unconscious naked bodies exposed to the elements seem fraught with peril. When that’s not enough, she ups the ante, binding the wrists and ankles of her subjects, placing them in double jeopardy.

There are Puck-like creatures and strange animal beings as well as the languid asses and rather sexy lions. Whole parallel worlds of beasts both fact-based and fanciful become the partners of dreams, and all are teeming with Freudian meaning.

Free association rules the day here. It is a world where Puck as a subject leads to numerous drawings of clowns, and depictions of sleeping nudes spark an interest in more discreet elements of flesh, and even depictions of freckles, a striking contrast between the real and the idealized bodies of the dreams.

The handmade paper these drawings are executed on is rough-edged and an important part of many of them, determining shape and fissures in the surface. The watercolor is deep and sumptuous, the blues a true heavenly midnight and the depth of a lion’s mane a tangle of ambers and caramels. The text floats on top in opaque white blocks or in flowing black cursive. When the pieces lack text, the title helps fill in meaning and dark humor. There is much implied motion here, whether in the turbulent skies or the varied atmosphere around her beasts. The figures, however, remain still.

Dark humor, or even sadness comes out in other ways as well. Her series of “Players,” which are depictions of clowns, has an air of mawkish tragedy. Their made-up faces appear as death masks, no matter how joyful the color. Taking her theme another turn, she ends up with an “Unrequited Love Series” featuring Frankenstein’s monster and King Kong, and no less repugnant.

What are rather fun are the limited edition floor pieces she has commissioned from her drawing. “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows” is an image of an ass rolling in the grass with legs akimbo. It captures pure animalistic sensual pleasure and its placement on the floor to be walked on accentuates its baseness. At the same time, its implied joy at being walked over points to the foibles of human nature.

The exhibition will remain on view through July 13.

Judith Hudson’s “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,” a watercolor drawing from this year, was made into a limited edition of polyester floor pieces.