The human body contains infinite configurations, compositions and possibilities for reframing and re-examination. In photographer Matthew Chase-Daniel’s new book Body, it becomes the canvas for organically abstracted and dizzyingly decontextualized images, leaving us anxious for reference points.
Though irrefutably anatomical, the subjects of Chase-Daniel’s 8½-by-11-inch black-and-white photocopies are formless, transient and equivocal—in the mode of a fleshy Rorschach test. Am I looking at an elephant or an anus, geography or extremity, elbow or orifice? Body relies on this confusion to “incite interest,” Chase-Daniel says.
The book started as an idea for dinner plates. “We are attracted to a man’s hairy chest or a woman’s breast in a physical way,” Chase-Daniel says, “but we are not attracted to eating off of them.”
Although this book eliminates the food factor, it still plays with the idea of convulsive beauty. The modules and configurations of flesh, twists, divots, dimples and creases of the human body are grotesquely attractive. Even the most platonic images become pornographic because we’re not exactly sure what we’re looking at and our imaginations fill in the blanks, but then the lack of color dampens sexual triggers; the subjects become studies on form and texture. “Attraction and repulsion changes in context,” Chase-Daniel says.
By Axle Contemporary’s method of making art more accessible, this book could be the product of an inebriated prankster playing with a photocopier. The low-fidelity printing process aims to make the book affordable, and at $14, Body is definitely designed for distribution. But the simple format assists in abstracting the body while also suggesting that bodies do not require primping, priming or painting.
Chase-Daniel’s models are not airbrushed, contorted teens showing their good sides; the models
were chosen by a process of “self-selection,” Chase-Daniel says, beginning with a Facebook post. “This book was very process-oriented. Each shoot was self-directed. I might have influenced it with my presence, but I wasn’t giving direction. It caused people to look at the bodies in different ways. The scar they were so identified with is barely visible in this format, and it caused people to reassess their personal image.”
Many of the models insisted on having their scars or tattoos in the book because they were the only identifiable features. “Originally, I didn’t want tattoos, but people were so identified with them,” he says.
Void of eye contact and Hellenistic drama, the photos are still deeply personal. Scars and wrinkles speak to their owners’ histories like rings in a tree; the isolated features of the body become sources of unlimited personality, telling more than the bodies’ entireties ever could. The individual features deliver messages more honest than the cacophony of the whole.
Our bodies are opinionated. They mock the decorations with which we adorn ourselves—swallowing a hibiscus tattoo, for instance, until it looks vaginal. We search for symmetry while our bodies rebel against it with discordant scars or unruly hair. They also express their own aesthetic as assuredly as the great artists, as in one image that depicts a nipple dripping from a sky of citrus flesh like one of Salvador Dalí’s clocks.
In a geography of bone structure and a cartography of veins, a lightning storm of chest hair recalls Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night. The mass of an eyebrow is as integral to the composition of the face as one of Mark Rothko’s bands of color. The body is the work of art and the artist.