I did not expect to meet Eli Levin, but there he was wandering Argos Gallery the day I stopped in to see his nude painting exhibition. We had lots in common. He was an old Jewish leftist (“a card-carrying communist”) and we fell into the surrogate roles that can emerge between grandparents and grandchildren—even if they are not one another’s—from the same ethnic world. It felt that way; like I became his short-term granddaughter and he was eager for my interest in art and books and social inequity to blossom into a life, and he became my short-term grandfather and I was proud that his interest in art and books and social inequity had made up a life.
What we did not have in common was our bodies, my being a young woman and his being an old man. The question that filled the space between us—the one he himself put forward—was: What is an old man doing painting the bodies of young women? “Give me hell,” he said.

Well, he wasn't always old. Levin's joint book and exhibit, Nudes: An Artist's Inquiry, spans 50 years of work, so at some point he was a young man painting young women. The book begins with a quote from the art historian Sir Kenneth Clark, who declares that a nude's failure to elicit erotic feeling from the spectator indicates "bad art and false morals." Then there's a photo of Levin as a child with his mother, both nude, and the confounding (and never expanded upon) first line: "As a little boy I was with my mother and father in a nudist colony, and ever since I've been curious about bodies."

The book is cultural inquiry and self-inquiry. Who loves the nude? Is Levin's obsession of 60 years inescapably cultural, "a case of objectification, of the killing gaze" (as he quotes Dutch theorist Mieke Bal), or can obsession be exceptional, maybe even the psychological residue of Levin's "exceptional mother's" suicide when he was 12? Is the nude itself the stuff of exception; as in, does the figure void of trappings equal fundamental reality stripped of the superfluity of social markers? Perhaps the body, he speculates, is our most meaningful subject matter. I haven't yet seen proof that he is wrong.

Levin paints nudes on the side. His primary work is in social realism; he paints everyday conditions to reveal structural conditions, so the nude body without context is the conceptual opposite of his standard practice. He begins by establishing that he is writing about an ancient subject in an anxious time. Entities that might give critical thought to representation (museums and galleries) have backed away from hanging nudes, and entities whose only thoughts are to profit (advertisers) deal in soft-core porn. Levin had trouble selling his nude paintings at all until a collector bought a slew of 20. But being "a family man," he reportedly hung them in his basement stairwell, beneath one bare bulb.

In the book are over one hundred nudes, accompanied by stream-of-consciousness captions. Some are delightful; “Where did I get this odd idea?” with a picture of a woman putting glasses on her breasts. Others offer bits of Santa Fe history, like when Chippendales came to town. “Here we have a politically incorrect voyeuristic moment,” he writes of a woman whose face is covered by her shirt pulled over her head. He portrays a muse attacking the artist who paints her, and we become privy to his struggle of self-interrogation. Of “Triumph of the Tortured,” depicting torture victims, some fallen and some reaching for the heavens, Levin writes, “This image came in a dream, probably induced by our government’s escalated use of torture.” Thoughts of injustice pervade Levin’s unconscious, and it seems clear he has lived a life of deep ethical consideration.
But among moments of reflection come occasional defensiveness, such as these questions raised in his long-form introduction: “Since men are sexually aroused by women, why shouldn’t art express this in beautiful and otherwise intriguing ways? Instead of trying to inhibit the male artists, why haven’t feminists unleashed a countermovement of women painting nude men?”

He suggests that female artists act as a counterpoint in answer to male artists, but the person affected by the work of the male artist in this case is not the woman artist, but the woman at large. Questions of whether art expressing male sexual arousal might harm women are nuanced but numerous. The premise that the experience of emotion should beget unbridled expression seems naive coming from a social realist who traffics in the fact that that feelings do not blow unattached in the wind but are tied to culture, and the act of their expression ties into culture once more.

There is also the problem of Levin’s repeated axiom of role reversal as social correction: “Why don’t women just paint nude men?” He tests the same hypothesis in his paintings, depicting, for example, a woman lying nude on a bed while a man stands over her, then a man lying nude in bed while a woman stands over him.

But feminist scholarship, at least the kind that I like to read, has tried to escape of the rigidity of gender essentialism—denying the efficacy of an act as simple as role-reversal to begin with—and, moreover, has never been much interested in a world in which women occupy male seats of power. It has sought, instead of imagining inverse-domination, to imagine justice, which is a harder thing to do. If Levin’s “efforts to paint the other sex with understanding” are delusional, he writes, “I hope at least that my delusions are enlightening.” I think this is true of these paintings, where the reversal immediately shows us all the reasons reversal doesn’t work. The man towering over the nude woman just means something wholly different than its counterpart painting. The omniscient gaze, after all, is still a man. Levin sees this too, understands the inherent shortcomings of these attempts.

Levin narrates his career in nudes in terms of an arc from anxiety and "hormonal imagination" toward understanding and consideration. First are his "Disturbing Nudes" from his youth, usually grotesque or depicting sexual acts. Then there's "Mostly Couples," then "Nudes from Life," then a "Myths" section that's really out of left field.

Finally come the "Contemplative Nudes." Levin elevates these most. For him, they represent an ethical and artistic culmination. He supplants his own interiority into some paintings, like the women painted sitting on the edge of their beds introspectively, "a mood that I often feel when I hesitate to get up and face the world," he writes, quoting Flaubert: "Madame Bovary—c'est moi." It is I.

Levin and I share a favorite of his works. "Bedroom Bargaining," which shows a man and a woman standing in nude debate in a bedroom. "There is such equality between the couple," he writes. "Yet the image is full of ambiguity." The room is bare, the walls are blank, the bodies, of course, are nude. This time it feels true that inside all the bare space, one can imagine.

Nudes: An Artist’s Inquiry: Through Friday Aug. 3. Argos Etchings and Paintings, 1211 Luisa St. 988-1814.