“And me and the model, at the exact same time, said, ‘Thank you for sharing,’” the artist recalled. “In my mind, I was like: ‘I don’t know what her battle is. All I know is that we brought that battle to the surface.’ She might go home tonight and think it’s not disgusting.”
Some artists paint nudes on canvas. Golub uses nudes as canvas.
On Jan. 24, Golub will drive one of his wildly painted cars from his South Nyack home to the Nyack Center, where he’ll meet two or three people who have volunteered to act as his models. At 6 p.m., the doors will open, the audience will shuffle in, and Golub will start painting.
He’ll work quickly, dabbing paint — it’s actually water-based foundation makeup — on his models’ bodies, using their contours and their conversation as inspiration.
When the painting is done, he’ll sit down to talk with ArtsRock’s Elliott Forrest about public art, the law, and what it’s like to paint 50 naked bodies in the middle of Times Square, as Golub did as part of Bodypainting Day last summer. (The event even landed on Letterman, as “Top 10 Things Overheard at the Naked Body Painting on Broadway.”)
Ask Andy Golub how he started body painting and he’ll talk about a rock he was painting one time, how it had planes, curves, cracks and contours.
“It was fascinating and I let the art be taken,” he said. “I wasn’t imposing my own ideas. But what I ended up doing was painting what was already there, really. I could have just shown a person the rock. The idea of painting an object is that it’s a collaboration between the painter and the object.
“The first time I started painting people, I noticed I was also feeding off the person’s energy. There are contours and I follow them, but I try not to focus on what I’m painting as I’m painting it. I try to paint subconsciously, like stream of consciousness.”
For Golub, the process is key. The Tappan Zee High School graduate — who has lived in South Nyack for 15 years with his wife, Carol Sumkin, and their kids, Indigo and Forest — said there’s a give and take.
“I’m painting in front of people so they can see the process. It’s interpreting a body and a spirit through art.”
Still he has his detractors.
“I’m out there painting bodies in Times Square and a lot of people think I’m just doing it for publicity. Sometimes people refer to it as a stunt. I wouldn’t choose that word, a stunt is like a trick, and everything I’m doing is about being completely straightforward.”
He talks to his models as he paints, about whatever’s on his mind, but he keeps the subject elevated.
“I talk to the models to set the terms of where the painting is,” he said. “The painting is about ideas, about philosophy, about the world, about faith, about where I am while I’m painting. Intuitively, I take control so that what we’re doing is about art and connection and expression in a completely non-sexual manner.”
It was that connection, Golub said, that made taking his art public the next logical step. And what’s more public than the pedestrian plaza of Times Square? In 2009, Golub painted a man and a woman, wearing only G-strings, there.
“The cops didn’t arrest me, they didn’t threaten to arrest me, they just came after me and hassled me. I didn’t want to push it, because I didn’t have a lawyer at the time.”
He went home that night and called civil rights lawyer Ron Kuby.
“He called me right back. He sent a letter to the city reminding them that I wasn’t doing anything illegal and that I was his client and that if I wanted to paint people completely nude, I could.”
A call to Kuby confirmed his client’s legal stance.
“In the City of New York, it is perfectly legal to be nude in public, as long as your nudity is part of a play, performance, exhibition or show,” Kuby said, adding wryly: “And really, when isn’t it?”
The only type of nudity that’s illegal in New York City, Kuby said “is neolistic nudity, when you wake up in the morning and say, ‘I don’t feel like wearing clothes,’ and walk out naked. Nudity for no purpose.”
This is not about the First Amendment, the attorney said.
“It’s because New York City has never criminalized artistic nudity. The state of New York specifically exempts artistic nudity from the criminal justice sanction, but allows municipalities to pass their own anti-nudity-in-art laws. Not surprisingly, almost none of them do.”
Still, there was the time in 2011 when Golub and two models were arrested and quickly released.
Forrest, who’ll be asking the questions at the Nyack Center on Jan. 24, said he called Nyack Village Hall just to make sure there were no laws prohibiting Golub’s work.
“I spoke to the mayor, who told me, ‘You have as many naked people as you want,’” Forrest said with a laugh.
Golub sees value in the process, the art, the conversation.
“I think it opens up people’s ideas of what art can be. It changes the way people view the human body and the way it’s associated with shame. The body is used often in advertising, especially to young people. It’s exploiting the body and sexuality and I think this goes in the opposite direction of that.”
He has been promoting this summer’s Bodypainting Day (planned for 100 models) by interviewing models about their takeaway from last year’s event.
“For many of the models, being painted has been extremely important. You know when you’re doing it, because it takes more than courage to get fully nude. I’ve painted men, women, plus-size models, people in their 70’s, a woman with advanced breast cancer. All in public. There’s a certain level of acceptance of yourself to feel comfortable enough to share your body with everyone.”
When he’s finished with this art, Golub’s canvases walk and talk and ask questions.
“They’ll ask me, ‘How should I pose?’ and I say, ‘Be yourself. The painting was of you.’ An interviewer once asked me, ‘What do you call this painting?’ And I said, ‘The name of this painting is Stacey.’”
The contradiction between art and commerce was never clearer to Golub than in another Times Square moment he recalled vividly.
“This one time, I was painting in Times Square and above me this American Eagle video screen that’s probably 40 feet by 40 feet. And on the screen is a video of a young girl hula-hooping with a bra and it’s slow motion. And you’re seeing these bosoms that are bigger than my whole body bouncing around in slow motion and nobody notices it. They notice it in the back of their brain, but not in the front of their mind. They’re walking around Times Square and they see me body painting and they go, ‘Whaaat?” and they don’t have any reaction to the fact that we’re standing in the glow of that image.”
Golub approaches Jan. 24’s event in Nyack with no expectations.
“Sometimes, you’ll see some old lady who’ll love it and then you’ll see some guy in a Mohawk who you would think was so counterculture he’d be celebrating it and he’d be the one who’s angry about it.”
Some people do get angry. Others have an entirely different response, like the girls who saw Golub at work in Times Square and began flashing people.
“I went over and said ‘This is not “Girls Gone Wild,’” he said with a laugh.