‘Jim Herbert’s paintings of naked lovers are not for the faint of heart. At first glance, viewers might want to look away as though catching a glimpse of a couple kissing. And some people will totally avert their eyes from these intense canvases. At the opening for a recent show a young couple strolled in, saw one work, and then bolted out the door. They left because these works are not simply nudes. With today’s porn-soaked internet and sexually liberated gaze, nudity’s shock value is dismally low. Something else plays out in Herbert’s huge canvases. By depicting the tenderness between lovers, these images portray intimacy — the same emotional concept that pays therapists’ mortgages.’ Thus opens Daniel Larkin’s 2010 overview of Herbert’s work at the Hyperallergenic online magazine, all of which is worth reading here.
Herbert’s paintings demonstrate how we are accustomed to seeing the naked body depicted in art. In our visual culture, nudes usually appear as classically disengaged and aloof statues, as mechanical cold puppets carrying out a fake performance, or as impossible fantasies of the artist’s erotic imagination. Images of people pausing to cherish each other’s warmth and unlocking and exploring pleasure together are far less common.
Should we look away from these paintings out of polite modesty and avoid the intimidating vulnerability created by their intimacy, or do we allow them to help us think about what we really want from our closest and most valued relationships? If we are looking for images to initiate important discussions about sex and relationships, especially with young people (who Herbert so sensitively portrays in many of his works), these brightly-coloured and thickly-textured canvases might be an excellent place to start.