Artist Phyllis Yes Examines Gender Roles and Labor Through a Collection of Nude Paintings No Portland Gallery Will Display

The collection, originally scheduled to appear at First Congregational Church’s Gallery this summer, has been pulled by church leadership.

Dusty... at Home (for sensitive eyes) (Phyllis Yes)

Every woman’s fantasy is a man doing chores. You’ve heard that joke before, or seen a birthday or bachelorette card with a similar message, usually with a photo of some beefcake model polishing a plate or taking out the trash.

But Portland artist Phyllis Yes took the idea seriously decades ago. In 1973, Yes hired a male model from a local registry at Oregon State University and invited him to her secluded woodland home in Eugene to do household tasks like laundry, cooking and dishes. All naked.

“I just wanted to see a man doing some of the hard labor in the house, the drudge work, that I didn’t see ever in my life—not with my own marriage and not growing up or anything,” Yes says. “It was the man having certain chores and the woman having certain chores, but not ever them doing anything out of the norm.”

Now, more than 50 years later, Yes has resurfaced the images as paintings that she seeks to display as Dusty…at Home. The exhibit was planned to show at First Congregational Church in downtown’s South Park Blocks starting in June, and hung on the walls this week—until Rev. Derek Austin and other church leaders pulled the show on Tuesday, May 28, an email shows.

Phyllis Yes - Home (Phyllis Yes)

First, a little context on Yes. The artist, now 82, uses her work to examine how gender roles are assigned, by society and within relationships. The Lewis & Clark College professor emerita initially found her inspiration during childhood, from a widower neighbor who didn’t know how to take care of himself when his wife died. Yes asked herself what the wife couldn’t have done has she been the widow instead, like home maintenance and personal finances. Things have changed, but also stayed the same, and Yes wants to talk about it.

“Older people now who retire and are used to those stereotypical roles—the woman finds herself not retired,” Yes says. “She’s cooking and cleaning and doing all this stuff while he gets a chance to read the newspaper or a good book or watch TV or whatever.”

Yes has won grants to study gender roles and traditions around the world, including Indigenous cultures in New Guinea. She often adorns objects coded masculine by Western society, like tools and even guns, with vivid painted colors and delicate, femme-coded linework. Her most famous artwork is PorShe, a 1967 911-S Porsche with intricate flesh-colored lace outlining, soft purple and pink flowers and, at one time, a marigold Oregon license plate (PorShe is in a private collection).

Dusty…at Home is a collection of 11 black-and-white paintings, each 4 by 3 feet, based on Yes’ original photos of Dusty, the male model, tending to his chores. When it came time to pitch her show to galleries in Portland, Yes says she was rejected for a number of reasons. Some galleries felt Yes’ paintings are too risqué for featuring male nudity. Others, she says, may have doubted her art was commercial enough to quickly turn a profit, even despite her impressive résumé—Yes’ work has been displayed in Ethiopia, Japan, and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

“Even in today’s art world, you see way, way more nude women than you ever see nude men, and I wonder why that is,” Yes says. “In part, in the past, it was the males doing the painting and getting written about,” Yes says. “Because if you’re an artist, and you have a show, and nobody writes about it, you get it ready, you put it up, and you take it down, and it’s like it never happened.”

Until this week, it appeared that Portlanders would finally get to see the paintings on display, thanks to the First Congregational Church.

Phillis Yes (Courtesy of Phillis Yes)

Church members recognized Yes at the Portland Art Museum when she attended a lecture in March. When they asked what she was up to, Yes mentioned the difficulty she had finding a space to show her paintings. They offered to host Dusty…at Home as part of the church’s ArtReach program, which affirms art as an important part of a healthy spiritual life.

According to Yes, the artist sent over four samples of artwork, including a full frontal nude image. The committee approved the work, and the show was scheduled. But Yes was a little concerned. In the spring, she decided to attend a service and introduced herself to Austin, the church’s pastor, explaining the show in more detail, and “didn’t want him blindsided,” she says. But it appears he was. “He did have an expression on his face that made me worried.”

Yes continued to prepare for the upcoming exhibition, until May 28, when she received an email from Austin noting that, after further consideration, the show had been canceled.

“There is enough concern over the frontal nudity aspects of some of the pieces—both in terms of the nudity itself and its potential unintended messaging without overt explanation and disclaimers—and questions as to its overall relevance to and alignment with our church’s mission, that we unfortunately need to ask that you choose an alternative collection to install for your scheduled time here,” the email reads.

Austin and other church leadership could not immediately be reached for comment by WW press deadlines.

The message goes on to invite Yes to hang another set of her artwork, but Yes doesn’t feel confident in the offer. She’s considered adding a fig leaf over the images depicting genitals, but is uncertain about what a difference that will make.

“I can’t make it the church’s mission to do this, but I really did want to start a conversation and see what people are thinking now.”

Yes’ paintings don’t mirror reality, but instead present a mix of cartoonish and hyper-detailed features, inviting viewers not to quickly scan over the collection for dick pics. Yes is more interested in the chores, but sometimes emphasizes the male form. Doing the Laundry, for example, nearly shows “whoosh” action marks as the subject tosses clothes into a machine with running water with three loops of fingers, but renders his glutes and thighs in more natural dimensions. The toilet in Cleaning the Toilet isn’t anchored to a wall like most are, should anyone notice as he bends over to scrub it. Yes is missing a photo she took of Dusty lying on her couch eating bon-bons, the stereotype of housewives lazing while their husbands work.

“It would have been nice to have 12 so I could have a calendar,” Yes says.

Phillis Yes (Courtesy of Phillis Yes)

Dusty…at Home isn’t titillating, scandalous or comedic in its nudity, but more stoic like German naturism. The subject at times resembles Michaelangelo’s David for his youthful physique and the timeless mop cut young men wear when their hairline is still wild and free. The viewer is free to project their own assumptions, for example, to decide if the chores are done for Yes, for viewers or for Dusty. She doesn’t correct people’s interpretations.

When she showed a friend, retired art professor Sue Taylor, her painting Baking, depicting the subject with his back to the viewer in a lacy apron, pulling a tray from an oven, Yes says Taylor asked her what “she” was cooking. They later discussed the show while looking at vintage housekeeping magazine articles that questioned how various artworks would be different if they were made by women.

“I learned a new word: frisson,” Yes says. “It can mean different things, but it’s like when you’re at a concert and the music gives you goosebumps or a thrill. That’s what she said the show made her feel.”

Yes has lost contact with her model, Dusty. The last Yes heard is that Dusty lives in Florida after a career with the CIA.

As of now, Yes is still looking for a new home for her pieces and might consider renting a space to host the exhibit herself, sooner rather than later. She’s got everything ready, right down to the refreshments.

“I have 15 gallons of lemonade ready to go for the opening,” she says.

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