For 25 years, the Lexington Art League's yearly exhibit The Nude has been a staple of Lexington culture. It has grown from featuring local artists to attracting regional, national and even international artists working with the human figure. But this year's show, the 26th, comes with some unprecedented changes.
For the first time, LAL is significantly changing the title of the exhibit to better reflect the evolving nature of the show, organizers say.
The new name, Body | Figure | Nude, signals a subtle but significant shift in the focus of the exhibit, which opens this weekend. With 60 pieces by 40 artists (chosen from nearly 650 pieces), it has grown beyond the appreciation of the techniques and aesthetics of the classic nude tradition toward engaging in a dialogue with the content of the work, curators say, subject matter that in some way uses the human form to explore a wide spectrum of themes.
Jurors Becky Alley, who also is the league's exhibitions and programs director, and Anna Brzyski, an associate professor of art history and visual studies at the University of Kentucky, say the title change is an update that more accurately reflects how contemporary artists engage the human form.
"If you do a show 25 years in a row, it's hard to make it feel fresh," Alley says, "especially with a title like The Nude, which implies something very traditional and classic. There's nothing wrong with doing a show that focuses on the human form at all, but I think we really wanted to figure out a way to move it in a direction that focused on the content of the work, the concepts, rather than focusing on technique."
Brzyski said, "When this show started, the idea of what a nude was was fairly straightforward. It was coming out of studio practice that was based in a classroom where you have a nude model and you do a drawing or charcoal or painting of that nude model, and that tradition is really something that goes all the way back to the Renaissance."
Many contemporary artists still draw from the classic tradition of working with the nude figure for aesthetic purposes, but they also use the human figure to make broad, bold statements and connections about gender, sexuality, politics, mythology and many other themes.
"What has been happening since then — and it has been going on slowly and right now is to the point where you can't really ignore it — is that the tradition of the nude is butting up against the idea of the naked body and what the body itself signifies," Brzyski says.
"So the nude is an aesthetic object in this particular tradition, but the artists have been essentially taking it apart, playing around with it," she said, "and so what we felt would be really interesting is to create an opportunity for artists representing the whole spectrum — from people who are interested in the tradition but also in people who are in dialogue with the tradition and others who are not interested in the tradition at all but are simply using the body in a metaphoric or allegorical way."
One such metaphoric piece is Cosmic Egg, a large sculptural installation by California artist Sondra Schwetman. The lower half of a female body is cradling a hatched egg between its legs. The figure sits atop knotted rags and is marked by hash marks that indicate the keeping and passage of time. Billowed by two orange fountains of fabric, the piece addresses the collision of myth and reality within the experience of femininity.
This kind of piece might not have been selected in years past but fits the aim of the exhibit's updated focus.
"This is a perfect example of the kind of work that doesn't fit the notion of the nude," Brzyski says.
The expanded criteria for this year's exhibit is evident in many works that depict the body without necessarily containing nudity or the classic approach to nude works.
Zachary Pritchard's sculpture Solemn features a closely arranged series of single human legs. The figures are anonymous, of various shapes and sizes, separate but related. The viewer is unable to distinguish between male or female, or age or class, and the piece is designed to erode and fall apart over time, a reminder of mortality.
"I take pleasure in the imperfect," Pritchard says in his artist statement. "I believe only through chance and flaws can you achieve perfection. This level of imperfection combined with materials and form create the narrative."
With such an expanded artistic purview, Body | Figure | Nude aims to continue expanding the legacy established by the first 25 years of The Nude. And in a way, they are just putting a name to what was happening already.
"The work, actually, is not that dissimilar from what was being shown in the last couple of years," Alley says.
Using the body as a starting point for metaphor or allegory and aesthetic experimentation about modern identity has been a focus if several pieces in recent years, and this show formally embraces that.
"The show has been changing," she says, "but the topic or theme has sort of stayed behind, so it's simply a catching up to the reality of what already has been happening."
Candace Chaney is a Lexington writer.