There's often too little surprise in the Lexington Art League's annual Nude exhibit, opening this weekend. You know what the content will be, you know some of the artists who will be represented, and you can guess about how far the more daring pieces will go.
But this year is the exhibition's 23rd, which brought serious reflection among the LAL staff of how the exhibition started and what it should become. The results of that reflection? This year's Nude is decidedly on the move, presenting a renewed definition of what constitutes the artistic expression of the figure.
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“Artists have been representing the nude human form for thousands of years,” says Mike Deetsch, exhibitions and programs director for the Lexington Art League. “We want to expose people and artists to a new way of seeing an old subject.”
A major change leading to the new look of this year's Nude is the disruption of the exhibit's juror tradition. The show is typically put together by a juror from outside the region, but this year's entries were chosen by a local selection committee consisting of Deetsch; Ruth Adams, associate professor of photography and digital art at the University of Kentucky; and Robert Morgan, a noted Lexington artist.
Local jurors can mean less standing for the exhibit — after all, last year's juror was an internationally noted New York art dealer — but Adams and Morgan have a solid base in figural art through photography and mixed media, respectively. More important, however, is their familiarity with past Nude exhibitions, a knowledge that prevents this show from being a rehash of last year's selected artists, which plagued the 2007 exhibit.
For this year's Nude, Adams, Morgan and Deetsch selected a majority of photography and realism that makes the show of 65 works a literal depiction of the body. The human form is presented in the round, not only literally in three dimensions — as in Indiana artist David De Aubrey's Pool Guys, in which a stout male model is captured in a Photoshopped poolside scene lounging, standing and showcasing positions that reveal his body in 360 degrees — but also in terms of identity and the body beneath the skin.
Works like Lexington pen-and-ink artist Eric Trimble's series Project: My Junk and Christine Louise Wuenschel's self-portrait series move beyond the outskirts of the body into the deeply personal world of their bodies.
Trimble's three works present themselves like illustrations from an anatomical reference, with cross-sections of the scrotum, hair follicle and penis. Within the drawings, however, one easily spots among the anatomical terminology references to pop culture and personal preference; for instance, bicycle seats and punches are noted as “painful elements,” grooming habits are listed as detailed care instructions, and tattoos and video games are linked with varying stages of excitement. Beyond the mirth factor — and you can't help but enjoy the artist's tongue-in-cheek look at himself — the works are introspective studies of the nude body, revealing both the true nature of and contemporary attitudes toward human anatomy.
Operating similarly, Arizona artist Wuenschel's self-portraits are charcoal and pastel drawings of the curves of her body. Hung side by side, the works move from discernible anatomy to ill-defined shapes: in Self-Portrait: Slight Inclusion #1, a rounded leg and rolling side can be identified; Slight Inclusion #2 is a vague look at softly rounded, rosy skin; they both lead to Untitled Self Portrait No. 12. Completed in charcoal, the curves and highlights of this piece could be anything from a curled body to a colon. In leaving the viewer with little idea of what we're seeing, Wuenschel eliminates the judgmental factor from today's figure-obsessed world to reveal the aesthetic and honest nature of rounded flesh.
The exhibit also contains examples of beautifully executed traditional works — notable works being Marlene Steele's Michelangelo-esque Rest at the Bench, Dana M. Davis' striking lit photograph Kore #66, and Joseph Murawski's modern bathing scene Dry Cleaning — but the works that delve into new explorations of the body own the exhibition and open the viewer's eyes to the allure of the unidealized modern figure. After years of expecting to know what will be at the Nude, this year's show comes as a nice surprise.