Nude images are nothing new to art galleries.
Michelangelo’s statue of “David,” Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” — really any image of the goddess of love — and all those images by Peter Paul Reubens come to mind.
“We’re so used to seeing naked bodies on the wall, we don’t see them anymore,” says Stephanie Harris, executive director of the Lexington Art League.
That, of course, is not the reaction that a gallery director wants people to have. That’s why since the art league revived its annual nude exhibit in 2016, Harris and her colleagues have sought to present more than a classical figure study in the show.
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“The nude exhibition dates back to our founding,” Harris says. “The artists that were here then, it’s the show they created. The show obviously has evolved quite a bit — we now do an international call for artists. But we’re still making time and taking time to examine the figure and and the human form, because obviously that has been a foundation of visual art forever, and it will remain that.”
The Art League did take a few years off to pursue other projects, including an elaborate light sculpture in Triangle Park.
In 2016, it resumed with a show of self-portraiture, a popular form in the age of selfies, and last year’s shows explored demography to look at who was creating nude images and what themes were being explored by various cultures.
“We support content that creates discourse and want to present it in a way that makes it relevant to today,” Harris says.
This year’s show, “Brutal Beauty” emerged from Harris’ work with local artist Patrick Smith and a growing theme in his work.
“His intention is to show people in their true essence,” says Logan Dennison, the art league’s exhibitions and programs director.
Harris noticed the artists’ work on Instagram and says that Smith was “working in this amazing hyper-realism, which just allowed the essence of these subjects to resonate.”
Smith reveals aspects of sexuality and identity that usually aren’t out there for public consumption, but that she says are important to address.
“People are needing people to be real today,” she says, citing the #MeToo movement and socioeconomic challenges across cultural divides. “They aren’t putting on airs. They’re speaking about things that are important to them and being very honest.”
The show is comprised of 70 pieces by 45 artists, locally and foreign. Some are simply classic figure studies, but most address cultural and personal issues, including Adam Shulman’s collection “Gold of Africa,” which show powerful models covered in various forms of gold leaf, representing both empowerment and barriers. They’re in the main gallery to the Loudoun House, along with Kiana Honarmand’s image of Adam and Eve, who is hidden behind the screen of a confessional.
Some images lean toward the bizarre. There is a front of the house gallery featuring Lexington artist Todd Herzberg’s paintings and British Columbia artist Jessica Sallay-Carrington’s hanging sculptures of people wearing the heads of birds and other animals.
“How interesting that at this time we have an artist from here and from Canada working with this subject,” Harris says. On her website, Sallay-Carrington says the animal parts of the figures “speak for the subconscious parts of human action, blurring the line between human and animal.” Herzberg is a bit more oblique, saying the bird masks are ways for the characters to feel important, but the masks don’t really matter, “But that’s OK because in reality life is weird, and then we die.”
Some of the images are explicit, but Harris says the artist committee that selected the works chose them for artistic merit, not shock value.
“If you’re showing work for shock value, that’s irresponsible,” Harris says, but she also values the art league’s ability to “freely show what artists are creating, and that’s really powerful.”
She and Dennison say they hope the works will spur people to give thought and understanding to what they are seeing.
“There’s nothing one dimensional about these pieces,” Harris says. “They work on both internal and external levels.”
Rich Copley: @copiousnotes
If you go
What: Lexington Art League’s annual figure exhibit
When: Jan. 26-Feb. 25
Gallery hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tues.-Thurs., 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Fri., 1 p.m.-4 p.m. Sat., Sun.
Where: Loudoun House, 209 Castlewood Dr.
When: 7-11 p.m. Jan. 26
Tickets: $55 LAL members, $65 non-members, $75 at the door