Visual Arts

The new 'Nude' exhibit is 'Self' aware

Bruised by Alison Oakes of Knoxville is part of Nude: Self and Others.
Bruised by Alison Oakes of Knoxville is part of Nude: Self and Others.

There are certain Lexington events, like Handel's Messiah at Christmas or the St. Patrick's Day parade in March, that routinely earn a must-go spot on local calendars.

In January, it's the Lexington Art League's annual exhibit The Nude, a staple of the Central Kentucky arts scene for more than 25 years.

Part of the exhibit's longevity is its popular appeal — it attracts visitors who might venture out to only one or two exhibits a year.

Another reason for its staying power is LAL's willingness to embrace change, explore new ideas and take risks.

"We are always looking for new ways to keep things fresh," says program director Becky Alley, who helped curate this year's exhibit of figurative works with Ebony Patterson, an assistant professor of painting at the University of Kentucky.

Last year marked a dramatic turning point in the exhibit's evolution. Organizers chose a new title (Body, Figure, Nude) to signify the show's expansion to include less literal perceptions of nudity.

This year's exhibit, dubbed Nude: Self and Others, continues in that vein, further broadening the scope of how a viewer engages the human figure.

"When we asked artists to consider Self and Others as an undercurrent to The Nude, we were certainly referencing self-portraiture and figure study, but we were also asking them to think about the self stripped down to its barest bones, to consider conceptual undercurrents wrapped up in the figure," Alley said.

This year, LAL received more than 600 entries from more than 100 artists, from a regional, national and international pool. This exhibition features 52 of those works from 37 of those artists.

Sometimes, it is what you don't see that has the most impact. Not all of the "nudes" are nude this year.

"There are works in the exhibit challenging the terms figurative and the body by marking the absence of both," Patterson writes in her juror's statement.

It's a pattern evident when the exhibit is viewed in its entirety.

While the halls of the Loudoun House are lined with paintings, photos, mixed-media and installations of the classically nude figures one expects to see, it also includes several key pieces that are striking departures from the norm.

For instance, take Knoxville artist Alison Oakes' high-gloss photos.

Taking a technical and thematic cue from the gleam of fashion photos, Oakes shoots close-up, detailed photos of single body parts — but with jarring flaws on display rather than prepackaged beauty. One photo features the purple and yellow splotches of a healing bruise.

"By showing our skin's vulnerabilities, our fragile permeable barrier between the world and our insides, I am seeking to subvert the representations of humans in the fashion/advertising world; to show the flaw in beauty and the beauty in the flaw," she writes in her artist statement.

New York painter Jon Henry gets his inspiration from the online dating world, composing painted versions of profile photos directly from his cellphone. Henry's subjects are not completely nude, but the poses and demeanor of the subjects are revealing in their own way.

"Some are purposefully alluring because users attempt to stand out amongst hundreds of other profiles," Henry writes in his statement. "Yet, the poses can also be misleading based upon the profile's text, like in the case where someone claims to only want friends but showcases their oiled muscle chest."

Another way LAL is keeping it fresh this year is by featuring two companion exhibits.

"A challenge with big group shows is that people don't get to know one artist's work in depth, and we are always looking for ways to do that," Alley says.

Enter Louisville artist Gaela Erwin, whose work Alley thought spoke to The Nude's theme of Self and Others.

Erwin's new pieces will be highlighted in a show titled My Mother, My Sister, Myself.

Erwin is known for her self-portraits, but her latest collection is inspired by her mother, who has dementia.

"At one point in my mother's illness I had to make frequent trips to her North Carolina home, and I always left feeling exhausted and grief-stricken," Erwin said. "Worse still, I found myself resenting time away from the studio even though I knew I was doing the right thing.

"I reframed my visits as an extension of my studio practice and began photographing my mother and turning the images into portraits. I came to see visiting my mother in a new light — literally — and the experience allowed my mother and I to connect in a way that her illness typically didn't allow."

Erwin's exhibit is given prominent space in one of the Loudoun House's main rooms. Another concurrent installation, If I Lost You Would I Cry by ceramic artist Sara Gross, is featured in the gallery's Project Space.

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