Lexington's popular nude exhibit celebrates 25 years

Domestic Matter 2  by Hui Chi Lee of Lexington was drawn with graphite and colored pencil on paper.
Domestic Matter 2 by Hui Chi Lee of Lexington was drawn with graphite and colored pencil on paper.

The cultural climate in Lexington in 1987 was not exactly welcoming to visual artists working with the human figure.

Even though rigorous artistic study of the nude form has been one of the bedrocks of Western culture for centuries, the folks who mounted the inaugural Nude exhibit at the Lexington Art League weren't sure how the public would react to an exhibit focusing solely on nude figures.

Elsie Harris, an LAL member present during the early days of what is now the Nude show, recalls then-volunteer gallery director Suzanne Strawhorn's anxiety about public acceptance of the first exhibit.

"The Friday before the opening," Harris says, "Suzanne sat me down at the bottom of the great staircase in the entrance foyer of Loudoun House and said, 'You know, we might have to put sheets over the windows.' It was a reality check."

Maybe there would be public backlash.

Maybe no one would come.

All exhibitors could do was mount the show and wait.

The first year featured works from artists living in Lexington and surrounding counties, and was juried by William J. Hennessey, then the University of Kentucky Art Museum director.

"The artworks I saw possessed an originality of vision and skill in execution that made it difficult indeed to reduce the number of deserving entries to a size that would fit within the Loudoun House galleries," Hennessey said in his juror statement.

Despite Strawhorn's worries, the exhibit went smoothly and was deemed such a success that it would be repeated the following year.

"The idea caught hold and the juried area expanded more and more as the years passed until the Nude became a much looked-forward-to event," says Harris.

Casting a wider net

LAL expanded the net it cast for entries the following year by commissioning works from artists throughout the state. In 1995, the exhibit widened its parameters to include works from southeastern states as a reflection of its growing popularity.

By 1999, Nude had gathered such a following that LAL cast off its regional billing and opened the exhibit to artists working anywhere in the world, making it a bona fide international event.

Seth Tuska, whose father, the late figurative artist John Regis Tuska, was a formidable influence on the region's understanding of and engagement with the human figure, sees the exhibit's growth as a sign of Lexington's burgeoning artistic sophistication.

"The figure is the classic art, and Lexington has grown," he says. "As it became acceptable to be seen viewing it, more artists came forth. It was when LAL decided to expand the reach and offer the national and international submissions in all mediums that the energy continued to grow."

Harris echoes Tuska's sentiments.

"We had no idea way back then that this exhibit would take hold the way it has," she says. "We just kept putting it on, and it kept growing until now, it seems, it has taken on a persona of its own."

Harris is referring to the fact that the exhibit is one of the most publicly anticipated visual arts events in the Bluegrass, with hundreds of patrons visiting each year.

A surprise every year

Perhaps part of the exhibit's appeal is that, much like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get.

"Some years the juror would select a broad spectrum of the nude including the very classical approach to the very cutting edge," Harris says. "Other years the show would include more sculpture than other years. Some years there were very large pieces. But each year always had a freshness to it."

Admittedly, some years were better than others. Like the scope of each year's featured artwork, critical and public reception varied throughout the event's two-plus decades.

In a 1999 column in Ace Weekly, editor and arts writer Rhonda Reeves reflected on the exhibit's better and worse moments, praising Nude '96 as "daring, risk-taking, unconventional representations of nudity" while dismissing Nude '97 as "one of the more anemic shows in the history of the exhibit."

21st-century themes

After a quarter century of consistent programming, the Nude, as it has been called since LAL picked up corporate sponsorship in 2002, has become an integral part of Lexington's cultural fabric.

This year's jurors focused on classic criteria such as line, color and pictoral imagery when evaluating more than 600 submissions.

In the course of their evaluations, some uniquely 21st-century themes emerged, underscoring how the exhibit shifts to reflect the times.

In their joint juror statement, artist Mark Priest and curator Karen Gillenwater elaborate, saying the theme they identified "was the influence of the Internet and social media that permeates our lives and through which many people today frame their identities."

They refer to specific works that illustrate this theme, such as Greg Mettler's installation Scolophilia, in which Mettler's figurative subjects were recruited via Craigslist in an attempt to critique the "collecting" of online "friends."

Another 21st-century feature of this year's exhibit is an interactive, Web-based piece by the artist team of Michael Filimowicz, Andres Wanner and Melanie Cassidy. Viewers of Cursor Caressor Eraser manipulate layered digital photographs by moving a computer mouse across a screen, simulating a caress on the bare skin that is shown in the images.

On the heels of almost 21/2 decades of success, no one would think of putting sheets over the window today.

In fact, Stephanie Pevec, executive director of LAL, expects about 1,500 visitors before this year's exhibit closes.

"The commonality of the human form is a thread that connects us all," Pevec says, "and as a result of this, the Nude has maintained its relevance throughout its long history."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader