Bodies of Work, curated by longtime College of the Redwoods drawing instructor Dean Smith, brings together recent paintings and drawings that focus entirely on the nude human figure, that most elevated of Western pictorial subjects. The participants belong to Smith's figure-drawing circle, which has met informally for several summers and shown here twice before. The drawings and paintings on paper are executed in graphic media like charcoal, graphite, ink, watercolor and pastel, and feature plenty of non-narrative studies as well as — surprise! — three beguiling interpretations of mythological subjects.
The exhibition is staged in a way that evokes the romance of the traditional group studio environment. Four large drawings are displayed on easels. A draped, unoccupied model sits in the middle of the space, emphasizing the primacy of the live model by staging her absence.
These artists work from the live model in the traditional manner developed in Renaissance-era European art academies, which makes them mavericks of a sort in the post-medium 21st century art world. Here's why: In the early 20th century abstraction eclipsed representational modes. In the West, state-sponsored art academies had dominated the production of images for several hundred years; in modern times, their power waned. Life drawing, once considered a foundational skill, was no longer primary. The academic studio system went into decline and so did the disciplined study of figure drawing that the academies had promoted.
Around midcentury, academic techniques went virtually underground; working from the figure could seem the exclusive province of contrarians and staunch traditionalists. However, in the 1990s, Lucian Freud, Eric Fischl, Lisa Yuskavage, John Currin, Jenny Saville and others brought postmodern sensibilities to their treatments of the figure, revitalizing the nude as an object of serious artistic study.
Today the human figure is arguably more important than ever in an increasingly virtual world, where so much of our personal and professional activity takes place in the ghostly, disembodied realm of clicks and screen interface. Despite the digitization of our lives, we still experience the world through our bodies, and the visual experience of the human form can still elicit a gut-level reaction. This show comes as a refreshing corrective to the digital.
In fact, painting and drawing the figure can come off a bit like steampunk at present; it's wryly traditionalist and disruptive at the same time. The artists in this show document their tattooed contemporary models with verve, displaying elements of the highly developed real-time, eye-to-hand observational skills associated with the grand 19th century ateliers. You get the sense that some of them enjoy the contrast.
Smith's graphite figure studies stand out because of their technical ability and narrative nuance. You feel Smith's use of contour is never unconsidered. His line evolves seamlessly from delicate networks to knotty, tensile strands. His study of a seated male nude exudes the impression of energy in reserve; his thoughtful interpretation of the myth Diana and Actaeon offers a fresh update of the ancient Roman author Ovid's story. Imagine boorish hunters and angry nymphs on a Humboldt riverbank in summertime. The myth makes perfect sense in this exhibition context, since it's all about the pleasures and hazards of studying the nude.
Diana and her companion nymphs have just been interrupted in the middle of their al fresco bath by Actaeon, a creepy huntsman whose voyeuristic attentions are decidedly unwelcome. The goddess, of course, proves more than capable of handling this threatening incursion. She changes Actaeon into a deer, and his own hunting dogs immediately tear him apart — sick burn!
Smith's economic rendition visions an interim moment in the sequence, where metamorphosis has taken place but violence has yet to occur. The cartoonish deer makes a hasty exit, lighting out for the page's margin. Diana's companion gestures protectively toward her, offering what seems like an unnecessary robe for cover-up purposes. Meanwhile the nude goddess slouches in supreme confidence with her bow held casually at her side, extending an expressive middle finger in Actaeon's general direction. She is absolutely contemporary in terms of her accurately rendered physical presence; at the same time, she is a figure old Ovid might recognize.
The theme reappears in other drawings. Hilary Ade gives us Diana at rest, identifiable by her signature bow and the crescent moon at her brow. Carissa Clark uses pastel on dark paper to depict the incident's aftermath, with Diana brooding quietly over the body of her fallen adversary. Anatomic details lend a note of pathos to Clark's narrative: Actaeon's arched ribcage and crisply curling pubic hair suggest a vitality the rest of his prone form now lacks.
Each of the artists in this show is working his or her way towards a personalized graphic vocabulary. Shawn O'Connor's small, vividly rendered nude studies in pen and ink display a wiry and energetic line. Katie Kirk depicts the model with vigorous lashings of pastel. Kathryn Navarro uses soft dove-grey shading to render fleshly volumes substantial, while Genevieve Kjesbu and Emily Silver deploy a more forceful line. A study by Alia Brookshire is a sort of X-ray vanitas vision that reveals the skeleton beneath the model's lissome flesh. Janiel Giraldo's small, informal watercolors are not formally nuanced but they have moxie. A curvy, tattooed girl smiles sweetly as she reclines; a cheerful young woman wearing only a headband and knee-high boots girds her loins with a strap-on dildo. Look out, Actaeon.
In the 1960s and 1970s many second-wave feminist artists rejected the female nude as subject matter. Some believed it impossible to reclaim this traditional form in the context of an overwhelmingly patriarchal culture: after all, the notion of women's equality was (and still is) a provocative one in many quarters. However, the playful feminist spirit that informs many of these works suggests that contemporary artists are finding ways to negotiate this terrain. The artists showing here manage to envision the human body without falling into the twin pitfalls of iconoclasm and commodified stereotype. This in itself is no small achievement.
Bodies of Work is on display from Aug. 24 to Sept. 17. A closing reception will be held Thursday, Sept. 17 at 5 p.m.