Tag Archives: Todd Fife

Arts

Tasteful Nudes: Little To Provoke At Lexington Art League Show

As a tempestuous year comes to its close amidst bluster of impeachment trials and Brexit votes, threats to reproductive rights and struggles for minority rights, the ongoing opioid crisis and the progressing climate crisis, not to mention those stalwart nuisances of racism, classism and sexism, inside the sunlit halls of the Lexington Art League’s (LAL) Loudoun House home, all is calm, all is bright.

“Kentucky Nude,” this year’s iteration of the venerable organization’s once-annual-now-biennial nude show, runs December 6, 2019, to January 5, 2020, and features works by more than 50 Kentucky artists, juried by LAL studio artists Don Ament and Helene Steene. While previous years’ shows have been organized around tighter conceptual themes, such as self-portraiture or the rawness of human desire and physical form, “Kentucky Nude” presents more like a procession of classical figure studies, a mostly two-dimensional gathering of nubile white women reposing on sheets, sofas and other studio furnishings.

Not that there’s anything wrong with pursuing beauty for beauty’s sake. In fact, we should probably do a lot more of it, given the aforementioned political and cultural maelstrom that’s currently thrashing us about. To spend time with beauty and pleasure is, in some sense, to transcend the political, to affirm that there is more to life than the insidious crawl of the 24-hour news cycle, that we as human beings are far more complex and nuanced and expansive than any binary party system or policy debate would have us believe.

The difficulty is that the particular beauty on display in “Kentucky Nude” feels overwhelmingly overfamiliar, a sort of visual schmaltz on par with a dozen red roses, a batch of chocolate chip cookies, a kiss on the cheek from grandma. Perhaps more troubling is the show’s narrow range of flesh tones and dearth of minority perspectives – and of male physiques, much to this reviewer’s disappointment – which, while surely unintentional, comes across as slightly tone-deaf.  

Megan Martin, ‘Abuttment Blue’, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 48″ x 48″ (left) and Sarah Vaughn, ‘Am I OK?’, 2019, oil and spray paint, 48″ x 32″

At least we still have laughter! “A birthday suit,” we call this too too floppy flesh, and some of the best works in the show take a more lighthearted look at a well-worn (so to speak) subject. Sarah Vaughn uses hot pink backlighting to frame her painting of a naked woman arching her back in a dramatic gesture of surrender rendered in melancholy blues. Titled Am I OK?, the red-orange spray-painted sad face looking down on the figure suggests that she is not.

On the neighboring wall, Megan Martin’s Abuttment Blue features ten joyfully colorful imprints where ten correspondingly colorful bums have abutted with her black canvas. It’s less like Yves Klein’s use of naked women as human paintbrushes, more like a happily erotic game of Twister, or the fine art equivalent of Xeroxing your butt as the office holiday party descends into debauchery.

Aaron Lubrick, ‘Dan With His Cat’, 2018, acrylic, 60″ x 72″

Equally delightful is Aaron Lubrick’s Dan With His Cat and its playful nod to the afternoon luncheon: his companions in classical repose, formed in dark tones that quiet their nakedness; Dan’s cat a black silhouette that slinks in between the two; the landscape electric with acid-green grass, a periwinkle sea and a tiny red sailboat like a toy in the distance. Short, crude brushstrokes suggest an immediacy, a desire to capture this happiness lest it prove fleeting. (Milan Kundera, with a slight edit: “To sit with a cat on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring – it was peace.”)

Todd Fife, ‘Gabrielle d’Estrees Redux’, 2019, oil, graphite and resin, 19″ x 23″ (foreground) and Todd Fife, ‘The Pity’, 2019, oil, graphite, ink and resin, 14″ x 21″ (background)

Not to be left out of the riffing-on-the-classics party, Todd Fife takes aim with Gabrielle d’Estrees Redux, replacing the two sixteenth-century French noblewomen with a corpulent pair of white-haired female friends, one delicately pinching the sagging nipple of the other as a ribboned speech bubble coaxes a quote from the Marquis de Sade from her puckered red lips: On n’est jamais aussi dangereux quand on n’a pas honte que quand on est devenu trop vieux pour rougir. (One is never as dangerous when one is not ashamed as when one has become too old to blush.) The mind reels in speculative delight trying to imagine the act lewd enough to elicit a blush from the salacious Marquis. 

Maria Risner, ‘Melancholy Form’, 2017, mixed media, 18″ x 48″ (left), Rosemary Harney, ‘Pretty in Pearls’, 2019, mixed media, 27″ x 11″ (center) Sid Webb, ‘The Word Only He Can Say Publicly’, 2018, mixed media, 48″ x 24″ (right)

Sid Webb takes on the comedy-turned-horror-story that is the American presidency in the mixed media work The Word Only He Can Say Publicly, in which a starlet of the silent movie era gazes up helplessly as an orange-y, toupéed man in a black suit grabs at the word in question. It’s a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in the op-ed section, both because of its accuracy but also because it doesn’t seem to offer any new ideas to the current conversation. Curiously, the work is placed alongside two sculpted pieces – Maria Risner’s Melancholy Form and Rosemary Harney’s Pretty in Pearls – that, while respectfully depicted, nevertheless treat the naked female as mere object, leaving the viewer with the uneasy feeling that the sexist past is now more present than ever – or worse, that it’s become normalized.

Daja, ‘No’, 2019, mixed media, 36″ x 24″

Perhaps the more compelling response to the #metoo movement is Daja’s No. Her naked white subject walks away from us into a cerulean and sky blue color field, turning her head and shoulders to look at someone off to our right. Daja’s flat treatment of the figure creates a sense of affectlessness, as if distancing itself from the victim. The woman’s stare is equal parts pleading and withering – an emotional response that feels suitably discordant for a movement that empowered female victims at the same time it left a sense of despondence in its wake as we realized just how pervasive – and accepted – sexual violence had become. 

David Harover, ‘Alla Prima Nude #1’, 2018, oil paint, 12″ x 9″

Still, the show offers moments of honesty and gentleness, such as the two oil paintings by David Harover, their smallness (each less than 12 inches square) inviting a quiet intimacy. Harover seems to reveal his figures more than paint them, as if his brushstrokes were simply sweeping away the soft brown and goldenrod pigments that had settled on top of them. His Alla Prima Nude #1 is an ample woman, modestly concealing herself with her arm as she turns her torso away from us, her expression one of detached contentment. Of all the works in the show, it perhaps most fully embodies the idea of nakedness, that raw and primal state in which we are stripped bare of armor and artifice. Harover’s subject is neither ugly nor erotic, only human – vulnerable, tender, adored. In a word, beautiful. 

Arts

Small is More Than Just a State of Mind

­­­In her book On Longing, Susan Stewart describes the miniature as a special type of object that speaks to the nostalgia and fantasy inherent in both childhood and history. The artworks included in notBIG(4), now on display at the M.S. Renzy Studio and Gallery in Lexington, Kentucky, typify these notions. The exhibition, juried by Transylvania University art professor Kurt Gohde, presented its entrants with only one stipulation: small scale. Working in sizes of twelve by twelve inches and smaller, artists submitted works that explore the notion that, in Mr. Gohde’s words, “bigger may not be better.”

A quick assessment of the works reveals a somewhat conservative approach on the part Mr. Gohde. Of the forty-five works, nearly half can be classified as portraits or landscapes. The miniature, especially in painted form, has a fairly consistent art historical track record. Painted portraits and small natural scenes were the affordable fine art choices of middle class collectors before the advent and wide popularization of photography in the mid nineteenth century. In a way, the exhibition pays homage to the historical miniature. Thankfully, it isn’t burdened by nostalgia for the past, but its works engage with nostalgia in order to explore and elucidate its presuppositions and effects.

The more appealing of the works in notBIG(4) represent a creative approach to the twelve inch by twelve inch limitation placed on their scale. In Mr. Gohde’s notes, he mentions one of several considerations in his selection process, that the works “NEED or TAKE ADVANTAGE OF the small scale” requirement placed on entrants. In my opinion, it is the more sculptural works that best exemplify this exploration of the exhibition’s focus on spatial limitations. Several works, including ceramic, wood, and mixed media assemblages, occupy and explore a miniature space rather than simply conform to a miniature scale. Like dollhouse models or children’s toys, they present the viewer with the possibility that within such a seemingly limited space there might exist whole worlds, imaginative or otherwise.

Rebecca DeGroot, Strain, Image courtesy of the artist

Rebecca DeGroot’s Strain is reminiscent of both Louise Bourgeois’ mammoth cast bronze spider-like sculptures and a piece of fine walnut furniture. While it could be both or neither, its mysterious nature, perhaps more akin to the micro than the macroscopic presents a fantasy grounded in reality. Similarly, one of exhibition’s honorable mentions, Critz Campbell’s Single Cloud, recalls both a wooden maquette and decorative period artifact. Again, it is a fantastical take on a natural phenomenon communicated through the imagery of both a child’s toy and technical model.

Critz Campbell, Single Cloud, Image courtesy of the artist

Another honorable mention, Rene Hales’ hazy and dreamy photo-encaustic Backyard Woods, is equal parts photographic record and pictorial fantasy. The encaustic’s wax  transforms the flat picture into an object with literally and metaphorical depth. In fact, several other works employ the use of encaustic, an application of wax mixed with resin, to create the illusions of the dreamy haze of age. Derek Ball’s Everyday Day, Every Hour (C1) offers a digital take on this aesthetic of translucent fogginess. The densely layered photographic object is equal parts knowable and mysterious.

Derek Ball, Everyday Day, Every Hour (C1), Image courtesy of the artist

Among the more traditional works in the exhibition, those of portraits landscapes, Mr. Ghode has selected pieces that run the gamut from Clint Wood’s City Corner, a colorful and somewhat flattened rendering of an anonymous street and its buildings to the nearly abstracted natural effects of Karen Spears’ Floating Foliage.

Clint Wood, City Corner, Image courtesy of the artist

Karen Spears, Floating Foliage, Image courtesy of the artist

Similarly among the portraits are several striking explorations of sizing and scaling images of the face. Irene Mudd’s Joan and Todd Fife’s Ghost Man both treat the details of the human likeness like pixelizations, though composed respectively from yarn and the stains and smudges of graphite and coffee. Still recognizable, the features point to the difficulties of certain media to accurately replicate and render the human image.

Tom Pfannerstill, Crushed Starbucks Cup, Image courtesy of the artist

Allison Tierney, 10/11/2015, Image courtesy of the artist

Of course, there are other works in the show that don’t necessarily treat miniaturization as simply an issue of size or scale. Tom Pfannerstill’s Crushed Starbucks Cup is in actuality a finely detailed painted wood sculpture that both elevates and eternalizes street trash as art object. What appears as stains and damage are the specific details of a meticulously crafted and considered totem of the vastness of urban waste and global consumerism. Likewise, Allison Tierney’s 10/11/2015, a wood panel layered with latex paint that resembles the leftover scraps of a painted canvas, is both painted object and paint as object. Like Pfannerstill, Tierney offers much more to the viewer than what is simply visible in her painting, and recalls Marilyn Minter’s early photorealistic painted floors and sculpted polaroids, playing with the discrepancies between what is seen and what is experienced.

Sean Ware, With Clouds in Sight, Image courtesy of the artist

The work awarded the exhibition’s best in show, a painting by Sean Ware titled With Clouds in Sight, seems an overly safe choice, considering its subject matter is neither a unique nor particularly engaging mediation on the miniature schema. While one of the more technically impressive works on display, it lacks the specificity that the miniature itself implies, that of the somewhat fantastic and nostalgic possibilities of they might contain. There are more interesting and fruitful works for the viewer here, works that eagerly attempt to find purpose in their relative smallness.

In the end, the exhibition and its space, though itself small and somewhat cluttered, allows the works their own room to breathe, and helps to further encourage viewers to consider the individual worlds they represent. While not everything on display succeeds in expanding and developing the rhetoric of smallness, the dollhouse specificity of many of these miniatures, especially the sculptural works, makes this exhibition seem much larger than it appears. The opportunity to enter, inhabit, and participate in the fantasies of self-contained and self-sufficient worlds gives notBIG(4) enough of a reason to be seen.