After thousands of years, the body continues to be one of the most alluring and most difficult subjects to capture. Perhaps it’s because even an art novice knows what human forms are supposed to look like. Perhaps we continue to struggle with who we are as human beings. Perhaps our animal instincts attract us to the bare body.
Whatever the case may be, the latest exhibit at the Haywood County Arts Council’s Gallery 86 in downtown Waynesville offers viewers a lovely collection of paintings and sculptures that turn the body into a work of art.
“Impressions of the Figure,” a month-long exhibit that runs through Dec. 2, features the work of painters Luke Allsbrook and Dan Helgemo, sculptor and painter Vadim Bora and fiber and ceramic artist Paula Woods. While many of the pieces feature nudes, some include semi-nude portraits, fully clothed subjects and sculptures that merely suggest human forms — lest those Puritan sensibilities make you blush while viewing bodies in birthday suits.
The beauty of the exhibit is its sheer range — from Helgemo’s classical, realistic nudes to Bora’s playful poses of plump women to Woods’ organic sculptures that suggest a metamorphosis between stoic sculpture and contagious kudzu vitality.
As part of the exhibit, the arts council also held a pair of figure classes featuring nude models and taught by painters Allsbrook (featured in Gallery 86 this spring) and Helgemo. Both classes were booked up, so the arts council is looking at offering similar classes in January.
“It’s been mostly positive,” said Paula Bolado, Gallery 86’s manager who helped arrange the show, which has become one of the most lucrative in sales for the gallery. “We’ve had parents bringing their children in discussing art.”
And that’s where Bolado takes great pride. You can’t have a thorough lesson in art history without including a discussion on figure art and nude drawings, Bolado explained. Even Picasso had to get a grasp of the figure before he delved into the abstract.
Despite the traditional importance of human anatomy in art, the post-modern world has commercialized abstract forms to the point where artists don’t feel that figure art is necessary anymore, Bolado said.
So perhaps an exhibit on figure art can help to bring that focus back to the human body. Bolado, who is herself an artist, took part in the classes. While Allsbrook shared his eye for detail, Helgemo taught Bolado to use Impressionistic techniques by pulling out skin tone colors to the surrounding environment of a painting and then portraying the body with realism.
One of the problems artists have in drawing or painting the human figure is seeing the obvious, according to Allsbrook.
“If you ask someone to draw a portrait, unless they’ve been taught better, they’ll make the face cover the entire head instead of placing the eyes halfway down — a simple fact,” Allsbrook explains in an essay on the figure drawing.
Another challenge is where to start. The head? The face? The arms? The eyes?
“The student sitting in front of the figure may feel like someone who is building a house for the first time. It’s overwhelming,” Allsbrook adds.
There are very different schools of thought when it comes to drawing figures. Some adhere to the painstaking, detailed drawings with an intense study of anatomy while others prefer the quick gesture drawings that capture a mix of poses in seconds.
That said, Allsbrook suggests beginners take it one step at a time with patience, diligence and “a growing awareness of the truth.”
The exhibit allows both novice and master to see how the body can be depicted on canvas and sculpture. In Helgemo’s paintings, his nude subjects are relaxed and
graceful — a pregnant woman cupping her swollen belly, a man standing at ease with a cane, a woman sitting in bed. Often these people have their eyes closed or lowered, as if to convey calm or meditation, and the viewer’s eye turns away from the face to survey the rest of the body.
Beyond capturing a representation of what a human body looks like, figure art tells an undeniable truth, showing the human body in all its imperfection, vulnerability, and grace. There’s also a deeply spiritual connection artists have come to associate with the body as in the case of Christian-themed paintings of Jesus on the crucifix or prophets enraptured with a holy light.
In Vadim Bora’s sculptures, that spiritual quality radiates with a piece like “Winter” that depicts a Buddha-like body wrapped in a blanket or cloak. While the figure seems concealed with only the tiniest features present — a set of toes, a peek of a face under a hood — the body’s round shape is kept solid and sturdy, conveying both an inner strength and humility. Is this figure wrapped tight against a cold, dark night, or cocooned in a security blanket to meditate on peace?
Bora also turns to a playful scene in one of his paintings, “Not on the First Date,” which features a naked man and woman facing each other as a droopy-eyed hound dog and a wide-eyed cat look on. The plump bodies take up the entire bed with limbs spilling out. The woman’s arms are flung in the air, her head tilted sideways, as the man reaches his hand like a key between her breasts. Warm reds and tans and the vibrant colors of a foreground rug give the piece a joyous mood. We’re not sure whether to laugh or turn away as voyeurs of this amusing escapade.
Meanwhile, Paula Woods dazzles with slender ceramic figures — headless and limbless — that remind us of ancient marble statues of a long-ago age. In “Woodwife” the body form could be a statue from antiquity with viney leaves creeping up both sides. The piece might conjure up allusions to Ovid’s Metamorphoses where the beautiful wood nymph Daphne flees the god Apollo and turns into a laurel tree. A mysterious phrase can be read on the left side of the “Woodwife” torso — “The wood wife plants me in the soil and gives me language once again.”
In an untitled piece, another tall, slender headless figure appears to have sprouted curly branches for arms. The piece serves as a memorial with its stiff ceramic casing like some long evening gown that shapes the body while these new arms suggest a livelier self full of expression and daring.
Woods, who moved to Haywood County about two years ago, has a background mostly in fiber arts — needle art, loom weaving and basketry — so her clay sculpture is a more recent evolution of her artwork.
Woods and painter Luke Allsbrook are Haywood County residents. Dan Helgemo hails from nearby Greenville, S.C., and Vadim Bora, a native of North Ossetia in the Russian Caucasus Mountains, lives in Asheville.
To learn more about these artists or about upcoming exhibits at Gallery 86, call 828.452.0593 or go to the Web site www.haywoodarts.org.