I’ve juried exhibits before, and I try to include as much variety in my selections as I can," says juror Steven Assael. "In this particular exhibit, I was surprised by the variety of points of view. That was something I didn’t expect." What is also mildly surprising is that this highly-anticipated and successful show has succeeded for so long right in the buckle of the Bible Belt. Attendance for opening night exceeds 400, and overall viewers number in the thousands—an amazing statistic, considering Lexington’s size and relatively modest attendance at other visual arts venues. Central Kentucky is not just producing corn husk dolls and baskets; Lexington’s NUDE shows are making history, just like New York, just like Paris, and just like all the other meccas for the aesthetic. Richard Florida, Professor of Economic Development at Carnegie Mellon University (author of the acclaimed The Rise of the Creative Class), ranked Lexington No. 9 for top small cities in creativity. In innovation, Lexington ranked No. 10. More than 670 slides of art from 34 states and distances as far reaching as Denmark were submitted for consideration and were anonymously juried by one of the nation’s most notable figurative artists, Steven Assael. The exhibit, produced by the Lexington Art League and the University of Kentucky, is one of the largest shows of its kind in terms of both sales and significance. (Louisville offers spring Nude exhibits, usually separating the subject matter by gender.) So what is probably one of the most provocative events in contemporary art today is happening right here, right now. Lexington has been known for its arts community for a while now, but few may realize the cultural shift that is taking place. Not since Daniel Ludwig has this show landed such an esteemed juror. "Having Assael jury the NUDE International 2005 represents a new level of recognition for this important exhibit and we could not be more excited to have him join us," said Charles Jolly, Chair of the LAL Visual Arts Committee. There are few individuals that are better suited to jury an exhibit of this nature than Steven Assael. He was born in New York in 1957 and attended Pratt Institute. Currently, Assael teaches at the Visual Arts School in New York. His work has been exhibited across the United States and is held in many private museum collections. He has made such an impact on the art world of the late Twentieth Century that he was the subject of a segment on CBS Sunday Morning on April 4, 1999, which focused on a retrospective one-person exhibition held at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, Washington. The focus of his work, as described by Forum Gallery in New York, is the human figure, either individually or in a group, rendered in glowing relief by gentle beams of warm and cool light. Entitled a New Old Master, his classical talents are as rare as they are essential to the diverse art world. His presence also represents a new level in the Lexington Art League’s objectives. The mission of the LAL has been tweaked with a recent internal reorganization, and their goals have been heightened. Assael embodies these goals for new art that challenges and stimulates artists and art appreciators so they can experience great, forward-thinking work here in Lexington. Great artists are already living and working here; their environment should reflect that. Active members in art, be it artist or appreciator, should not have to go elsewhere to experience forward-thinking and emotionally moving work. Alison Kaiser, LAL executive director, says, "Central Kentucky has a phenomenal wealth of talented artists, and it has been Kentucky's best kept secret." This year—just before NUDE's 20th anniversary, blows the top off that secret—let it be known: Lexington is taking a place at the table in the art world today. For example, in September, the Lexington Arts and Cultural Council launched an exhibit with a similar attitude and magnitude. "If You Were Here" featured work by artists from New York and Kentucky, several states apart but holding similar ideas. The focus was on landscape with highly personalized qualities, showcasing a dialogue that exists both in a major art market like the Big Apple and in a more quiet working enviornemnt like Lexington. The exhibit just closed in Gallery W 52 in New York and is making its way to Conduit Gallery in Dallas for another run. At ArtsPlace, it still remains one of the LACC’s best attended exhibitions. One of the ways the Lexington Art League has made such recognitionof the NUDE possible is through their partnership with the University of Kentucky. Ross Zirkle, Assistant Professor of Art, was instrumental in obtaining such a big name in figurative art like Assael. Whereas the financial potential posed by an alliance with LAL made it happen, Zirkle was thinking only of his students. "I just wanted my kids to be exposed to that," he said, describing the resume potential for even being involved in the show. (His kids will also gain exposure through a series of lectures and classes with the artist at the University following the exhibit.) One artist who is reeling from being selected for the show is Jenny Stubblefield. Stubblefield (daughter of Billy’s BBQ’s infamous Bob Stubblefield) is a painter and printmaker living in San Antonio. Her father had submitted three nude pieces of his daughter’s in her absence. "My father had harassed me to do this for years. When I finally agreed, he helped me get everything in since I’m all the way in Texas." After Assael had made his selections, all of Jenny Stubblefield’s work had been selected. "My father called to tell me I was in the show. He said this judge is this guy from New York…I thought, wait a minute, I know that name!" Jenny Stubblefield had attended the Cincinnati Academy of Fine Arts for her first two years of college, but transferred away from the school specifically because there was no concentration on the Nude. She found herself at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, among students who had taken his lectures and professors who knew his work. For Jenny Stubblefield, being selected for the final juried show reconfirms her commitment to her figurative pieces. It is important, too, to note that nudity in art is still being censored and prohibited even in supposedly enlightened environments. Even New York, the center of contemporary art is faces backlash. "Terminal 5" was to showcase the work of 19 contemporary artists within Eero Saarinen's 1962 Modernists TWA terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport. Rachel Ward, the event organizer, was forced to remove an immigration-themed video showing nude women in black body paint and ankle shackles at the request of JetBlue, one of the show's major sponsors. Also pulled from the show was a foldout portmanteau bedroom set by Toland Grinnell, because some of the items included violated an agreement that nothing "lewd" be presented. Fortunately, no one is going to remove anything from Lexington’s NUDE (unless, of course, they buy it). "We psychologically identify with the nude," said Assael, "And so we measure everything, we measure the world against it." n
In 1985, volunteer gallery director Susanee Strawhorn and members of the Art League coordinated the exhibit in response to their belief in the necessity for a venue for figurative works apart from subjects such as landscape and still life. NUDE is one of the only exhibits in the country focused solely on the human figure.
It is not a coincidence that the art world, especially the vanguard in New York, Los Angeles and Paris (to name a few), turned to the same subject as the LAL about the same time.
The beginning of the century gave us artists focused on the abstract and the minimal, a la Jackson Pollock.
What we have today is the New Realism and celebration of the figure. In an art history perspective, the world is going back to the tangible.
Committed and established abstractionists such as Inka Essenhigh, Stephanie Pryor and Jonathan Stantlofer are finding themselves irresistibly drawn to the human form. Famous sculptors such as Robert Talpin, Marc Quinn and Ron Mueck have begun hyping the imperfections of the figure, taking realism into new realms.
Pick up an issue of ARTNews, and you will find the undercurrent in art today is centered around the human form and this realist conceptions.
NUDE International 2005 opens with a preview and meet the juror party on January 14, 6-9 p.m.. Admission is $30 for LAL members and $40 for non-members. The exhibit is free and open to the public January 15-February 27. Gallery hours are 1-4 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.
In the week following NUDE’s opening, juror Steve Assael will conduct two workshops. The interested public is invited to spend the day with Assael as he demonstrates and shares his expertise in drawing the human figure on January 17, or also spend two days with the acclaimed figurative artist as he discusses and teaches figuritive oil painting on January 18-19. Workshops are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. at Loudoun House.