OVER AT CENTRAL Arts Collective, there's a jaunty nude woman sitting in the big corner window. She's turned her curvaceous back to the street, but not exactly out of modesty. After all, her hair is an outrageous fake yellow, and if you venture inside she readily displays full frontal nudity. No arrests will be forthcoming though: her flesh is made of corrugated cardboard; her features are poster paint. She's a two-sided artwork named "Newd" (presumably a pun on the publicly prim, privately rakish Newt Gingrich), painted by Tucson artist Eleanor Kohloss.
Miss Newd has plenty of company, too. The walls of the gallery are covered with some 83 pictures of naked women and men, arranged in a dizzying array of art studio poses. They make up Drawing from the Nude, a big show that has a deceptively old-fashioned air, but only because it's tuned into one of the oldest traditions in art. Throughout history, no image has been more consistently etched into rock, sketched on paper or painted in oils -- or on cardboard -- than the human body.
Figure drawings were made as early as 15,000 years ago. The first known artists of Europe mostly painted pictures of bison they hoped to hunt, but they also made images of the hunters on the rock walls of their caves. Stone carvings of rotund naked females, like the famous Venus of Willendorf, were made around the same time. Venus might not exactly have been realistic (although a controversial new theory reported in the New York Times suggests these hyper-fat figurines might have been accurate representations of a common malformation of the time), but the other early works are clearly drawn from life, carefully observed.
Drawing from life has been a basic tenet of art ever since. The formalized practice of drawing from the nude in the studio has its own interesting history, including the fact that women were sometimes excluded from art schools on the grounds that it was inappropriate for members of the "weaker sex" to gaze upon a nude human being. And despite the kind of art that's au courant in the waning days of the 20th century -- like shattered glass, found objects and cloth sculptures -- students still train by sketching the nude, and many working artists still make it a regular practice. In the same way that even the most outré of modern dancers religiously attend their daily ballet class, visual artists find they can ground themselves by drawing from the nude. It's a return to first principles sort of a thing.
Drawing from the Nude proves the point. The show was organized by The Drawing Studio, a downtown school organized several years ago by artist Andrew Rush, and the pictures were gleaned from the school's classes and open figure drawing workshops. Some of the participants are earnest beginners, novice artists just starting to find their way through media and reproduce the human body. A few of their productions are short of limb and muddy of color. Still, many participants are lifelong artists and art teachers who clearly find the practice useful.
Rush himself, a longtime Rancho Linda Vista artist and retired UA prof, has contributed two pieces. "Dark Nude," an accomplished charcoal and chalk drawing, shows his mastery of old-master technique. He's applied exquisite shots of gold and white to the light areas of the leaning female figure, and allowed the gray of the paper to stand in for much of the dark. Paul Mohr, who manages the school's open figure drawing studios, is a scientist whose studies of anatomy bring a flawless accuracy to his exquisite pencil drawings, particularly the portrait "Eric."
Some of the drawings are in color. Among the best of these is Jon Sholin's "Composition," an aptly named pastel that places a tightly framed woman's body at interesting angles and diagonals. His colorings are dramatic too: purple shadows, pale lavender-pink skin, and bold red-pink and teal in the background. A few of the "drawings" are actually paintings, and several are sculptures, including Christine Winters Dawdy's "Bag Lady #17," a clever paper work that's another pun. The brightly painted lady is made entirely out of paper bags, a medium playfully at odds with traditional reverence for materials in the old-time figure drawing workshop.
Typically in the drawing studio, models are like slow-motion dancers, sashaying through a series of poses lasting several minutes each. Sometimes the freshest drawings are the quick studies these inspire. Kate Frölich-Bell's "Asleep," a quick ink drawing, wonderfully suggests an entire body with a few simple lines of calligraphy. So does Jo Ann Hill's pen drawing "Free Figure."
In these sessions, the changing gestures of the model, and the repetition of drawing the model again and again, add up to a meditation -- a trancelike connection between observer and observed.
Brian Freeman's gorgeous Conté crayon drawing of a seated man embodies this relationship. The quiet man is like a Zen practitioner, and the artist draws himself into his tranquillity with sure movements of his crayon. Freeman's even given the piece a title that alludes to the spiritual: "Medit 1999." Those ancestral cave artists, who believed their drawings of bison worked a sacred hunting magic, would surely have understood.