Stilled Life

Death Becomes Art At Lionel Rombach Gallery

By Margaret Regan

YOU COULDN'T EXACTLY call it a life-drawing class. Better to call it anatomy for artists. After all, with the exception of one art school regular, a buff fellow exuding muscular health, the class' models weren't even alive. They were dead, every last one of them, human cadavers chilled to ungodly temperatures, wrapped in plastic and laid to uncertain rest on stainless steel gurneys in a hospital lab.

Review An intrepid team of some 15 UA art students, led by prof Sheila Pitt, penetrated the chilled spaces of the medical school's cadaver lab this past summer to study the human body. The provocative results of the students' artistic labors are now on view at the university's Lionel Rombach Gallery, in a show slyly called Stilled Life: Cadaver Studies. The art, a surprising compendium of the gorgeous and the grisly, came out of three long weeks of work in the lab.

From 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day, the students made drawings of such things as the head and torso of a once-living man, the top of his skull cleanly sliced off. They sketched a woman whose chest had been carefully cut open to reveal muscle and sinew. In pencil and in conte crayon, they copied random bones whose layers of skin still clung on precariously; they replicated truncated feet and hands half-dressed in flesh. One person made photographs. Some became entranced by the strange room itself, its gurneys row on row, each one holding a sterile bagged corpse. Even the black-and-steel air ducts that pump out the odors of death made their way into the drawings.

"It's hard to get into it, but then they really get into it," says Pitt, who worked as a medical illustrator before turning to fine art. "In the first week everybody was kind of shy. In the second week they got into it and even became kind of cavalier. In the third week, they were desperate! There was so much they wanted to do." Back in the 1980s, with the help of some doctor buddies, Pitt had spent six months drawing in the cadaver lab, an experience she found "very useful" to her own art. Last year she got permission from the medical school to teach a class in summer, when medical classes aren't in session. The class found an ally in the person of one Grant Dahmer, who directs the med school's Willed Body Programs.

Dahmer, says Pitt, insists on a professional atmosphere in the lab, where he always turned up for anatomy demos impeccably dressed in tie and white lab coat, his long mane of white hair tamed by a ponytail. (Several students did homage portraits of him.) Following Dahmer's lead, says Pitt, the students conducted themselves "with the utmost respect for the individuals who donated their bodies." She says that no matter how much the students dressed up the corpses in their imaginations (and they did), the real bodies were never decorated or desecrated in any way.

THE STUDENTS' EXHIBITION is dramatic and sometimes shocking. The works range in tenor from the grimly realistic, like Rachel Rossman's grisly photograph of the sliced head (it looks startlingly like a modern-day mummy), to the emotional likes of Karen G. Fisher's mixed-media artist's book, which imagines a life history for a dead woman she first met as a cold cadaver.

Each student had to make anatomical drawings from the live model, who graciously braved the chill of the lab and allowed his naked muscles to be labeled with a grease pen. (Fisher's charcoal and graphite studies of the model, the only ones included in the show, have a classic beauty.) Beyond that requirement, the students could deal with their dead subjects as they chose, and that freedom unleashed some hellish visions: chopped limbs portrayed as dancing puppets, hearts and bones free-floating around dead flesh. The artists seem to have divided into two camps, treating the whole enterprise either with immense seriousness or with the kind of gallows humor that gets medical students through their dissections.

The serious ones turned out finely crafted, sensitive drawings of the dead that double as somber meditations on death. Jody Greer's "Contemplation of Circulation" is a fine, even lovely, pencil drawing of the corpse with the sawed-off skull. Mark A. Seely, like a lot of others, was particularly struck by the faces showing through the clear plastic of the body bags. In an untitled pastel and charcoal, he's delicately rendered one of these aged corpses. The figure is dramatically foreshortened, with its large head at the base of the work, and its feet trailing off into the empty distance. Somehow the detailed ear, finely wrinkled, palpably reminds a viewer of the life that once animated the now still flesh.

In the giddy camp is a wag by the name of Miko Peru, who painted an imaginary comic book cover. His Scary Tales for Anatomists gives a fair likeness of Dahmer squirting a wetting solution onto a cadaver that's shriveled into a corpus beefus jerkus. Rossman gave the smart-ass name "Palmolive Everafter" to her otherwise compelling photograph of an old hand, spotted with age. More nightmarish is Kristin Decker's "The Puppet," a conte drawing that imagines a weird compilation of bone and flesh.

Emily Tellez travels with both camps. Her "Creature of Habit" is a portrait of a young black man's face showing through the body bag's clear plastic. It's deftly, even lovingly, rendered in white strokes of the conte crayon over red, black and gray. Yet Tellez's other works draw on the high-comic goulishness of Mexican death art.

Her colored pencil drawing "Candy Man" depicts a fully dissected corpse, his feet forward, body receding backwards, forlorn penis lying inert. Clutched in Candy Man's intact hand is a gaily colored lollipop; scattered around his sliced-up limbs are cruelly ironic Lifesaver candies. Another work taps into the Mexican art convention of twinning sex and death. It's a conte and charcoal drawing of a headless female corpse who's sitting up in her gurney. A string of pearls is draped over the gaping hole of her carved-up chest, a red lipstick is in one hand. Its title: "All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go."

Stilled Life: Cadaver Studies continues through Friday, September 19, in the Lionel Rombach Gallery just east of the University of Arizona Museum of Art. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information call 621-5123. TW

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