Skin Deeper

Flesh Anew at Conrad Wilde challenges conventions of art about the body

Miles Conrad imagines the body as a thing of pulsing beauty, where white ligaments shoot over pumping red corpuscles, and blue-black veins glisten.

Brooke David pictures beautiful folds of muscles wrapped around bones, shot through with arteries—an intricate design that miraculously allows humans to move and breathe and live.

Ryan Napier is more preoccupied with what can go wrong in the body's interior recesses, where untamed cell growth can destroy an organ and disease can end a life.

All three artists have work in Flesh Anew, a show at Conrad Wilde Gallery that takes a fresh look at the human body, a perennial subject in visual art. Napier, a painter and brand-new MFA from the UA, curated the show, inviting work by artists who envision the body in startling new ways.

"Flesh is of interest to me," Napier says. "I've had medical issues my whole life. I wanted to see other people's approach."

What he found was artists examining the body through using a wide array materials, from the unconventional (cut-up clothing, encaustic webs, human hair) to the traditional (pencil on paper, oil on canvas, watercolors). The nine artists he chose for the show inventively deployed fabric, zippers, embroidery loops and medical glass slides to abstract the body into cells enlarged to monstrous size or to turn the flesh into a fantasy landscape, or clinically zoom onto singular body parts.

Not a single one created a classical nude.

Napier's own piece, "Viscera V," a big, wild mixed-media painting on canvas and strips of paper, is a response to cellular havoc inside his own body. Though he's healthy now after a second kidney transplant, he's dealt with kidney disease most of his life.

"Viscera V" imagines the troublesome goings-on in his mysterious organs. Everything is rendered larger than life. A giant kidney, maybe four feet high, is brushily painted in a dark blood maroon. Nearby, big orbs flatly painted in the colors of healthy flesh—tan, ochre, fleshy peach—float serenely by the swollen kidney. Danger may still lurk here: ominous matchsticks are arrayed around the organ's edges, suggesting the possibility of future conflagrations.

Shah Noor Shafqat's alluring work is also triggered by wayward body parts. "Biomorph," a mixed media on silk, is a surprisingly lovely treatment of eczema, the painful skin condition. Shafqat dyes lengths of silk into gorgeous reds and purples, then stretches them across white embroidery hoops. Instead of dainty stitching though, these cloth pieces are pockmarked with epidermal eruptions, bulbous white shapes pushing into the cloth. Conversely, pleasing geometric patterns also parade across the circles. These designs may suggest inflamed flesh but, in a turnabout, they also conjure up primitive life, the small "biomorphs" that wash up on the shores of the seas.

Rosemary Meza DesPlas goes for the clinical in her depiction of no fewer than 44 breasts in her aptly named "44," a watercolor that arrays these isolated mammaries in four horizontal rows. It's hard not to think of mastectomies at the sight of these unrooted body parts, but no blood or severed flesh appears in any of them.

In another breast piece, DesPlas even strives for humor by way of a visual pun. Ironically called "Stacked," it pictures just five lonely breasts, stacked one atop the other in five cramped compartments.

"Heme," an acrylic, ink and dye work under glass by Robin Duarte-Specht, continues the medical theme. Its title comes from the Greek word for "blood," and its thin liquids spread across the paper like a blood on a slide, staining the surface with the colors of a bruise: sickly greens, purples and reds.

Other artists turn away from the medical model to celebrate the beauty and pleasure of the flesh. Kathleen Stum, in two fine pencil drawings on paper, turns the interior body into a fantasy landscape, its muscles, veins and sacs metamorphosing into cliffs, canyons and gullies

Lisa Cooperman's cloth works are fun and frankly sexy. She makes no effort to mimic the look of an actual body, but she suggests the flesh through an inventive manipulation of clothing. For "Zipper," she cut up a cloth purse and positioned its black zipper into the shape of a vagina, open, welcoming and ringed with white lace. "Pockets" likewise sexualizes a pair of peach jeans with the titular pockets curving out provocatively to conjure up shapely buttocks.

Conrad's "Interiority: Work in Progress," 2016 is a marvelous amalgamation of encaustic paint and fibers. The large-scale installation wraps around no fewer than three walls, while jutting out a foot or two into the gallery's airspace.

As curator Napier notes, "a lot of Miles' work has a visceral feel like skin." His luscious encaustics can look like deeply pigmented paint or soft rubbery skin. Here he goes for both looks, encasing his giant corpuscles in thick red tactile skins and spinning out the white fibers across the space.

Inside his giant work, we feel a little like the tiny travelers exploring the body's inner space in the cheesy camp movie Fantastic Voyage, where all the organs are writ large. For a moment, in the face of Conrad's cheerful creation, we can step deep inside the intricate anatomy that keeps us going.

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