FIGURES ON DISPLAY: Is Edmonton ready to see the nudes?

Rachel Kwiatkowski – the new owner of the Front Gallery –  hopes that Edmonton is finally ready for some public nudity. The previous owner received more than a few complaints over an exhibition of nudes and semi-dressed females – including a prominently displayed naked woman in the gallery’s Jasper Avenue window. Patrons even threatened to stop coming to the gallery.

“The people across the way would pull their blinds,” says Kwiatkowski, “because they were horrified that there was a nude in the front window.”

And now there’s another one – and no complaints yet several days into a new exhibition called “A Collective Human Experience of the Body,” which runs until November 15.

“I’ve had a lot of people who are very happy that I’ve taken a chance to have a figure show,” Kwiatkowski says.

She deserves credit for risking public antipathy, especially since she only purchased the gallery in the spring. What she also faces is the fact that “the figure” is the toughest sell in the art business. Give us landscapes, seascapes, still lifes, skyscapes – even abstracts – but most people balk at having a nude or a semi-nude individual hanging on their walls. Kwiatkowski laments the resistance to more challenging works. While “Whistler’s Mother” and the “Mona Lisa” are two of the most iconic paintings in history, not everyone is willing to come to terms with a portrait or a figure in their home.

“A figure’s space brings in the essence of the person who’s been painted,” she says.

Kwiatkowski has assembled some 20 pieces by four gallery artists in what she calls a “damn the torpedoes” approach to art marketing, “This is about more than keeping the doors open. This is about paying respect to the artists.”

The four artists have been with the Front for a number of years and represent two general approaches. R.F.M. McInnis and Doug Jamha are expressive and often use bold colours to interpret their subjects. Jamha is the more technical of the two, an excellent drawer, using various vantage points as he explores the most natural of subjects, the human body.

Winnipeg’s McInnis is the most well-known, showing across Canada and well-represented in numerous public and private collections. His contributions to the exhibition are semi-clothed (if anyone is really counting) and portray models from a decidedly direct point of view. The women gaze back at you with a variety of expressions, their characters captured on canvas. He works the images and will dominate with one colour – rich red hues in a Seated With Red Slip (right), for instance – to recreate the personality that he detects in the model at the time.

The other artists Michael Downs and Shana Wilson are more realistic in their approaches. The window display is Downs’ “La Fille de L’Artiste” – The Wife of the Artist (top picture) – a take-off of James Whistler’s “Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1,” better known as “Whistler’s Mother.” The composition is identical (the small painting on the wall, the rocking chair, and the footstool are all in the same locations), except that Downs’ portrays his naked wife with a bouquet of flowers in her lap, instead of a handkerchief. His subjects are more luminous, and the naked figures are part of a more photorealistic portrayal of an overall scene, rather than interpretation of an individual subject.

For her part, Wilson is also more concerned with depicting than interpreting the moods of her models. She tends to select pensive moments when her models are sometimes lost in thought. She has the only male figure in the assemblage and shows that she is working the abstracted background to alter the atmosphere.

The gallery will return from its foray into the Figure by the end of the month with a landscape show by Tom Gale, followed Kari Duke, who typically paints back alley scenes. They’re popular, but Duke appreciates the works in the current exhibition so much that she even hopes sells enough of her own work to purchase one of McInnis’s paintings – a piece that’s caught her eye. That tends to happen with Figure work.