RAW is both exhibition title and theme, uniting the work of artists Lisa Qualls, Doug Cason, and Mark Greenwalt. As a writer, not an art critic, I offer a personal impression of the exhibit, not a review of technique. Although if provoking thought and stirring emotion in a viewer are some measure of an artist’s technique, Qualls, Cason, and Greenwalt each convince me of their mastery. Entering the O’Kane Gallery, I immediately find my prior knowledge and experiences challenged, my expectations played upon. The three artists meld ancient, historical, and modern concepts into images ranging from the beautiful to the grotesque, each one capturing a moment amid the mutability of body and mind.
The connection between artists and medical students in their studies of the human body has been much on my mind after reading Dr. Christine Montross’s medical school memoir. In Body of Work, Mediations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab, Montross combines the story of her education as a physician with her expressive gift as a poet. I am fascinated by her descriptions of the structures and workings of the human body, of the cadaver dismantled in the laboratory, and moved by the author’s unfailing reverence for life amid death. Similarly, I am inspired by RAW’s unflinching depictions of the body, in whole and in part, in beauty and decay.
On a membrane of vellum, Lisa Qualls draws nudes, classical in line, perfectly formed. Each figure is alone in its frame. In some drawings, while the body is exposed, the face is covered by an exotic mask. In others, only the torso is covered by a rough garment that would rub soft skin raw. In fact, my first impression of “Wicker Jacket” is of a lovely woman whose torso and arms have been skinned, until I realize the ruddy color belongs to the woven wicker that encases her upper body. The translucent quality of the figures’ skin, their flawlessness juxtaposed by rough textures or ritualized scarification, their very smoothness heightens my perception of the raw.
In his work, Doug Cason presents a strange curriculum with painted book covers for censored copies of Magnificent Obsession, his florid and romantic images linked to underpinnings of organic decay. Echoing the chaos of revolution and civil war, Cason’s battlefield paintings twist history lessons of the heroic standard of brave warriors, swords drawn, charging into the fight. He depicts the soldier’s eye view—the smoke and confusion of the battlefield, images and events distorted as bodies are distorted and destroyed. I see, as if in funhouse mirrors, reflections of the carnival of violence. With swirling shapes and fluid colors, a scrap of uniform, a glint of metal, Cason simultaneously creates a clash of armies and reveals what is left when the battle ends—bloated corpses, tangled entrails. Raw, indeed.
Mark Greenwalt’s meticulous anatomical drawings also suggest duality—the past of Leonardo sketching the interplay among muscles, tendons, and bones and a future in the uncanny results of genetic tampering. Over yellowed and sepia-toned panels, some spattered with rusty-red drops, as if the subjects’ blood mingles with the artist’s ink, deformed shapes emerge: a peculiarly plump old baby with a bird’s head for a foot, a creature part chicken and part twig, a man with madness in his eyes and a depiction of madness growing out of his head. I think of Leonardo’s prescient advice to artists: “dispel from your mind the thought that an understanding of the human body in every aspect of its structure can be given in words.”
For artists seeking to represent human experience, as for physicians seeking to understand the human body and mind to cure disease and repair wounds, the body must be seen, observed in motion, exposed, laid open, and touched—taken in by the senses, even as it defies them, seduces and repels them. Christine Montross, reflecting on her time in the anatomy lab, wrote: “The human body harbors mysteries that are not solved by textbooks or studying, and, as I have been confronted with them, I have found myself amazed, humbled, and unnerved.” Beauty abraded, magnificence destroyed, mutability caught in a moment—all part of the amazing, humbling, and unnerving images rendered by the artists of RAW.