by Britt Aamodt
When Jean Loy-Swanson teaches drawing at Elk River’s Arts Alliance, she starts with materials. She wants students to understand how to use paper and pencils to produce an image.
The next step is composition. How do you organize objects in a drawing to form an interesting arrangement?
This is how an artist learns, step by step. These are the steps Loy-Swanson took and then honed to become an artist with a work in February’s Arts In Harmony show at the Sherburne County Government Center.
And the artist who was the mover and shaker behind the provocative “Adam: The First Man” exhibition hanging down the road at North Hennepin Community College’s Joseph Gazzuolo Fine Arts Gallery.
The provocativeness doesn’t come, primarily, from her choice of media or composition, but in the subject matter and its comment on American media and culture.
“Adam: The First Man” takes a look at the male figure in Western art. The nude male figure.
Loy-Swanson is one of 5 women artists whose works comprise the exhibition, which was spurred by a conversation she had with a gallery owner after the theft of artwork from the gallery.
“He mentioned some nudes were stolen,” said the artist. “I said, ‘You mean female nudes.’ He thought about it and said yeah.”
This led to her next question: “How often are male nudes shown in your gallery?”
He thought again. “I can only think of a few times.”
“Well, then there’s an idea for a show,” she told him.
The gallery owner put the ball back in her court. Why didn’t she put together that show?
The result was “Adam: The First Man,” which contrary to the subject isn’t about depriving Adam of his fig leaf for the sake of just doing it. Rather, Loy-Swanson and her sister artists wanted to use art to ask questions.
The conceptual power of art, its ability to deliver messages and trigger emotions, is a lesson Loy-Swanson teaches students after drawing basics.
But it is by the far the most potent, and potentially exploitive, tool in the advertiser’s visual toolbox.
“We see images all the time,” she said, citing TV and Internet. “But we don’t know how they’re influencing us. [Advertisers] purposely create images and combine them with words to control what we purchase.”
So one of the questions the artists wanted ask was: Why do female nudes predominate in Western culture? Or conversely, why do advertisers, movie directors and artists tend to avoid the male nude?
Through putting the show together, the women artists also discovered a gender difference in the way they, at least, portrayed the nude. None of them romanticized the nude body.
One showed a man drowning in order to represent the changing roles of men in a society where women now outnumber men at university and men face a greater probability of substance abuse.
Loy-Swanson showed four works in the exhibition.
Two were sculptural pieces depicting stylized athletic supporters from her “Hero Series.” Woven from gold-filled wire, they mimic medieval chain mail.
“I use them to make reference to how we turn sports figures into heroes,” she said.
Loy-Swanson’s sense of humor extended to a drawing based on Edouard Manet’s “Luncheon on the Grass.”
Manet’s painting caused a scandal in 19th-century Paris because of the pairing of clad men and unclad women in the same work. In her take off, Loy-Swanson reversed the roles.
Two centuries ago, audience members departed in a huff. Today, people are less likely to be offended by nudity, given what’s already available in the media.
Attendees at “Adam: The First Man” were curious. They lingered at favorite pieces and did what the artists hoped they would.
“A woman asked me all these questions about ‘Chiaroscuro Hero,’” Loy-Swanson said about her image of Michelangelo’s David. For one, “she wanted to know why I’d put the clouds in there.”
The artists have considered sending the exhibition out as a traveling show and thereby continue the discussion.
“Art changes you, whether you’re doing it or viewing it,” said Loy-Swanson. “For the viewer, it can bring understanding of the culture we live in and the perception and limits of culture.”