Starting a gallery during a pandemic, while so many other businesses are shutting their doors, is a counter-intuitive move. So is opening an arts space dedicated to the high ideals of beauty in an era defined by fierce debate, political violence and art that has long abandoned its obligation to be attractive or entertaining. Yet that's what founder and owner Jeffrey Harrison set out to do with Artemesia Galerie, which is launching in the Art District on Santa Fe on February 20.
Harrison, a close friend of the late Jack Pappalardo, one of the district's founders, has been mulling the idea of opening a gallery for several years. He and his team had already purchased the space and were refurbishing it when the pandemic struck, then decided to forge ahead with an inaugural show, The Modern Nude: Contemporary Art of the Human Form, which comprises contemporary and modern representations of the nude.
In advance of the opening, Westword caught up with Artemesia curator Elisa Tapia to find out more about the gallery's origins and the team's decision to open with a look at nudes.
Westword: Why start a new gallery – especially in a time when so many are struggling to stay open?
Elisa Tapia: We purchased the building and began a full-scale renovation in December 2019, a few months before anyone had heard of COVID-19. After months of contemplation, in the spring and summer of 2020, we decided to forge ahead with the renovation of the building and opening the gallery because we are, first and foremost, art lovers. We still believed in our original vision, and didn’t want it to be derailed by circumstances beyond our control.
If it sounds crazy to open a gallery during the pandemic, that's because it probably is. There's a huge disconnect in the community happening. Gallery events are usually where groups of artists and art lovers come to congregate, discuss, banter and connect, and as a society, we're missing that during the pandemic.
We just want to keep the conversation alive, and we’ll fight through all the craziness to make it happen. On a personal level, it feels like we need this outlet now more than ever to move, to create, to connect and to discuss art, even if we have to be wearing masks and standing six feet apart!
How did this gallery form?
The gallery came together as Jeffrey Harrison's project as the owner and founder of Artemesia Galerie. He had been contemplating opening a gallery for many years. He says that there’s already too much bleakness and nihilism in the world, and he wants to combat that with a gift of beauty. It’s a project he describes as “exhibiting art that invokes sensuality, wildness, spirituality, sensuality and eroticism. We are nurturing a community of abundance where creatives thrive.”
I have been cultivating relationships with artists from all over the world in my curation work for Artemesia. Our first show will feature three works from Andrés Alfonso of Colombia, and our next show, in the spring, will feature visionary artist Luis Tamani, who originally hails from Peru and now lives in France.
Why the Art District on Santa Fe? Did you have ties there already?
We have personal connections to the Art District on Santa Fe. Jeff has shown his work previously at galleries in the district and has close friendships with other gallery owners and artists there, as well.
Jack Pappalardo, who unfortunately recently passed and was considered by many folks to be the founding father of the Santa Fe district, was a close friend and a great inspiration to Jeff. Jack’s death a couple months back actually strengthened our resolve to make Artemesia Galerie happen.
We also love the quirky creative energy of the neighborhood, the pastiche of different businesses present and the block-party energy of the First Friday Art Walk gatherings; we can’t wait until they can happen again.
Why launch with an exhibit about the nude?
The human form has been celebrated in all shapes, sizes, colors and races — from prehistory female fertility statues all over the planet, to the idealized marble sculptures of the ancient Greek anthropomorphic gods and goddesses, to Michelangelo’s masterful glorification of the male form during the High Renaissance. In nearly every era and culture, all the way up to the present day, artists always seem to find a way to bring the nude into context and relevance.
In the modern era, the nude as an art subject has been reinterpreted, derided, deconstructed and reimagined. In Western culture and arguably all over the world, however, nudity always seems to also trigger puritanical responses. We live in a time when the human form is constantly censored, labeled, exploited for profit and targeted as inappropriate or flagged as pornography, even without sexual content in the image.
It seems like almost any worldview or dogma can be projected onto a nude form, so there is always a pretty deep conversation to be had when a viewer looks at a nude. Most of the artists showing their work here feel the threat of deletion or exile on their respective social media pages, because genitalia are just too powerful/scary, right?
This show is about the modern nude in our society and the narrative being perpetuated through our cultural belief systems. At least we can all agree, for there is no escaping this fact: We all have nude bodies. The least we can do is honor them and, at least in art, not hide them.
Harrison says, "I can't seem to ever get away from the human form as a focus for my work. My love for the human form as a subject began when I was a little kid, maybe nine years old. My mother ordered this mail-order Time-Life art book series where a new book came every month. I always looked for them to come in the mail and was interested in art, but when the book on DaVinci showed up, followed the next month by the Michelangelo volume, I was utterly mesmerized by what I was seeing. It felt like a switch in my soul was suddenly flipped on, and a new part of my brain had been brought online. The way both artists had studied the human form so deeply and then expressed so much passion and beauty in the lines and strokes of their work seemed like such an act of magic and genius to me. From that time forward, I wanted to know how they did the magic trick, and the only way I ever found of getting at the answer was to just keep trying to do the trick myself. I’m still working on it, and never tire of it."
Talk about the various approaches the artists take and what makes a modern nude modern?
The works in this show are modern simply because they are artistic manifestations by contemporary artists from around the world. Each artist has a different modern story and attitude in the depiction of a nude form as well as artistic influences from all the artists of the past. We take a personal approach with everyone we work with. We challenge the painters to let us into their worlds. Beauty will be different for each of them. Each has a special set of life circumstances that lends itself to their creative process.
One of our artists, Colombian native Andres Alfonso, has three herniated discs and a degenerative spinal problem. His physical ailments require surgery, but he does not want to be operated on. It would mean extensive surgeries, and not all are guaranteed to work. He prefers to live with his pain daily. He sees figurative art and beauty through the intensity of his experiences, including his physical pain.
Destiny Bowman has a rather different approach. She finds art to be her meditation and her calling. She calls it an exercise of "love and patience." Deron DeCesare calls his mixed-media approach a mix of "intention and intuition." He's experimenting with printmaking and patterns along with his figure studies.
So all of our artists are taking a modern approach of personal expression while still owing a debt and drawing upon the millennia of tradition of depiction of the human form.
Jeffrey talks about beauty in opposition to anger, hatred, violence, etc. There are certainly plenty of art histories that address all of that without sacrificing beauty. So what does beauty mean to you, and what qualifies or doesn't? And will the gallery be looking at life's less, well, beautiful side?
The way we see it, violence, ugliness, fear and terror are all things that exist in our lives, and if we just turn on the news, that's there in our faces. We aren't against or contra these aspects of existence. We don't plan on ignoring the struggles; they're a part of life. We are against letting those darker aspects of the human and collective psyche or even a global pandemic stop us from seeing the beauty in creative process and thought. That is what artists do, really: take some ugly aspect of life and paint it, sculpt it, sing about it and transform it into a beautiful thing.
Through these times, we believe there is a renaissance of art on the frontier. We need art now more than ever. Who will be a mirror for the times but an artist? Who will imagine inspirations for scientific discovery? Who else will communicate with the extraterrestrials when words fail us?
Certainly, beauty can be and is subjective, in the eye of the beholder, but there is also the more platonic ideal of Beauty, which is a more numinous and spiritual experience, more like the Keats idea: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
The Modern Nude: Contemporary Art of the Human Form opens from 4 to 10 p.m. Saturday, February 20, at Artemesia Galerie, 836 Santa Fe Drive, and runs through April 17. For more information, go to the Artemesia website.