A Different Kind Of Art For A Different Kind Of Show
The Kinsey Institute’s 5th Annual Juried Art Show is going now on through July 30 at Indiana University’s SoFa Gallery. Like the Institute itself, the exhibit explores sex, gender, and reproduction with many pieces complicating the traditional definitions. However, there is one piece on display that is not only blurring the lines between genders but also those between the artist and the subject.
Over the din of gallery-goers at the Kinsey’s Institute’s Juried Art Show opening, a familiar face looks out over the crowd: Johannes Vermeer’s Girl With The Pearl Earring. However, upon closer inspection the viewer realizes that figure in the picture has a beard.
“Well I’ve always been interested in this idea that art history is like a cyclical process and that images keep coming up. And I’ve always been interested in the idea of non-binary identities, so not being completely male or completely female.”
Art Influencing Art
Photographer Niki Grangruth’s interest in art influencing art and what she calls “fluid gender identity” led her to collaborate with fellow artist James Kinser in re-creating Girl With The Pearl Earring. The picture on display at the Kinsey Juried Art Show is one of series that Niki and James are working on. They have also recreated iconic works by Manet, Botticelli, and Ingres, all with James posing as the female subject. James’ build is perfect for this project: at once both feminine with a lithe, graceful body, and masculine with a beard, close cropped hair, and an angular jaw. But, as Niki points out, there’s also a little bit of gender role-bending going on behind the camera.
“And they’re paintings that are done by males. So there’s this interesting relationship between artist and subject that we’ve kind of reversed with I being a female photographer and James being a male… male-female subject, is something that is a consistent theme through all the works.”
Lights, Camera, Fabric
Re-creating art-historical paintings for a photograph is a pretty intense process. Primarily using her apartment as a studio, Niki employs all natural light to create lighting like that of the original work—not an easy task considering the original artists could manipulate the light in their paintings at will. James is in charge of the costuming. He says knowing what fabric to use is almost instinctual.
“Having gone to the fabric store for years, there’s this kind of gut feeling that you get when you touch or you see a particular fabric. And although it may not be the perfect color or it might not be the direct interpretation of it, it’s the piece of fabric to use.”
James says he’s very attentive to the texture and the weight, especially how the cloth drapes. He also calls upon his experience as a performing artist to study and mimic the postures of the women in the original paintings. However, labeling the photographs re-creations doesn’t really do Niki and James’ work justice. Niki says they deliberately play with the art-historical pictures they’re referencing. One way they accomplish this is by doing away with the traditional, passive subject.
“And one thing that’s been really important is that making sure in the photograph James is not playing that passive role but that he has a dominate role. So, in the posing, it’s not exactly what it is in the art-historical painting and it’s largely because of that concern.”
That dominance can be achieved in surprisingly simple ways: subtly tilting James’ chin up, or by having him look more directly at the camera, confronting the viewer. Both Niki and James acknowledge their pieces are considered taboo by many. However, that fact made the Kinsey Art Show an obvious venue for their Girl With the Pearl Earring- the first of this series of works to be shown. Kinsey Institute Associate Curator Garry Milius says the Institute intended the Juried Art Show to provide a place for art work that other museums and galleries would be reluctant displaying. As it turns out, the Kinsey Institute has a long history of supporting art—Alfred Kinsey himself started the permanent collection—and Milius says that although Kinsey was not a patron in the typical sense of the word, he supported art for his own unique reasons.
“And he wasn’t necessarily that interested in art as art. He always referred to the collection as visual data because he thought it was a great way at looking at how people thought about sex—to see how they were depicted it. So that’s what I think he would find really fascinating about this particular show: looking at how these contemporary artists are thinking about sex and thinking about their own personal issues and then turning them into art works.”
The show is also a way for the Kinsey Institute to connect with contemporary artists like Niki and James. Their Girl With Pearl Earring was the piece chosen for the promotional posters because, as Garry says, the work deals with gender and sexuality which is what the Juried Art Show is supposed to be about, making it perfect for promotional items… among other reasons.
“Honestly one of the problems we have promoting the show a lot of times is sometimes the art works are a little to explicit to put in a poster that’s going to be out in the public. So, we’re always happy when this beautiful, striking piece which has a fully clothed person in it is available for promotional material.”
A League Of Their Own
As Niki and James talk about logistics for their next picture, James emphasizes that what they’re doing is truly their own.
“But I think the key thing about it is, is what makes the distinction between simply reproducing the work versus what we’re doing which is reinterpreting the work and layering things on top of it.”
More of Niki’s work will be on display starting this September at the Kinsey Institute’s art museum.