Given the sociopolitical climate, it would be understandable if Skin were solely about race. A quilt depicts the global reverberations of the church shooting in Charleston, S.C.; dolls celebrate all shades of dark skin. But from the beginning, contributing fiber artists Carole Gary Staples and Billie Cunningham, who proposed the exhibit, had a vision beyond black and white. A discussion that grew out of their experiences as women of color inspired their friend Robin Harris to write an essay that became a call to artists. The statement asks whether all skin matters. What is good skin? What do you think of aged skin? How about skin sold for cheap thrills?
“There is just so much significance placed on the skin we’re in,” says Ellen Muse-Lindeman, executive director of the arts center. For example, people spend billions annually to get rid of wrinkles. But Jessie Rienerth’s pimply and tattooed ceramic vases question why we should hide our imperfections and battles. Robin Hartmann has stitched a story of her scars from 10 operations, including breast cancer surgery. She introduces us to neurofibromatosis — “the first big word I learned” — an incurable genetic condition in which tumors form on nerve tissue under the skin. Her tale is “a story that says I survived.”
A show with a strong theme needed a strong eye, Muse-Lindeman says. Bolden previously curated the acclaimed exhibit White People, a retrospective of Melvin Grier’s career in Cincinnati. When reading the description for A Matter of Skin, Bolden again saw potential to be profound. As he reviewed submissions, he acquired photos from Tina Gutierrez and Brad Smith plus paintings by Kevin T. Kelly for visual diversity.
“I was at first overwhelmed by the abundance of portraiture and portrait-like imagery,” Bolden says. “Portraits have a place, but this is skin and all those variations that are implied in the mission.” (Bolden did make an exception for Estelle Laibson’s three small portraits that use wrinkly layers of dried paint peeled from a palette. “Bingo! Paint skins! Gotta have it!” he says.)
Bolden’s inclusion of nudes from Gutierrez’s Colors of Women series further shifts the exhibit’s conversation from outward differences to interconnectedness. In “Repose,” a black woman and a white woman huddle in a compassionate embrace of sisterhood.
Bolden brought in the bold Kelly to contrast with the nuanced approach of artists like Mariah Von Luehrte. Her line drawings of anthropomorphous blobs with dark wounds portray inner emotions worn on the outside. Looking at each shadowbox feels like peering into a shut-in’s room. The artist recently completed pre-art therapy studies at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning.
Kelly, on the other hand, spent six years in New York working with Tom Wesselmann, the late Cincinnati-born Pop artist known for his provocative Great American Nude series. As a result, much of his work is about skin. “Unabashedly,” Bolden says. “He’ll put it in your face.”
Kelly’s “Exposed 02” depicts a female torso in an unbuttoned white blouse, black bra, thong and thigh-high stockings. Some might perceive her as promiscuous, others as a sexy, self-assured superhero striking a pose reminiscent of the Man of Steel. Perhaps she’s “Fearless Girl” all grown up, still not taking any bull.
The art can indeed confront. A video from recent DAAP grad Frances Newberry could make your skin crawl, as fingers noisily pick away at wax limbs and blemishes. “It’s a shocker but a must-have,” Bolden says. “It gives you that impression that they’re having issues possibly with the skin that they’re in. But the more you watch it, it’s like, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ ”
A MATTER OF SKIN runs through June 3 at Kennedy Heights Arts Center. More info: kennedyarts.org.