Time for the Body

In the lobby of the Circle Theatre in downtown Indianapolis hangs a life-size portrait of Raymond Leppard, music director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Leppard is in the foreground gazing out at the viewer, baton in hand, a slight grin on his face, as if he has just heard a passage he liked but knows it could be played even better. Four male members of the orchestra--all going bald, oddly enough--and one woman are playing their instruments in the background.

Unveiled in 1992, this work was one of the first public portraits ever painted by Bonnie Sklarski, professor of fine arts at Indiana University Bloomington. Throughout her distinguished career, which has included numerous solo exhibitions at the prestigious Robert Schoelkopf Gallery in New York City, Sklarski has been known primarily as a landscape painter with a particular fondness for gorges and other striking formations of water and rock.

More and more, though, she is heeding the challenge of painting the human form. "I'm slowly walking people into the landscape," Sklarski says one cold winter afternoon in her spacious studio in Monroe Hall. "They were always there, but they weren't in the paintings yet. They were waiting on the sidelines for their appropriate cue." One of the cues was figuring out how to do it. "There is nothing more difficult than painting the figure," she says. "I mean nothing. That's part of the thrill of it. When you do it right, it's very, very exciting."

Only recently has she discovered what unsettles her about much contemporary representational painting: it depicts the subject in real-time reportage, which is the province of photography, rather than in mythological time, which is the focus of painting. Indeed, Sklarski has come to realize, this is the big problem with almost all figure painting in the twentieth century.

"In the nineteenth century," Sklarski explains, "we started getting used to what photographs were, and it had a profound effect on what subject matter was painted, how it was cropped, how things were captured in process. People started painting very naturalistically, trying to give viewers the feeling that they were actually in the painting. Painters didn't realize it, but they were trying to make the world of the painting feel like the world itself--and that's why I'm calling it real time. And when artists try to get an impact across like that, they reduce it to an everyday experience. It makes it very mundane."

The advent of photography also had an effect on art education. From the Renaissance through the nineteenth century, a rigorous study of the human body was a central part of every artist's training. Without it, artists had no way of painting the human form in motion, for example. "In the past," Sklarski says, "motion had to be conceptualized, constructed within from your understanding of the body. But in order to do that you had to have a concept. You had to have a canon of proportions and some kind of working knowledge of the body."

Once photographs could freeze the body in motion, artists could work from photos rather than from their own hard-won understanding of anatomy. Or, instead of competing with photography, they could begin to conceive of painting as something other than simply a way of representing nature--as a way, perhaps, of rendering multiple perspectives simultaneously or invoking the lucid mystery of dreams. Thus did the study of the human figure fall into disfavor as artists pursued cubism, surrealism, abstract expressionism, and the many other "isms" that make up the modernist movement in art.

During her own training, Sklarski experienced firsthand just how out of fashion the study of the human form, indeed the study of all nature, was considered to be. Born in Elma, New York, she grew up exploring the woods behind her house--the beginning of a lifelong communion with the natural world. Her first exposure to art came almost by accident when the mother of one of her fifth-grade classmates began taking the children to Saturday morning art classes in nearby Buffalo.

By the time she graduated from high school, Sklarski was good enough to win a scholarship to the Pratt Institute in New York City. Her freshman year went well. "I had a wonderful instructor in a three-dimensional design course. He would talk about the organization of the universe. He asked us questions about where art comes from. He asked us about what we believed in, and he told us that was the source of art. He wanted us to think very deeply, and I think that's when I realized how important the woods and nature had been to me."

After this heady first year came the crash. "I went into a series of classes with people who were doing a lot of experimental work," Sklarski says. "Teachers were having us ride bicycles over canvases, use mops instead of brushes. There were so many of us who were trying to paint realistically--that's what we had gone there for- -and there was no way of learning."

Sklarski had fallings-out with several teachers. She lost her scholarship. She was even kicked out of one class. Her crime? Insisting that models pose for longer than three minutes at a time. "They made me take the class at home. That, in my mind, stands out as a very significant piece of evidence about the tyranny of modernism."

As might be expected in this kind of modernist climate, the school offered no anatomy courses. Determined to learn about the human figure, Sklarski undertook an informal study of anatomy during the summer under the tutelage of the same teacher who had made her freshman year such a memorable experience. She has continued to study the subject on her own over the years, recently even sitting in on a yearlong gross anatomy course with IU medical students.

To ensure that art students at IU are not deprived of the traditional learning opportunities she missed when she was a student, Sklarski teaches an artistic anatomy course every spring to undergraduates. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, IU is one of only a handful of schools nationwide where such a course is taught. The course meets twice a week. During the first session, Sklar-ski offers detailed information about different parts of the body, drawing hands and knees and shoulders on the blackboard to show students how it is done. During the second session, students draw from skeletons and plaster casts--and models who pose for longer than three minutes at a time.

Artistic anatomy is popular enough to attract large numbers of students despite never having been listed in the course catalogue. And for some students, the course is much more than technical training. It is something akin to revelation, much as Sklarski's freshman course at the Pratt Institute was for her. One such student is Luke Allsbrook, a 1994 graduate of IU's Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts who took artistic anatomy once for credit and sat in on it twice more. "There's no way you can learn it all the first time," he says. "You can keep studying the figure forever."

What impressed Allsbrook most about Sklarski's teaching was the excitement she kindled and the depth of understanding she demanded. "You can see her love for the figure," he says. "Sometimes she'll get really excited about the beauty of a hand lying on a table or something. But she always stresses that to be able to convey that beauty, you have to understand that there are some complex things that are working. And until you have that deeper knowledge, all you're going to be able to do is recognize. You won't be able to convey."

This passion for understanding is evident in the way Sklarski approaches her own art. "Painting isn't my life," she says. "It's what is going on that's prompting, that's motivating painting--the big idea, the source, the origin of what painting is about. That's what I'm interested in." Her pursuit of ideas and origins has taken her farther and farther back in time. She has studied Native American history, and she is currently exploring the Classical era. "I'm studying ancient Roman, Greek, and Biblical history," she says, "because these are the sources of our stories and our depictions of the human body."

With the help of several geology classes she has taken at IU, Sklarski has gone back even farther and studied the deep abysm of geological time--plate tectonics, the growth of mountains, the slow gouging out of the gorges that figure so prominently in many of her paintings. "Geology is to the earth what anatomy is to the body," she says.

Immersed in the past, Sklarski is nonetheless delighted to use futuristic technology on occasion. Several years ago, when she was having trouble visualizing a gorge she wanted to paint, she turned to the Center for Innovative Computer Applications (CICA), a center on the Bloomington campus that uses sophisticated computer software to help scientists and artists solve problems. CICA computer graphics software specialist Brian Kaplan introduced Sklarski to Wavefront, a program that can generate detailed landscapes from topographical maps.

It was a wonderful experience. "I've always felt that if I could suspend myself over a gorge I would be happiest," Sklarski says, "but because I can't, I'm forced to make it up. That was one of the most wonderful things about working from the computer. I was able to do elevations, and it was like I was flying. I could flood the valleys with water and get reflections. I had a dawn-to-dusk light sequence, so I could play with the light. It was quite exciting."

One of the paintings Sklarski is currently working on includes gorges modeled on the Wavefront images. The painting is about the passage of time--not a surprising subject for this philosopher of time in art, this student of deep history. "Moving from the left-hand side to the right-hand side," she says, "it depicts the ages of humans and the transitions. And again, I got stuck in Ôreal time' when I came to certain ideas about middle age. It came down to something very mundane."

Consequently, none of the human figures in the painting has been completed yet. They are blank outlines against the gorge, ghosts waiting to be united with their own flesh and bone. If past practice is any indication, Sklarski will spend many more months struggling to get the figures right, bringing her knowledge of anatomy and history to bear, trying to resolve the paradoxes of real and mythological time.

These are difficult tasks, and they involve crucial questions concerning the place of the human figure and myth in art. "The person who cracks this," Sklarski says, "will have unveiled the big mystery of painting in the twentieth century."

--Mark Buechler