James Russell May doesn’t only paint nude figures, and he doesn’t only paint nude female figures, but it is perhaps the imagery he is best known for. The women we see have a physicality projecting strength in form and in character. Sturdy, full-bodied, they are unapologetic in exposing their flesh, very often-staring straight at the viewer. In fact, that confrontational aspect might, as often as not, turn the tables, forcing us to reexamine our own biases about the unclothed figures. Are we puritanical, prurient, or neutral in how we receive them?
“I am intrigued by how the subject matter and themes of traditional Western art can seem at once familiar and alien to the eyes of the contemporary viewer,” states May. “This has become a primary element of my paintings. In my work I attempt to form a bridge between the present and the past, as well as the material and ethereal. I paint my figures in a heavily detailed, mannered, and realistic style requiring layers of painstaking work. This style is based upon both an observation of life and a studied awareness of how the human form has been portrayed in the art of the past. Those figures are then placed in an environment of abstracted and textural material, such as resin or metal. The intended result is balance between two competing personal aesthetics.”
We sometimes have to search for contemporary artists who use the concept of nudity so boldly without becoming vulgar or overtly political. May’s balanced blending of tradition with a point-of-view that is modern yet thoroughly rejects the Male Gaze is startling.
However, May is far from neutral in his themes. “Omphale and Hercules” revisits a story from Classical Mythology with humor and a sharp recognition of our moment. May not reverse the gender roles; Hercules was in servitude to Omphale, so her sitting on his head mat be extreme but it is not inconsistent, but all previous depictions have historically placed the man’s name in front of the woman’s, and there is a note of brutality in this Omphale’s satisfied expression, even while we detect a note of bemusement in Hercule’s countenance.
James Russell May is participating in the 2018 Open Studio Weekend, sponsored by Louisville Visual Art and University of Louisville’s Hite Art Institute. His studio, located in the Germantown neighborhood, will be open the weekend of November 3 and 4. Tickets for Open Studio Weekend will go on sale October 16. Click here for more information.
Hometown: Savannah, Georgia
Education: BFA, Savannah College of Art & Design
Facebook: James Russell May Art
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Written by Keith Waits. Entire contents copyright © 2018 Louisville Visual Art. All rights reserved. In addition to his work at the LVA, Keith is also the Managing Editor of a website, Arts-Louisville.com, which covers local visual arts, theatre, and music in Louisville.