Skin deep: Is it art or exploitation? KC playwright and photographer attempt art with the female form

The Kansas City Star

All roads seem to lead to the Living Room these days, especially when it comes to cross-pollination between art forms.

The multi-level performance space near 18th and McGee is where you see plays turned on their heads, musicals pulled inside out, musicians doing theater and actors doing music.

This week we find an actor/playwright teaming up with a photographer to create unique visual art.

From the "Templates/Relationships" exhibit (Brian Stubler)

Forrest Attaway, who has appeared in productions at the Living Room and Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre (and will be seen in the MET’s upcoming staging of Chekhov’s “The Seagull”), writes plays. Now he and photographer Brian Stubler have assembled a photo exhibition that combines unconventional visuals with what might be called impressionistic writing

And here’s the thing — the writing hasn’t been committed to paper. The medium of choice is the bodies of models.

“Templates/Relationships” is the name of the exhibit, which opens in the mezzanine gallery at the Living Room this week as part of First Friday. On the event’s Facebook page, Attaway and Stubler describe the exhibition as an “enigmatic exploration of female relationships” that “reconnoiters the deeply personal inner narrative of seven unique women.”

What that means in plain English is that Attaway sits down with a model, asks her a few questions, finds out something about her life experiences, and then, using a black marker, proceeds to write his impressions on her body. Then Stubler shoots hundreds of images of the model in different poses and settings. Using computer software, Stubler manipulates the color and lighting to create the finished photograph.

“Initially, Forrest approached me with the idea,” Stubler said. “We sort of met out of the blue. … We just hit it off. It wasn’t like anything I’ve done before. In fact, I hadn’t photographed that many people. I mainly shoot inanimate objects.”

The exhibition will include about 30 prints. Most will be 8-by-10 inches and a few will be 15-by-20. The models, who come from the ranks of burlesque troupes and the acting community, will get a percentage of any sales.

Legitimate artistic expression? Shameless exploitation? Soft-core titillation? All of the above?

Forrest Attaway and Brian Stubler

The exhibition inevitably brings to mind an enduring tongue-in-cheek quote attributed to art critic Gelett Burgess. It’s a phrase often invoked sarcastically when it comes to artistic representations of human (especially female) sexuality: “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like.”

Attaway waxed enthusiastic about the bonding between writer and model after hours of printing on skin. It was, he said, therapeutic for all involved.

“There’s not one of the models that I do not now have a real close relationship with. (They) are going to be friends of mine for life,” Attaway said.

Attaway said it was about 11 years ago that he hit on the idea of writing on women. His first model was his girlfriend at the time.

“I combined the two things I love best: writing and women,” he said. “All the plays I’ve written probably started off on the back of a woman I knew.”

Local audiences have had only one chance so far to see one of Attaway’s plays. Last year, a one-hour version of his full-length drama “Worth” — a study of a middle-class family affected by organized crime — was performed at the Kansas City Fringe Festival. The abbreviated version was impressive enough that some people — including this critic — wanted to see the whole play.

Until then, we’ll have to content ourselves with studying the writing fragments visible in the photographs, all of which were shot at the Living Room. The photographs don’t reveal all the writing, so the viewer has to speculate on its meaning.

Forrest Attaway with model (Brian Stubler)

“We had run of the space,” Stubler said. “We’ve shot in the freight elevator, we’ve shot upstairs, we’ve shot all over the building. The building itself has such architectural intrigue. There’s brick walls, beautiful windows. There’s texture ingrained into every aspect of the building.”

Attaway said the models were understandably skeptical, and one backed out at the last minute.

“They approached me about it, and I asked a couple of models before I did it because I didn’t know exactly what ‘writing on your body’ meant,” said actress Mandy Morris.

But Morris decided the project was worth doing.

“It was seven hours of being written on,” she said. “And then another two or three hours of shooting. So that was a long day. And cold. But they turned out great.”

And, Morris agreed, the experience seemed to have some therapeutic value.

In the initial conversation with Attaway, they talked about her emotional life and her career.

“He was just asking questions about past relationships and working on cruise ships, just going through my past, and I guess he got inspired because he just wrote away,” she said. “To actually see those words on your body made you face inner feelings you had but didn’t know you had. And he put it in words better than I could.”

Most performers are exhibitionists by nature, but even so, Morris said she felt vulnerable. That was the challenge.

“Just being OK with baring it all,” she said. “Letting everybody see who I am inside and out. You know, I felt very exposed. As an actor you face that, but not in that way. You have to take your mentality to that level and know you’re doing it for the art and to be part of a great project.”

Aurelie Roque, another model, recalled how she was invited to participate.

“I got a call from Forrest in the middle of the night, and he asked me if I’d have any interest in being drawn on,” she said. “I was like, ‘Sure!’ I do burlesque, so whatever. He’s a cool dude, and it sounded like fun.”

The models had to be re-inked once Attaway was done writing, and Roque said that posed an unforeseen problem.

“It took me a week to get that stuff off,” she said. “I was able to get it off my arms and legs really quickly. But my (rear) and torso took forever.”

Model Ashley Otis said the photographs were “beautiful,” “tasteful” and were in no way “inappropriate.”

From "Templates/Relationships" (Brian Stubler)

Still, the nature of the project raises some basic questions. Stubler and Attaway, both males of the species, are interpreting women’s lives through their own lens, which naturally invites skepticism. Both insist this is not an exercise in male chauvinism.

“The worst thing that could happen is if this comes off as sexist,” Attaway said.

To gain a feminist’s perspective, we turned to playwright and spoken-word performer Lisa Cordes, a keen observer of the KC arts scene. She made it clear she wasn’t commenting on the work because she hadn’t seen it yet.

But, after seeing one of the photos on the exhibition’s Facebook page and reading the artists’ statement, she expressed reservations.

“There seems to be a lot of acting upon the women,” she said. “If they’re really trying to capture female experience, it’s being filtered through two males. The women are being objectified twice, once by the photographer and also by the text, which they didn’t write. That female figure (in the Facebook photo) did not have a face and did not have a name. It wasn’t her photograph and it wasn’t her writing.”

Attaway insists the project in fact celebrates the women who agreed to be models. But at the end of the day, it’s about what he does as a writer.

“The way I write, it’s not like I’m very formulaic as far as how the play moves,” he said. “I know my characters. So I just put them in a room and listen. This is an intense character study. So in the future, if I need a girl (in a play), I can just drop one of these in.”

Still, we had to ask, wouldn’t there be at least as much value if he and Stubler applied the same approach to middle-aged men — or anyone beyond young female dancers and actresses?

Attaway said he and Stubler want this to be the opening installment of a series. In the future, he hopes to use a pregnant model. And he said he could imagine inviting cancer survivors to participate.

“I mean, I’ll write on a burn victim if there’s a story there,” he said. “There’s nothing lecherous or chauvinistic about this. We really are trying to attain this high-art principle with the work.”

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© 2012 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved

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