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Skin Deep 

Think Leonardo and you almost necessarily think of the Mona Lisa, his most intriguingly enigmatic creation. That smile -- it's beyond coy -- what can it possibly conceal? A secret wish? Thoughts best kept to oneself? Compromising information? Maybe so, but if he had done it on a different day, it might not have concealed so much. Beyond merely a great painter, inventor and scientist, Leonardo was also a dedicated investigator of human anatomy. Rendered in that mode, the Mona Lisa might reveal layers of skin, tendons, arteries, bones and muscles in neat cut-away views to display their precisely ordered placement. Now, that's deconstruction of another sort.

Students of art and medicine traditionally learned anatomy, but from there their paths diverged. Very few artists these days go so far as to dissect human cadavers the way Leonardo did, but some modern medical illustrators come awfully close to it, as we see in the work now up at LeMieux. Here the line between art and medical science becomes very fine indeed. An exploration of the common ground between contemporary artists and medical illustrators, Art in Medicine/Medicine in Art reflects an odd mingling of gravitas and whimsy.

In the gravitas department, Eugene New's realistic Carotid Aneurysm or Barbara Siede's Encarcerated Fallopian Cyst, are the sorts of images that can send the occasional shiver down the back when we consider their implications. Yet, to see these brightly colored airbrush, gouache and mixed-media creations on the walls of a gallery is to shift their context toward formal and tonal values, and here they can almost be seen as biological surrealism. Nearby, a large painting featuring cut-away views of bones, tissues, veins, arteries and a variety of anomalous tissue formations, by A. W. Baker, is enough to remind anyone to make sure their insurance is up to date, and one wonders what anatomical catastrophe this oil painted canvas might imply. But no, it's just a formal abstraction, an artist's fantasy of miscellaneous viscera. "Modern art," in other words. Hmmm. Similarly, Kurt Schlough's Orifice, Belly, Navel, Rift are small scale clay sculptures that insinuate intimate aspects of the body while maintaining a studied formal ambiguity, teasing us into cul-des-sacs of fleshly innuendo.

It's a guessing game that continues for much of the show. A rather Hitchcockian portrait of a wrinkled elderly lady with an intense expression seems almost out of place amid all those bones and organs and it's only the expressionistic and psychological angles of the composition that offer any hint that this is really an exploration of Geriatric Psychiatry, another illustration by Eugene New. But one of the most blatantly and disturbingly surgical images, Removal of Pressure Will Relieve the Symptoms -- a realistic oil painting of a big toe being amputated from a foot -- is actually one of Alan Gerson's ongoing studies of angst and its origins.

Charles Barbier's Sigmund Freud With Patient is a rare formal portrait, an acrylic painting of the famous pioneer of psychiatry with what is presumably a neurotic female patient, a nude, Austro-Hungarian odalisque contorted on a divan behind him as Freud sits blank-faced in a straight chair, cheroot in hand. It's another psychological statement, realistic yet dreamlike, but it does convey something of Freud's deadpan pedagogic bravura. Another tack is taken in Deedra Ludwig's The Giant Library, a pair of old display cases, one filled with antique medical bottles, the other with dried flowers and botanical specimens. A wall text explains that most of our modern medicines originated with tribal healers, not giant pharmaceutical corporations.

Whimsy appears in the form of Steve Teeters Defibrillator, a concoction of old wheelchair parts, car headlights from the 1930s, electronic miscellany and a rotating globe in a kind of Beverly Hillbillies take on medical technology. But whimsy's shadow appears in Jean-Jacques Gaudel's Fanny Shrine, an altar-like sculpture with cut-away views of a female head and torso precisely painted on three sides. Hard to say what goes on here, but it's a singular statement, obsessive enough to generate it's own autonomous, if intriguingly warped, reality. And that points to another parallel between art and medicine: Both are regarded by their practitioners as callings, those things people do out of some inexplicable inner drive -- like Leonardo's quest to explore the mysteries that underlie a smile.

click to enlarge LeMieux's latest exhibit walks a fine between art - and medicine, as Jean-Jacques Gaudel shows with - his Fanny Shrine.
  • LeMieux's latest exhibit walks a fine between art and medicine, as Jean-Jacques Gaudel shows with his Fanny Shrine.
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