'The Outraged Body'

Lisa Gray's collage exhibition is full of Renaissance-type gloom

Posted: Thursday, September 29, 2005

The characters in Anchorage artist Lisa Gray's collage exhibition, "The Outraged Body," look at ease, striking proud poses in a Renaissance-type gloom.

Their bodies, however, are horribly mangled, skewed, blurred, jumbled or erased. A young dog, its head on a plate, heads toward the ballroom in "Prom Night." A modest drone, his suit rumpled, his face obscured by a black cloud, suffocates in "Asphyxiating Culture."

Gray builds these portraits - most around 24-by-36-inches - in her computer, layering dozens of images. She takes bits and pieces from the Renaissance period, fashion magazines, medical journals, collectable-doll books, even photographs of what she calls, "award-winning chickens." The result is a disorienting, mesmerizing, somewhat-Gothic look at the human body and our subjective notions of beauty. Some observers in Anchorage, referring to her "Madonna and Child" series, have even deemed it "controversial."

"Much of her imagery is visceral," said Mark Daughhetee, curator of collections at the Alaska State Museum. "I don't think that you would consider it politically controversial or sexually controversial, but visually, it's maybe repellent to some people."

artist: lisa gray of anchorage.

opens: friday, oct. 7.

closes: saturday, nov. 26.

location: the alaska state museum.

Gray is well-known in Anchorage for her layered black-and-white collage photography. She's lived there with her husband, photographer, Steve Gray, since the early 1980s, and had solo shows in Alaska and the Lower 48. Lately, she's turned to digital collage and inkjet printing. She's battled breast cancer for the last eight years, and the disease has made it impossible to handle bulky 30-by-40-inch negatives and platinum solution.

"Having cancer affords you this kind of delicious consciousness," Gray said. "Among other things, my senses have become keener. Even though my experiences are specific to me, my art has always strived to defend that which is universal: the common and humanitarian struggles of life, of being alone, of carrying around this finite body yet being full of spirit and fight and even laughter. People living with cancer tend to have a pretty good sense of humor."

"The Outraged Body" opens on Friday, Oct. 7, at the Alaska State Museum alongside "Prayer for the Protection of All Beings," a new solo collection of drawings and mixed media pieces by University of Alaska Southeast art instructor Jane Terzis. The two artists were among six chosen for solo exhibitions by the state museum last year. Both shows close Nov. 26. Terzis will be profiled in the Oct. 6 issue of "This Week."

"I do have a tendency to go too far, and the result can be a confused lackluster image with nothing to say," Gray said. "My husband is brutally honest with his critiques of my work and reigns me back in at times. Other times, I am simply unreignable."

Gray, the youngest of three girls, grew up on a farm.

"Our family doctor referred to us as my father's three sons," she said. "We worked as typical farmers do, at sowing seed and tending to sick animals. It was a very raw experience, as watching farm animals breed, give birth and being butchered were common occurrences."

In eighth grade, her math teacher assembled a photographic darkroom in the school's first aid room. Study hall became a choice between math homework or tinkering in the new laboratory.

"Seeing an image develop before my eyes was a very magical experience and probably the first time I felt in control of anything," she said.

In 1977, Gray left for Oregon State University, where she met her husband, Steve Gray, a lifelong Alaskan. They eventually married, and she joined him in Anchorage, where he was working for the state.

The Grays worked for a few years before deciding to quit their jobs. They bought a van and a futon and spent a year traveling through the West and Southwest, photographing the landscape and pitching the pictures to trade magazines. They quickly discovered there were a lot of people with the same idea.

"Trying to make a buck selling travel photographs didn't seem like such a bad idea at the time, but my heart just wasn't in it," Gray said. "Leaving our jobs was still the best decision I made but I temporarily lost touch with what was really important to me regarding the importance of art.

The Grays returned to Anchorage, where Lisa refocused on her layered black-and-white photography. Her technique used two negatives: one of the body, the other of some sort organic material. She printed on paper, brushed with platinum.

"Putting these separate sources together in this manner let light anonymously filter through, creating shadows and highlights that eventually produced a new integrated form," she said. "Arms were likely to grow vines, skin dissolved into fibrous forms. I saw life as this kind of biomorphism with nature."

Gray displayed her work at the Visual Arts Center in Anchorage, solo shows at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art in 1992 and the Seattle Art Museum in 1994, and in Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, New Mexico, New York and Washington, D.C. Her work was profiled in ArtNews and ViewCamera, and she was guaranteed a monthly stipend by the J.J. Brookings Gallery in San Jose and San Francisco, Calif.

"She's certainly been a player in Anchorage," Daughhetee said. "She's recognized as one of the most influential artists in Alaska, not just Anchorage."

In 1992, "The Wreckage," a platinum print of the cutout of an eye, surrounded by dirt and plant life, won the Juror's Choice award in the biannual Alaska Positive, an exhibition of the best juried photography around the state. "The Wreckage" is now in the Alaska State Museum's collection and will be displayed in Juneau later this year as part of "The Best of Alaska Positive: 35 Years of Award-Winning Photographs," on Dec. 2, 2005, through Jan. 28, 2006.

In 1999, Gray accepted a scholarship to study historic art and comparative literature at the State University of New York at Buffalo. She returned to Anchorage after earning her master's in fine art.

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.

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