Artist Wendy Chambers gets physical with her latest gallery show

Chambers probes for meaning at Winchester.
Photo: Wade Vandervort

This exhibition should come with latex gloves. The paintings may look gentle from a distance, but they’re visceral and disturbing up close. Colored wax drips, runs and pools over intricate ink drawings. These pieces resemble an aesthetically pleasing biohazard spill—one that involves pristine snot and something that might be intestines.

'Exploratory Surgery' Exhibit

Wendy Chambers, 27, is inspired by the physicality of the body and “the uncomfortableness of being human.” Her artist’s eye sees flesh and looming death, but also a frail elegance. In solo show Exploratory Surgery she tugs on the line dividing attraction and repulsion, aiming to “make paintings that embody beautiful and grotesque qualities.”

By day, Chambers is a studio artist at the Venetian’s Madame Tussauds attraction. She uses oil paints to maintain a wax menagerie of celebrities. Chambers brings the same academic rigor to her art that’s required to preserve a likeness of Brad Pitt. A dedicated researcher, she prizes firsthand observation. For Exploratory Surgery, Chambers referenced cadavers, which she received special permission to study in graduate school.

The show’s most memorable pieces incorporate human hair. The strands are tangled and wild, flattened by wax and also escaping from the canvas in frizzy tufts. This is no braided keepsake tied with a bow. It’s what you drag out of your bathroom sink, complete with mystery gunk.

“I’m fascinated by society’s relationship with hair,” Chambers says. “Hair is highly regarded while attached to someone’s scalp, but the moment it detaches it becomes something ‘gross.’”

The hair in question belongs to her friend Maureen Halligan, who will participate in an artist talk for her own show, See the Forest, May 5 at 6 p.m. at the Clark County Government Center Rotunda Gallery. Chambers and Halligan went through UNLV’s masters of fine arts program together, exchanging feedback and encouragement. Both graduated last year.

During the brainstorming stage, Chambers bounced ideas off her confidant, envisioning a series of non-traditional portraits. In support, Halligan cut eight inches off her hair in January, giving half to Chambers and the other half to a center for cancer patients. “In a unique way, donating my hair feels like it has the same intimacy as sitting for a portrait for her paintings,” Halligan says. “It’s amazing to see how she uses the hair as paint. It melts into the surface like the brushwork of the other paintings in the show.”

This portrait interpretation makes sense. Being abstract, the “anatomy” portrayed in the pieces seems to shift and transform. The permutations mirror the way bodies grow, age and finally deteriorate. “Mucosa,” a large-scale oil and acrylic painting, looks like a figure drawing of blood vessels.

The final piece (Untitled #10) is different from the rest. Consisting of clean, monochromatic whites, it offers visual relief from the other paintings. Perhaps it represents the final resolution to the messiness of life.

“Death is something that I think of a lot,” Chambers says. “It’s been a tremendous wealth of fodder for work. It’s inevitable and terrifying … but I’m confronting it in a way that is productive.”

Wendy Chambers: Exploratory Surgery Through June 1; Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; free. Winchester Cultural Center Gallery,702-455-7340.

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