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Painter Edouard Manet’s “Olympia” shocked viewers who locked eyes with the brazen nude in the Paris Salon in 1865.

This year, artist Jessie Kwasney painted another "Olympia," a reclined and provocative nude paying homage to the French modernist at the University of Montana Gallery of Visual Arts.

Exploring the influence of religion in American society, Kwasney's exhibit prompted a rare warning sign at the gallery entrance. Director Cathryn Mallory estimated it's just the second time in 25 years the gallery has posted a caution to visitors.

"Please Note: Some artworks may require viewer discretion."

Behind the advisory and a wall blocking direct view of the exhibit, this Olympia smokes a fat joint, maybe cigar. The stylized figure leans on an elbow, breasts falling to one side, a penis doing the same.

Provocation isn't new for Kwasney, an artist born in Oakland, California, and 10-year military veteran working in paint, ceramics and photography. Last year, his black and white portraits of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and corresponding audio pieces also confronted viewers with difficult material, true stories of rape and attempted murder.

This time, he's using "humanoid" figures in nude and sexually explicit poses in an attempt to challenge viewers to face their own biases about nudity and the human body. Here, Olympia isn't just a twist on the classic nude, the figure represents one in 2,000 babies born with both male and female sex organs.

"People are so scared of difficult ideas, and they're just so afraid to be uncomfortable, people as a whole," Kwasney said this week in the gallery.

With four paintings and a series of sculptures, the UM student seeking a bachelor's in fine arts wanted to push the conversation. Mallory said he pushed it so far, his peers encouraged the advisory, and she made the call to post it.

"Believe me, this was a think-long-and-hard-about decision," Mallory said.

UM faculty encourage students to explore and follow their own voices, she said. That ethic made it difficult to consider a warning sign, but she said the practice is also common for many museums.

"It is a public space, and we're not a private gallery," Mallory said.

Conversation about shame

The exhibit was born out of Kwasney's own childhood steeped in religion and beliefs he now rejects that nakedness, sex and sexual exploration outside marriage are sinful. The artist sees the same ideas of morality influence people far outside church, too.

"I grew up in an extremely religious family, so even I get uncomfortable with some of the things that I paint," Kwasney, 31, said.

One work shows a figure with a strap-on and one with splayed legs, and dark voyeurs peep through pictures he created into the artwork. The characters are cartoonish and graphic at the same time, some caricatures on the brink of sex acts.

"I intentionally stylize them heavily and put them in certain scenarios," said Kwasney, who noted George Condo among the artists whose work he emulates. "But the way I see it is it's no different than any other nude painting, which are highly celebrated everywhere."

The paintings contain representations from other artists whose ideas were attacked, such as Picasso and Van Gogh. Kwasney said he paints in part to start a conversation about shame, the human body and constructed moral values.

The paintings line two walls in the gallery. Between them stand three bulbous sculptures, one painted bright pink and stamped with the word "Toy," and another pale one dripping at the top and scratched with the word "wet."

"I want to explore these ideas of why we think certain things, whether it has to do with nude figures or sexuality or veteran experiences," Kwasney said. "I'm interested in why people believe and feel certain things, especially when they can't give you answers to why they feel."

Viewer discretion advised

The exhibit is part of UM's senior thesis show, which runs through May 2. As of this week, Mallory said at least 500 people have come through the gallery since it opened, and possibly as many as 700.

One group of students from Helena opted to skip the gallery after the teacher asked if there was any nudity or sexual content, Mallory said. She said the students did tour the artwork in the University Center, a part of the show without a posted warning.

"I don't make the judgment call for them. I allow them to decide if it's something they would like to do," she said.

She said much thought and conversation took place about how to present the show and Kwasney's work. Mallory said she did not want a sign that singled out Kwasney, but she and others in the art program did want to let viewers know they would face some sexually explicit content.

"How do we let people become aware of that before they enter the exhibit?" she said.

In many cases, she said parents aren't ready to have a conversation with their children about sexual content. In this case, the gallery posted the warning sign at the entrance, and it placed a wall that partially obscures Kwasney's pieces.

"But the work is not completely blocked off," Mallory said.

She said some people have rolled their eyes at his pieces. Others have been inquisitive and wanted to know why an artist would want to express himself as Kwasney does, and the gallery directs them to the artists' statement.

The gallery isn't just a place to exhibit student art, it's a teaching lab for faculty and a place for classes to evaluate artwork, Mallory said. In this case, it also offers students a glimpse into the way different venues will handle controversial work.

"We're trying to prepare them for an entrance into the professional world, and that's based on a lot of individuality, artwork, being true to your own voice," Mallory said. "But as we all know, there's also realities in the world, and you have to operate under different constraints sometimes."

Hard conversations

Brandon Reintjes, senior curator at the Missoula Art Museum, said he wasn't necessarily surprised to see the warning sign at the Gallery of Visual Arts. The MAM also has received requests at times from public schools or community members to offer warnings about challenging work.

"We always like to have a conversation around art, I think even when the content is graphic or explicit or sensitive," Reintjes said. "It can be a variety of things that sets people off."

The MAM has shied away from warning signs in favor of "a softer touch," he said, although it will gauge content on a case-by-case basis. In the last year, the museum has opted to have its visitor engagement officers alert people who arrive with children that they might want to preview certain work before their youngsters see them.

"We usually try not to warn them off. If we didn't think it was a worthy exhibit or a worthy piece of art, we wouldn't have installed it," Reintjes said.

When school groups visit the MAM, guides explain that artists sometimes use strong language to get their points across, he said. In viewing a difficult work, they note it is an example of such communication.

If someone is shocked, he said the museum apologizes for not adequately warning them, and MAM workers also then "try to unpack why it was so alarming."

"Sometimes, just the act of talking about that helps mitigate any sort of lasting negative impression," Reintjes said.

The wording of warning signs is particularly tricky, and he applauded the language used at the Gallery of Visual Arts. The words alert viewers, but they don't stop them from seeing work; UM students work hard, he said, and their art is an important part of the community. 

"It's the hard conversations that help us learn, that really challenge us, so that's what we like to do is to have those conversations," Reintjes said.

Emerging artist

So far, people have had strong reactions to Kwasney's exhibit, both positive and negative, he said. He thought an older audience would be turned off, but that hasn't been the case.

"I had a lot of them come up to me and say they grew up a similar way I did and the paintings helped them," Kwasney said.

The current exhibit has given him an opportunity to broach a conversation he's been wanting to have with a wider audience, and he intends to continue to explore similar themes in his work. Studio Visit Magazine, a national publication, will feature him as an emerging artist later this summer.

In this show, Kwasney meant to provoke, and he's looking at the warning sign as evidence of success.

"I guess it worked 100 percent," Kwasney said.

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