Olympia accosts the viewer. Hers is the strong gaze of a woman unconcerned, and unafraid.
That piercing look caused a huge scandal when Edouard Manet’s painting was first unveiled in France in the middle of the 19th century. Olympia, from 1865, shows a lady of the evening, living in comfort and attended by a cheerful, solicitous maid.
The subject in local artist Skip Rohde’s reincarnated Olympia wears the same expression, though she is much older. Clothed and reclining on a hospital bed, she is surrounded by medical equipment and attended not by a maid, but by Rohde himself — her son.
Rohde is clad in hospital scrubs and is either covering or uncovering his mother’s feet with a blanket. The painting, done in warm grays and hospital-gown greens, lacks the light of Manet’s original. In fact, everything about Rohde’s painting is depressing — except the confident gaze of the dying woman.
Olympia is currently showing at UNCA’s University Gallery as part of “Old Times,” Rohde’s senior exhibit exploring the theme of aging in contemporary America.
Rohde is no young man himself. At 50, he is considered a nontraditional student. But back when he was a traditional student, he earned a degree in engineering, going on to spend 22 years in the Navy. Then, in 1991, he completed an MBA at Marymount University in Arlington, Va.
Still restless, he next decided to become a painter.
Tucker Cooke, UNCA’s longtime art-department chair, explains that UNCA has a history of working with older art students. Some, Cooke says, are public-school teachers upgrading their certification.
Others, like Rohde, have simply waited, for various reasons, to do what they’ve always wanted to do with their lives.
When Rohde began his work at UNCA, he painted landscapes. “They were pretty, but that was all,” he admits. “They had nothing new to say. They gave the viewer nothing new to think about.”
When UNCA painting instructor Virginia Derryberry began to talk to Rohde about concept, he realized he frequently included old buildings and worn farm machinery in his landscapes — structures that, while still functional, weren’t long for this world.
Rohde’s current show is about people at the end of life, its subjects inspired by the artist’s volunteer work at a local nursing home and with the program Meals on Wheels (which delivers hot food to the elderly). There are eight portraits in the 16-painting show, all of them, ironically, larger than life — close-ups of saggy, wrinkled faces laden with history and untold stories.
Michelangelo’s sculpture David was the inspiration for Rohde’s painting of the same name. Here, however, the subject is not a straight-backed youth. David is now an old man, with an old man’s body and an old man’s face. He has been tried and he has been tested; only the pose is the same.
In The Dancers, Rohde depicts a couple two-stepping joyfully by candlelight on a rocky precipice. Their bodies lack youth’s uncaring grace, yet they are having a wonderful time.
Rohde has appropriated figures in Renoir’s The Boating Party for a nursing-home birthday celebration, and Botticelli’s Venus for a painting of the same name, albeit featuring a much older model. In Many Me, a multiple self-portrait, Rohde paints himself at various ages, starting at 20. At 50, his confident expression is the same one that distinguishes his mother in Olympia.
The artist continues, aging himself to 70, then 80.
But Window, in which Rohde returns to elements of his past landscapes, may be the exhibit’s most haunting work, with three main images, all painted to a different scale, filling the frame.
Part of a construction implement rusts in the foreground, while to the right is an old gas station (in real life, Rhode reveals, it once stood not far from the Madison County line). The main image is of a seated old man, his bent, naked back to the viewer as he stares out a blackened window set in a background of ominous, bloody red.
What harrowing experience is this stooped soul remembering?
Rohde says he was a little apprehensive about coming into UNCA’s Bachelor of Fine Arts program as “the old guy,” but he’s found the younger students friendly and welcoming.
For her part, Derryberry finds teaching nontraditional students uniquely satisfying.
“They have an intensity of purpose,” she explains. “They are not distracted.”