About The Living Canvas

What is The Living Canvas?

It's visual art. It's performance art. It's...

"a formally ingenious technique that confounds the traditional relationship between subject and backdrop"
— Brian Nemtusak, Chicago Reader

Photographer Pete Guither has specialized in photography of the body as canvas since the mid 1980s, using the texture of projected images, along with light and shadow, to capture the intricacies and expressiveness of the nude form. His award-winning work has been featured online and presented in various galleries and publications, as well as a United Nations presentation ("Furrows and Deltas: The Erogenous Zones of Mother Earth"). Currently serving as Assistant to the Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Illinois State University, Guither's extensive background includes theatre, dance, visual arts, arts technology, and music.

It was the second night of the very first Living Canvas performance. A woman came up to me and said:

"I saw your show last night. I went home, took off my clothes, stood in front of a mirror and felt better about myself. Thank you."

That is the essence of The Living Canvas

In 2001, the photography evolved into a concept that united the images in live performance, integrating richly textured movement and self-discovery with a once-immobile canvas. "The Living Canvas" (2001), using symphonic-like movements, performed at Illinois State University and for a seven week run at Strawdog Theatre in Chicago. In 2002, "The Living Canvas: An Odyssey" at Chicago Actors' Studio took the concept a different direction with a theatrical storyline (based loosely on "Rime of the Ancient Mariner"). "Ascent of the Living Canvas (2004) and "The Living Canvas 2005" followed a free-form theatrical vignette structure that ranged from serious social statement to abstract silliness, and incorporated digital projection and multiple levels to the work. "Unsex Me Here - a Living Canvas production" deconstructed the world of Macbeth in 2008. "Nocturne" (2009) effectively explored the dark and playful children's fairy tales that haunt our dreamscape. Often controversial, Living Canvas productions always daringly explore themes of self-esteem, body acceptance and beauty, repression, and the breaking down of societal barriers regarding the human form, regardless of the structure of story of the work.

We don't mind that some audience members come to the show in order to "see naked people." Inevitably, they leave having experienced something much more profound.

Integral to each performance is an open discussion period after the show with the audience, often with opportunity for audience members to take the plunge onstage themselves, playing in projections.

Living Canvas performers (as well as those who "pose" for photography) are all collaborators in the artistic process. That is an essential part of making the canvas live.

Some reviews:

"... sensual and visceral performance art piece done with craft and good taste... For the brave who dare stimulating late night entertainment, "Unsex Me Here" is a visual treat that dares you to join them." — Chicago Critic.com

"Pete Guither's high-def projections of intricate patterns across naked actors is eye candy on the order of a laser-light show..." — Time Out Chicago

"I didn't know what I attended, but it was definitely one of the most courageous, most creatively uninhibited, most theatrical boundary-pushing events that I saw this year in the city. ... I admired and was very, very impressed, by the risk-taking that the actors, the director, Vanessa Passini, and Artistic Director Guither took. It was a unique, breathtaking production." — From the Ledge

"Guither, joined by director/choreographer Vanessa Passini and The Living Canvas have brought to the National Pastime Theater a one-of-a-kind theatrical performance powerful enough to make even Shakespeare red in the cheeks." — Newcity Chicago

"... the only Shakespeare in town where the costume budget was zilch. — UR Chicago

Stoners, Dali fans, sensualists of every stripe, this show's for you. Sober or otherwise, you'll find the visual pleasures of Guither's idiom considerable, the kinetic sculpture consistently engrossing as choreographer Mark Hackman makes the most of the cast's varying backgrounds in movement and dance. — Brian Nemtusak, Chicago Reader

intriguing and fanciful... feast for the eyes... RECOMMENDED — Hedy Weiss, Sun-Times

...intensely peculiar and mesmerizing... It's riveting. — Nina Metz, Chicago Tribune

A brief history, from the photographer

I was living in Brooklyn in the 1980s, studying theatre. My roommate at the time owed me a large phone bill when he moved out, and he paid with an old Pentax K1000 camera. It was the first camera of any kind I had owned and I was instantly obsessed. When I started to take pictures around the neighborhood and showed them to my downstairs landlady, she threatened to increase my rent — clearly I was living in a much more beautiful area than she had realized. I was on the right track.

I knew I would work with the human body. From my work in theatre and my interest in dance, I understood that while a flower can have exquisite beauty, the body has that beauty while also conveying the complexities of intelligence and passion. However, I could not ask anyone to pose for me. The notion of finding a good way to phrase “Hey, you wanna come back to my place and take off your clothes while I take pictures of you?” was beyond me. I never have asked that question. The scores of artistic partners who have worked with me in still photography and in performance have all approached me and asked to be involved.

So how did I start? A dark basement. Myself as the model. Simple equipment including a film camera on a tripod with no timer and only a short shutter release. Try this some time. You set up the “shoot.” Turn off all the lights. In complete blackness, open the shutter on the camera, then feel your way to where you need to stand. With one hand outside the frame turn a light on and off thereby registering the image on the film. Then find your way in blackness to the camera (sometimes knocking it over) and close the shutter. One frame done.

Eventually, I had enough images that reflected my vision to show others, and partners joined in. Everyone I’ve worked with has been an artistic partner, not a model (OK, there was one person who thought he was a model, but when we got the photos back and he looked like he belonged in a JC Penney catalogue, he realized his mistake and became a partner). Partnership and collaboration is the essential nature of this work, because the person in the shot is speaking volumes — even if there’s only a shoulder in the frame.

At one point I tired of the two scoop lights I had purchased at the hardware store (I couldn’t afford “photography” lights) and looked for some other light source. There was an old slide projector in the basement. “Ah,” I thought, “a beam of light might be interesting,” as I aimed it at a friend, not realizing that it was loaded. The scrub trees on the side of the mountain in the old vacation slide left in the projector wrapped around and became part of my friend’s body. After quickly rifling through and using any slides I already owned, finding and photographing the images and textures that communicated with the body became my next challenge. Not all images work; some overwhelm the body, others are overwhelmed. Some work well in movement but not in still photography.

For some years, I enjoyed the notion that the Living Canvas photography could exist fully as a framed work, but I also preferred it to be more interactive and communicative with an audience — even if it was just presenting the work as a slide show with music and text. At some point, I also noticed that when people moved through the images, a new effect was created that didn't show up in still photographs. I worked with some of my friends and we created a short live performance piece at Theatre of Ted at Illinois State University. Live performance brought a host of new dimensions. That provided the groundwork and inspiration for all subsequent performance events.

Underlying all the Living Canvas work is the basic belief that the human body is inherently beautiful and expressive. Even in those images that provoke a disturbed response due to specific projected content, the underlying beauty is still there. The Living Canvas brings new insight to the human body, through viewing it in a different way (emphasizing and separating muscles and lines through light and shadow) or through its interaction with other media (images projected on the body)

The work is not in any way about sexuality. Since sexuality is an intrinsic element of the human being, its influence cannot be ignored, but the Living Canvas also attempts to dispel the oft-held belief that the naked human body's only meaning is sexual.

Finally, The Living Canvas is about humor. We all need to laugh, and since the body is so expressive, why not hear some one-liners from our bodies? Interestingly, this often the hardest barrier for our audiences to cross — accepting that it's OK to laugh when naked people do something funny.

It is.

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