The opening of “Relationships Undressed” in Long Island City was quite the affair.
Dozens of art lovers escaped the deluge outside and filled the M55 Art gallery to gaze at artist Emily Stedman’s watercolor nudes and to not be caught looking at the unclothed waiters — one woman and one man.
A gaggle of women flipping through the artist’s bio folder blushed when they took an appetizer from the waiter’s tray — nude save for a top hat, shoes and a vest.
“We are liberated today,” gallery guest Dimitrios Rigos said as he surveyed the room.
Stedman, based in the South Bronx, mostly paints naked figures. There are self-portraits, a few closeups of her face with piercing green eyes and bright flowers blooming from her hair, but for the most part M55 Art’s space was focused on the human body in its natural form.
Stedman’s process: She hires couples to model and then begins to storyboard about how they react to each other physically and psychologically.
“It’s about love,” Stedman said. “I like to use couples. It’s so much better and they are comfortable with each other.”
She also often brings in her own personal experiences, saying that “in a way they all are about my relationships — always projecting onto the works.” Except for skin and hair color, the models are mostly unrecognizable. Many of Stedman’s subjects milled around the opening undetected.
One such couple — married for 25 years, who had posed in Manhattan’s leopard-carpeted club Madam X — stood next to their finished product undetected until an insider outed their connection.
In the work “Circle of Life,” a couple is shown in four different entwined embraces in a circular shape, floating in a body of water. Although it depicts a naked couple it doesn’t feel erotic.
“It’s about helping each other,” she said.
Based on the figures’ faces it seems exactly that. They look to be pulling each other around in the circle — assisting each other in the water or symbolically helping each other in life.
“Symbolically it’s about birth and death because we all come from water,” Stedman said.
The way Stedman paints is just as organic as her subject matter. She doesn’t meticulously mix colors, but instead throws the paints onto the parchment and allows the colors to mix. For the dark skin of the male in the painting “Circle of Life,” Stedman threw down yellow and purple and allowed the complementary colors to mingle and create brown.
She rarely goes back and reworks the paint — in an “effort to keep it fresh.” Often bits of pencil show through the paint, only adding to Stedman’s unrestrained style. The small collection of watercolors on the back wall captures models in a moment. The paint is loose and the viewer senses the movement.
“The white space gives less to focus on — it captures something,” said Christian Bethevil of LIC, adding that the smaller paintings were his favorites of the night.
Also, unlike most watercolorists, she likes to work with black paint.
“I suppose I wanted to go where you aren’t supposed to go,” Stedman said. “It’s a challenge using black.”
Her favorite painting of the series, “Ancient and Timeless Dream, Crum Creek, Swarthmore,” is of a woman with a cat’s face standing nude with a nude man in a creek at dusk. The black and purple water, which reminds her of Crum Creek from her hometown of Swarthmore, Pa., ripples around their ankles.
As for the feline, she got the idea from her house cat Mia, who is quite the seductress in her own right, Stedman said.
“It just sort of came together,” she added.
Stedman, an artist for 25 years, holds live nude drawing workshops at M55 Art on Wednesday nights.
When: through Sept. 1, Wed. to Sat. at 12 to 6 p.m.
Where: M55 Art, Long Island City, 44-02 23 St.