Canvas or camera?

Amy Aramanda

Amy Aramanda poses with her artwork up at Red Rock.

Amy Aramanda poses with her artwork up at Red Rock.

Photo by AMY BECK

Amy Aramanda’s exhibit Salon de Mélange is at Red Rock, 241 S. Sierra St., through may 31. Her Bachelor of Fine Arts thesis exhibition is at The Holland Project, 140 Vesta St., April 3-24, with a reception April 7, 6-8 p.m.

“Photography definitely has a stigma,” says Amy Aramanda, 21. “I get that a lot,”

The soon-to-be graduate from University of Nevada, Reno’s photography program is in the basement of Red Rock, where her current exhibit is hung. She needs to go upstairs to clock in soon. Her bartending shift starts in an hour. First though, she gives me a tour of her work, portraits of 19th-century masters in gilded frames that look right at home on the slate-gray walls facing the pool table.

At first glance, I can’t tell whether the pictures are photorealistic paintings or painterly photos. At second glance, I make out confident brushstrokes, then the type of perfect, even skin tones that photographers adjust and readjust their lighting for. I still can’t tell.

Making these pictures, including portraits of the likes of Van Gogh and Matisse, using her friends as models, is her way of articulating her own take on the almost-centuries-long debate about whether photography is as legitimate a medium as painting.

The images pay deep homage to photography and painting, braiding together references and techniques from both mediums so tightly and thoroughly that, on third glance, I’m still trying to sleuth out her technique.

“I’ve always wanted to paint but I don’t have the patience for it,” says Aramanda.

She does, however, have the patience for 6-to-9-hour sessions setting up lighting and back-drops, applying paint directly to her models’ bodies, and photographing them.

She used to dream of elaborate fashion shoots with elaborate costumes, but she didn’t have ready access to elaborate costumes, so she decided to paint the clothing directly onto her models’ skin and adorn their faces to make them look like Impressionist paintings. She learned body painting techniques compliments of her mother, a professional body painter.

In the photographs, which are printed on canvas, little things are playfully, anachronistically amiss. The madness in Van Gogh’s eyes is more late-night-convenience-store madness than ear-severing mental illness. Matisse has the endearing, confrontational smirk of an art student taking a smoke break.

If pressing your friends into the molds of those long-dead, long-emulated old masters sounds overly precious or myopic, it easily could be. But the way Aramanda plays her cards, resourcefully and genuinely, it’s not. The portraits come off without a whiff of coyness or irony. They’re analogous to the video “Somebody That I Used to Know,” also featuring body-painted people, by the singer Gotye, whose extreme cleverness would kill his magic if it weren’t so heartfelt. Aramanda’s blending of aesthetics from different centuries works a lot like it did in the movie Moulin Rouge, where a story set in the 1890s was scored with music from the 1990s, and what could have been a gimmicky bummer came off as justified indecision, a loyal appreciation for a few different styles at once.

While Aramanda practiced painting bodies and photographing models, she also learned to go with the flow of whatever influences were at hand, often responding to her models’ moods or actions.

“I like the fact of changing the masters’ work slightly with cigarettes and beer,” she says. A dramatic facial expression on one model was actually the result of an unexpected yawn. A large, elaborately flowered hat was carried off with the help of available foam core, duct tape, and a Burger King crown that happened to be in someone’s closet.

“I think photography is just as good as painting,” Aramanda says. She’s found a playful, diplomatic position in the ongoing academic argument over whether photography is as established as painting. Her take is less of a political stance and more of a refreshing, hand-crafted, two-ingredient cocktail.