It was an icon—Steven Pogue's vaguely Cubist painting of a reclining nude woman with a pageboy haircut, a snake slithering against her belly, had hung behind the bar of Pilot Light since the Old City rock club opened in 2000. Before that, it had held a similar position at the Snakesnatch Lodge, a storied but short-lived Market Square bar and club that was open in 1992 and '93. Along with a pair of paintings at the Bistro at the Bijou on Gay Street and the Public House on Magnolia Avenue, it was part of a triumvirate of popular, somewhat cheeky nude paintings on the edges of downtown.
Former Snakesnatch patrons, some of them no longer living in Knoxville, recognized the painting when they went to Pilot Light, even two decades later.
"They'd come in to play or see a show at Pilot Light and see it up there, and many, many times, people remarked to me how great they thought it was to see it up there, how it made them feel," says Pilot Light owner Jason Boardman.
Last fall, the painting was damaged and disposed of one night after the club had closed. Exactly what happened isn't clear—Boardman says he never saw the damaged painting. It disappeared immediately.
"It probably just ended up in the trash," he says. "I don't know."
But the hole, both physical and figurative, left by the work's displacement was huge.
"People had suggested ideas for what we should put up there, and they were all good ideas," Boardman says. "But they just didn't fill the void."
Then, a few weeks ago, Boardman got an unexpected message from Pogue—a photo of a new painting he had produced to take the place of his older work. Pogue had heard about the loss of his painting—and the emotional response to it—and had worked this winter to replace it.
"[Boardman] felt really bad, and apparently a lot of other people felt bad, too," Pogue says. "I thought, it's just art—hell, I could do another one."
The new painting is almost exactly the same size as its predecessor, and fits in exactly the same space behind the bar. It's similar in style and subject—another nude with snakes—but distinct from what it replaces.
"It kind of has the slant of the old thing, but I don't paint the same way I used to, so it's different," Pogue says. "I tried to take into account the lighting of Pilot Light and that people would be half-drunk looking at it. I tried to keep that mood going."
Boardman says the fit is perfect—it's not just a replacement, and maintains the historical connections that made the lost piece valuable in the first place.
"It's thematically linked to the original, but sort of changed to reflect whatever he wanted to have at the Pilot Light instead, which is really nice," he says. "It's not just another painting. It's part of a generational thing. … It's not just something we put up there to try and take its place. You can't rebuild a history, but I think this is the closest thing. It's the same artist, and an inspiration probably coming from the same place."