The Morean Arts Center's most visible exhibition is the Chihuly Collection, a group of glass installations by Dale Chihuly, the internationally popular artist. It's on Beach Drive NE in downtown St. Petersburg, less than a mile from the arts center, which is farther west on Central Avenue.
A lot of Chihuly Collection visitors hop the trolley to visit the arts center's hot shop, which offers glass-blowing demonstrations.
Right now, there's an excellent reason to go to the arts center for a visit having nothing to do with glass.
"Transformative Influences: Theo Wujcik and Wanxin Zhang" and "Dominique Labauvie: Dessin au Blanc" feature three artists in two shows that are of museum quality. (More of Labauvie's work is at the Tampa Museum of Art through Jan. 16, incidentally.)
"Transformative Influences" is the larger of the two, filling three of the arts center's main galleries with Wujcik's paintings and Zhang's ceramic sculptures. Mindy Solomon curated it, also filling her gallery in downtown St. Petersburg with more work by the two artists so we get a rich and rounded look at both.
Both are realists, but they play off each other thematically and technically, Wujcik's suavely rendered paintings contrasting with Zhang's earthy, modeled figures.
Wujcik is a master with a paintbrush. My occasional quibble is that he sometimes uses that talent in service to an overwrought idea. Here, he explores the exchange of cultural influences between the United States and China. The idea has been mined plenty already, but Wujcik puts his usual stamp on it, blending straight-on pop art with bravura turns and twists.
Imperial Jade Quarter Pounder is a good entry point, easily digested. Jade is one of the most precious materials for the Chinese, carved through the centuries into exquisite sculptures representing great deities, leaders and idyllic landscapes. Wujcik looks at that tradition with jaded eyes. Yes, that's a pun, but so is the painting. Jade comes in many colors, but he uses one of the better-known pale greens for the burger, giving it a lurid glow. Less appealing still, it is suspended on a background the color of dried blood. The easy interpretation is ironic: The West has given the East new icons of taste (another pun; can't be helped) as devalued as the dollar. But, speaking of dollars, jade isn't the only thing we associate with green. A jade sculpture may suggest high culture, but fast foods generate a lot of dough, and we're not just talking the kind found in pizza. Is that all bad?
Other Wujcik paintings are more nuanced and require some background information. I had to be reminded, for example, that Cross Cultural appropriates an image from Wang Guangyi, a famous contemporary artist who incorporates Mao-era propaganda and famous Western consumer products. Part of one that juxtaposes workers with a Coca-Cola logo takes up the lower portion of Wujcik's canvas; the rest is an aerial scene of a ticker-tape parade in New York. I had to smile at Wujcik's visual double feint, an appropriation of an appropriation.
Even if Zhang didn't give you the prompt, you would probably make the connection between his monumental clay statues and the Terra Cotta Army of more than 8,000 figures discovered in 1974 in China near the tomb of China's first emperor.
Zhang, now an American citizen, was in his early teens when they were unearthed and the Cultural Revolution was in full force. Later, as a young artist, he made a connection between Mao Zedong's restrictive government and earlier Chinese rulers, including that first emperor.
The artist uses slabs of clay to build his own army, which are an amalgam of old and new references. Some are wizened Chinese with topknots, sheathed in robes encrusted with barely discernible calligraphy and decorative details. Others are Westerners in more modern garb. Almost all wear glasses. The most common are wire rims that remind us of John Lennon and stereotypical portrayals of Asians in eyewear. All seem like a different kind of guardian than the soldiers: of memory, tradition, disenchantment and hope.
The only not figural work by Zhang is Impossible III, in which Washington's Capitol dome teeters between two sections of a pagoda roof that rest precariously on a mudslide, a metaphor for, among other things, cultural collision.
Dominique Labauvie's new series of white drawings, which occupies one gallery at the arts center, is simply beautiful. His use of white over black accentuates the mystery of the strange marks he draws, each a single image like the letters of an alphabet on large flash cards. Many of them resemble humans and animals, such as You Win's silhouette of a fallen vulture, Returning Home's path that leads to and from an abstract figure, and Around the World, which could be a pair of feet attached to a globe. Or a head.
I don't strain too much over teasing out the meanings of his drawings. Most are explorations of an idea and a form that might or might not be translated into one of his sculptures. One of them also has a white patina — the first time I have seen him use this finish, which accentuates its delicacy.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.