ST. PETERSBURG — As humans, it’s natural to have musings about identity: who we are, what we’re doing here. For artists, identity is often the muse, the jumping-off point to explore the concept in a number of different directions.
Three exhibitions at the Morean Arts Center are doing just that. “I Am," an international group photography exhibition, tackles the subject head on. It features portraits of people and lists their professions and passions, proving that you truly can’t judge someone based on appearance. It also drives home the idea that no person is one- dimensional.
But in the other two exhibitions, artists Kirk Ke Wang and Perri Neri explore identity through the lens of social issues and with styles that blend abstraction with figuration and fleshed-out concepts.
Chinese-born artist Kirk Ke Wang’s “Landscape of Human Skins” is a series of colorful, large-scale mixed media paintings connected by a common concept: Wang’s unshakable sense of impending doom. He explores natural disasters, climate change, refugee crises, imbalance of wealth and how it impacts the planet.
Wang was inspired by images in the media of abandoned pieces of clothing after tragedy. He began regarding the clothes as shed “skins” humanity is leaving behind. He put a call out to receive clothes worn by refugees to incorporate into this body of work. He was surprised to find so many brand names, assuming most people would come over with little money. But the revelation that they were from thrift stores added another layer to his concept. He thought of the many different people who had worn the garments. Because they transcend race, age or class, Wang regards them as “social skins.”
The profound works are also a critique of the wave of “Zombie Formalism” paintings that were in vogue a few years back, works full of color but devoid of meaning. Wang considers his work “social abstraction” and challenges the notion from art purists that he shouldn’t include found objects in his work.
With a strong command of color and pattern, Wang carves the clothes into delicate designs that add rich layers of texture and meaning to his paintings. Starting with abstracted landscapes, he builds up chaotic compositions. Two paintings, Gray Walls and Blue Waves, are based on a trip to Cuba. Excited to see the beach, Wang was taken aback to see the amount of garbage that littered the sand for miles. He photographed the massive piles of plastic bottles, discarded flip-flops and medicine bottles with American pharmacy labels. He painted the waste, added carved fabric and painted blue waves over the top.
His work is not strictly meant to be a harbinger of gloom and doom. Wang includes symbols of hope in each piece. The blue waves suggest that the ocean can clean itself. Birds and plants carved in the fabric demonstrate an Asian philosophy of man’s relationship with nature.
A scarlet dress carved with a lacy pattern resembles the shape of a Red Alarm Bell, the painting’s title. It refers to the item a temple monk in China would ring when trouble was afoot. A background of a dried forest is layered with a carved image of a baby wolf, a symbol for a woman. Here, he’s thinking about his wife and daughters and the obstacles they have to endure as women, symbolized with barbed wire. A wedding dress with roots carved in it is a symbol of family, a sign of hope.
Human Totem, which hangs in the center of the gallery, is completely covered in carved fabric and has sensors that trigger an internal light to glow when people come in the room. It’s an homage to the Chinese zodiac, covered with carved images of animals. But Wang has also included some endangered animals that are native to Florida. The viewer’s energy, or chi, has been imparted into the object and also hearkens to the cyclical nature of the clothing.
Women’s issues are explored in Perri Neri’s robust exhibition “Past Tense; Present.” In one sense, the exhibition is a timeline of her growth as an artist after attending the Pratt Institute for Art, where she morphed from a figurative painter into abstraction, finally landing with figurative abstraction. But it’s also an exploration of sexuality, identity as a female artist, feminism and art history.
Neri starts with abstraction and finds the figure as she paints. In Drive, from her most recent series of paintings, bold strokes of blue create a sense of motion while a sensual red figure floats in space, her head thrown back in a moment of ecstasy. That’s a nod to Bernini’s sculpture, St. Theresa in Ecstasy. In this series, she also explores the relatively unexplored territory of women painting women, shifting the gaze on women from male to female.
Art history is at the foundation of Slay, a swirling composition based on Artemisia Gentileschi, the acclaimed female Baroque painter who was raped as a young woman. Her rapist was brought to trial, but his sentence was never enforced and her accomplishments as an artist were overshadowed by the ordeal. Neri was also reacting to the Women’s March and the Me Too movement, upset that women were still having to fight for their rights. She applied newsprint and magazine with gesso onto the canvas to represent the storm of injustices highlighted by the media. The intention of the piece is a taking back of power.
Neri changes the narrative of the Immaculate Conception with Communion. Rendered in blue, a woman breastfeeds her baby in this contemporary Madonna and Child scene. She’s kicked back on a red chair, her legs stretched out and power-heeled feet crossed. She rests her arm on the back of the chair in a powerful gesture, laying claim that she is the child’s creator. The words “She Said” repeat in red above her.
IF YOU GO
On display through Feb. 29. Free. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday. 719 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. (727) 822-7872. moreanartscenter.org.