Kirk Ke Wang: Landscape of Human Skins

Kirk Ke Wang, Landscape of Human Skins, Blue Waves
Kirk Ke Wang, Landscape of Human Skins, Blue Waves. 2017-19

I recently visited the Morean Arts Center in St. Petersburg, Florida to see Landscape of Human Skins, an exhibition featuring the incredible mixed media paintings of Kirk Ke Wang (b. 1961).

Wang is a Professor of Visual Arts of Eckerd College as well as a painter, sculptor, photographer, mixed media artist, as well as an educational software developer. I was already familiar with Wang’s work, having visited his studio in Seminole Heights several years ago, as well as both of us having a mutual friend in artist Theo Wujcik. Theo and Kirk were close friends and often visited each other’s studios to talk about their work and art in general.

Wang has lived in the US for over 30 years but he was born in Shanghai and was raised in a labor camp in communist China during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. His work is often rooted in the intersection of these experiences, for example in 2013, he created an installation called Sugar Bombs, inspired by a trip to Cuba that brought back memories of his own childhood as well as artifacts of contemporary American culture.

Seeing a shirt left behind in the debris of the World Trade Center site, a shoe in the rubble of a bombed-out village, or the skirt of a drowned refugee that’s washed ashore, [Kirk Ke Wang] is haunted by the stories behind the colors, lines, shapes, textures and materials.

Morean Arts Center Flyer

The fear of inexorable cataclysm is a thread that runs through Wang’s work. In the current exhibition, Landscape of Human Skins, Wang explores it through the lens of migration and our endangered environment.

Wang’s paintings in the Morean show are beautiful mixed-media
“investigations into the environmental degradations that result from human suffering” and each piece incorporates materials collected from both immigrants and various social groups in the work itself.

Wang reminds us that the world is often a scary place, and people are displaced from their homes due to everything from severe weather events, to acts of mass violence, to political turmoil.

Kirk Ke Wang, Landscape of Human Skins, Gray Walls
Kirk Ke Wang, Landscape of Human Skins, Gray Walls. 2016-19

In his piece, Red Alarm Bell, Kirk takes a small red dress and creates cutouts to form a beautiful positive/negative pattern. An ominous bird perched on the barbed wire is cut out from black fabric and he layers other articles of clothing and fabric onto the canvas, as well as painting patterns and shapes to create a mesmerizing composition. 

Kirk Ke Wang, Landscape of Human Skins, Red Alarm Bell
Kirk Ke Wang, Landscape of Human Skins, Red Alarm Bell. 2019

In Red Bricks, possibly my favorite piece in the show, Kirk paints a fabulous floral pattern onto a black background. He layers rich, red fabric cutouts onto the surface, creating a visually arresting composition that draws you in. 

Kirk Ke Wang, Landscape of Human Skins, Red Bricks
Kirk Ke Wang, Landscape of Human Skins, Red Bricks. 2019

Wang reminds us that we can’t always make sense of everything that happens in the world, but we can sometimes rely on artists to interpret these events with sensitivity, thoughtfulness, and creativity, hopefully helping us to process and understand these events a little more.

You can see a time-lapse video of Wang creating one of the paintings in this series here. Landscape of Human Skins is on view at the Morean until February 29, 2020.

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