Look up “transparent” in the dictionary, and it always comes back to light — admitting the passage of light, permitting light to pass through, etc. Indiana University Southeast fine arts professor and artist Debra Clem explores transparency in her new exhibit at Swanson Reed, but the word means much more to her than light — and sometimes conveys the opposite: darkness.
“Some of the pieces came from events I’ve tried to transcend — they’re spiritual,” she says of the large-scale, mixed-media works. “They’re about death, resurrection, restoration.”
Clem’s art has many layers, which is where transparency comes in. In this exhibit, she painted human figures over top of enlarged digital images. These images, most of them photographs she took, become a part of the human form — making it hard to tell where the painting stops and the photo begins.
A few of the pieces incorporate 3-D CAT scans of the human heart. “I became really fascinated by these body scans,” Clem says. “The colors are gorgeous — incredibly luminous and fluorescent. Maybe it was the idea of being on the outside looking in, or being inside and looking out … once again the transparency motif came in.”
The rest of the series deals with environmental concerns, which Clem says helped get her out of her head, so to speak. “I got tired of talking about myself. It’s not all about me — it’s about the whole thing. So I started looking at the world around me.” More specifically, the world right here in her own backyard. “Zeon” shows a black female from the torso up lying over top of a photo of the Zeon Chemical Factory in Rubbertown. The figure has a somber expression, perhaps one of sadness. “These factories have harmed the people who live in those areas,” Clem says. And in “Alternating Current,” Clem’s self-portrait is painted over wires and transformers from a sub-station in Portland. The sharp, jagged steel cables and coils wind through an emotionless expression.
Clem worked with several mixed-media materials in this exhibit. While on most she used acrylic and oil, on “Reclamation” — which shows a pair of feet standing on top of a mound of tin cans (shot at the recycling center near River Road) — she incorporated stretched-out metal from actual cans for texture.
“The truth is, all these paintings are about texture … seeing texture in places you might not expect — like garbage, or tree limbs, or arteries in the body,” Clem explains. “It was fun to discover how — oh my gosh — these twigs on a tree are reminiscent of what you’d see in the human body if it didn’t have skin on it.”
‘Transparency’ by Debra Clem
Feb. 26-March 27
Swanson Reed Gallery
638 E. Market St.
Opening reception: Feb. 26, 6-8 p.m.