Rosie the Riveter stares down the Guy Fawkes mask in the Chapman Gallery in the Campus Life building. Located at opposite ends of the hallway, the two pieces mark the end and beginning of Kris Neely’s art exhibit, titled Iconic.
“I hope it serves as an invitation for students to consider making studio art part of their liberal arts experience,” Neely says.
Neely is an assistant professor and coordinator of Wofford’s studio art department. He also owns and directs Wet Paint Syndrome, a professional art studio in Spartanburg.
“I think it’s important for students to see me working, to engage in my work and in my process,” says Neely.
The exhibit features pop culture icons such as Martha Stewart and Elvis Presley as well as famous figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and artist Shepard Fairey. Some of their images are fractured and torn. An interactive piece opens to re- veal Britney Spears. Across the hallway and to the left is a colorful image of Jesus Christ.
Neely juxtaposes these famous faces with photographs of nameless people. Neely points to three images of an unnamed woman who appears in a fashion magazine.
“It’s almost as if the person is not important. So what I’ve done is to try to do a treatment here that might cause us to look more at the human aspect of it rather than just the fashion aspect of it,” Neely says.
Of Rosie the Riveter, Neely says: “That image became the face of a lot of working women who were the reason why the United States could be successful in World War II. And yet, this is the face you remember, not necessarily the faces of the individual riveters.”
Neely’s artwork often snatches inspiration from people in his own life. A series of mechanic’s trays painted with an ambiguous silhouette belonged to a real mechanic. After he passed away, his wife asked Neely to use the trays, all of which were handmade, in his work. Other pieces represent a more personal relationship to Neely.
The cover piece for the exhibit is one of Neely’s signature guardian angles. The original piece was painted in memory of his deceased brother on a piece of found wood.
“My mom wanted something to remind her to be hopeful,” Neely says.
Now, he’s painted over ten thousand of these guardian angels.
“It was taking on a life of its own,” Neely says, recalling how requests for his guardian angels snowballed.
The cover piece, already sold, is displayed outside of the gallery space.
“I decided to break through what is traditionally the boundaries of this gallery space. The idea is that this show is sort of beyond the gallery,” says Neely. “What is art that goes in a gallery? What is art that doesn’t go in a gallery?”
The piece, titled Guardian on Abandoned Canvas is symmetrically aligned with another piece, titled Guardian on Discarded Sign. The latter features the literal word, guardian, printed on an old Dr. Pepper sign. “I think people tend to appreciate when artists can make fun of themselves. It does have a little bit of significance to me because my older brother’s favorite beverage was Dr. Pepper. So I think of that as a tribute to my brother Erik in a way, that I’ve created this 10,000 angels later,” says Neely.
The exhibit will remain in the Chapman Gallery until Oct. 15.
“There’s a tremendous value for us to have the opportunity to look at a body of work, up close and personal. Not just photographs of the work, but to see the physical work the way it’s presented, and for us to question that and have dialogue,” Neely says.
“We need to have places where students can engage with art, where it’s accessible to them,” he adds.