Unreal, yet real. Surreal, yet familiar. But ultimately, beyond real.
“Tempos,” a solo show of 26 paintings, is all the above, and it’s on display at the Bemis Center through June 15. A virtual storyboard of Lui Shtini’s artistic growth spanning the past five years, the exhibit documents the path of conceptual and technical changes in his work.
Shtini’s forms, anthropomorphic and sensual, globular and curving, colorful and black and white, softened with shadows and spatters, swirls and layers, elicit smiles, ahhs, raised brows, some embarrassed side looks and, always, prolonged gazes.
Three galleries of work reveal his tangential and changing relationships with reality. Gallery 1, the small room behind the front desk, contains a selection of oil paintings on board from 2015-16 that resemble small portraits of unidentifiable shapes that hint of body parts, or facial approximations.
They mimic portraiture, which focuses on a central figure set on a noncompeting background. “Piegato”poses a cobalt, flexible pillow over what simulates a black, wooly nose. “Morboso”alludes to a morbid or unhealthy aspect whose flesh-colored, swollen-bean shape emits a thin-lined smile.
Others from this series allude to blackened lungs, textured skin surfaces, slit openings, and mirror image-shapes that evoke a living presence but never rest on the fact of one. Together, they attract with intriguing colors: mauve, azure and cobalt, yellow and purple, black and white all the while asking to play, “Who am I?”
Painting titles in this room hint at the sense of texture that Shtini is going for. One series named “Skin” reflects the depth-building texture that Shtini uses throughout his works. In “Skin IX” he paints a thick layer of mauve, deeply grooved, then outlined in a darker purple.
Another, “Skin III,” a study in black and white, builds up texture that is later carved away in hatch marks to reveal an under layer of white. The works in this series have a symmetry akin to a Rorschach inkblot test, though the images are not perfectly mirrored.
Gallery 2 gives way to eight larger works, mostly done in 2017-18 that portray a sensual subtlety through charcoal, pastels and graphite. “Tangle” shows some skin in the game as white and brown limbs entwine. Stipple on light limb and streak of dark limb produce a contrast of steady vs. flowing, a beautiful, rhythmic piece. Shtini’s sense of humor is evident in “Meat Buzzer,” a hairy-stubbed form, strangely wired to some unknown place. “A Passage” conjures female, erotic, and voyeuristic with its box-camera eye, while “Apparition of the Bounty” hints at the fate of large mammals on the planet.
Born in Kavaje, Albania, Shtini splits time between his Brooklyn, New York, studio and Sardinia, where he paints in the summers. Maybe it’s just a sense of the Mediterranean Sea and sun and color that influence these pieces, but the pace in this second well-lit gallery seems to slow and expand in its sensuous details.
“Hide,” painted in 2018, presents a form basking in warm pastels of burnt orange, fading to white, with a contrasting gray and white form sprouting through the center. Also in this gallery, “One on Each Side” appears as a basic black form with an ear? a knob? on each side of the monolithic center, but what of the squiggles of armpit hair under each? Again, Shtini engages viewers subliminally, eliciting connections.
Entering Gallery 3 one notices a sharp tick up in energy and motion, from languishing to pulsing. Large in scale, roughly four by five feet, these works from 2017-19, are exercises using oil and enamel on dibond, a surface that bonds plastic between thin aluminum sheets.
The artist’s challenge entails quick work laying down the enamel layer because it dries rapidly. Enamel swirls, wiggles and worms over surfaces, suggesting microbial close-ups, while thick oil-stroked figures build up the surface.
For example, “Firestarter” seems to use a combination hockey stick/ice skate scoop to toss a flaming mass backward. As mounds of brown and gray move off the canvas left and below, one wonders of the implications. Does it rue the absurdity of massive forest fires and the hurried exodus? Is it a new kind of Meerschaum pipe?
“West Coast” features cascading red blooms and a single, gray acorn that shoot from the left canvas edge across a white background. Gray and blue forms stand steady to interrupt their course to the right.
Both color and motion create appeal, making this piece feel a smidgeon like landscape. Here again, highly textured oil paint gives these works a depth that also carries motion and direction.
Most disturbing of these recent works, “Conveyor” and “Handling Stock” picture loose approximations of sheep, both in helpless positions. “Conveyor” suggests cobalt blue sheep in a mechanized processing environment, carried by black robotic appendages across the canvas to their fate. A watery, red background of worm-like shapes adds to the surreal scene.
“Handling Stock,” lighter in tone, places irregular-shaped, pink blots across the surface of what again appears as a lamb’s hindquarter clenched by a gray mechanical vise. Brown taping in the background hints at broken corrals.
Throughout “Tempos,” Shtini invites his audience to think openly. He describes his works as open-ended and overlapping, resisting categorization. Furthermore, it carries a broad emotional charge that covers more ground in a fluid way.
On a visit through the exhibit, a viewer can experience the growth and grapple with the mystery inherent in the work, but as the Lithuanian translation of tempos implies, they’ll need a “stretch” of the mind to take it all in.
Shtini exhibits in galleries in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Paris, Rome and Milan, among other cities. He studied at the Academy of Arts in Tirana, Albania, from 1997-2000 and attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 2007.
On June 6, 6-7 p.m., Rachel Adams, chief curator and director of programs at Bemis, will lead a tour of “Tempos,” providing an opportunity to delve into its themes. Adams will also provide insight into the curatorial process.
“Lui Shtini: Tempos” runs through June 15 at Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, 724 S. 12thSt. Hours are Wednesday-Saturday from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. and until 9p.m. on Thursdays. For more information, call (402) 341-7130 or visit www.bemiscenter.org.