Kate Renee's children's book characters explore dark themes

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'Glutthoney' Kate Renee

There’s something off about Kate Renee’s artwork. You’ll notice it first in the lopsided googly eyes, then in the subject’s resemblance to a classic icon, be it a fairytale princess or another children’s storybook character. Then you’ll see something creepy: bruises, dripping blood.

7 Sins

Gamut Gallery
free

“Everything looks pretty cute upfront, but when you dig into the deeper meanings, or look more closely at the work, there are darker, serious undertones,” Renee says.

This adorable yet disconcerting style has become the trademark of her paintings. Art-lovers will remember her 2014 “Beauties Behaving Badly” exhibition at Gamut Gallery. Now the University of Minnesota grad returns with a new series, “7 Sins,” that combines the sinister, cartoonish interpretation of familiar faces with ancient religious doctrine and the magical associations surrounding the number seven.

This exhibition, opening on October 1 at Gamut Gallery, is saturated with references to current events, from the controversy surrounding Kim Kardashian’s nude selfie on Instagram to the presidential election to the Black Lives Matter movement. Each painting represents lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and vanity in a fresh, if disturbing, light.

“I’m trying to make the traditional seven deadly sins more applicable to what’s going on now in society, and I do that in a way that’s approachable,” Renee explains.

Take, for example, the Queen of Hearts from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In the story, a spade is caught painting the queen’s white roses red; as punishment, he is beheaded. In the painting, it’s clear something has gone awry; the queen, her face heart-shaped, her mouth agape, glares indignantly at the viewer. She wears a human heart around her neck, gripping a spade in one hand and a knife in the other. Red liquid runs down these objects, as well as the roses surrounding her. But is it blood or is it paint? (Given the painting’s title, Wrath, one would likely assume the former.) “It’s a dark interpretation of where anger can lead you,” Renee says.

On the lighter side of sin is Glutthoney, a piece in which a bulbous-bellied Winnie-the-Pooh gorges himself on honey, discarded pots dripping stickiness all around him. A honeycomb-patterned background is dotted with bees. It’s artwork like this that has made Renee popular with children in addition to adults. “It’s an accidental by-product, but it’s really widened my audience,” she says.

Other characters featured in “7 Sins” include the Wicked Witch of the West, Mike Teavee from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Donald Trump.

Throughout the paintings, Renee plays with the number seven, not only in the objects and animals, but in the number of layers of paint. Starting with birch panels, she uses acrylic followed by resin pours to create seven layers of depth. This results in a 3-D effect as prominent as Pooh’s gut.

“I knew I wanted to experiment with 3-D,” Renee says, “but I didn’t realize how successful and awesome it would turn out. As soon as I created the Glutthoney piece, and figured out that it was successful, I kind of ran with it.”

Renee methodically plans out these paintings ahead of time in her Minneapolis studio, deciding on a character and a story before drawing the image on the birch panel. She then numbers every section in what she calls a “three-dimensional paint-by-number.” Once she starts painting, there’s no changing her mind or turning back. And herein lies the “sin” Renee says she struggles with most, though it’s far from deadly: perfectionism. Clearly, it hasn’t hurt her art career one bit.

IF YOU GO:

Kate Renee: “7 Sins”
Gamut Gallery
The opening on Saturday, October 1 runs from 7 to 11 p.m., and costs $5.
Through October 29


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