MIAMI — In Paula Wilson’s short video, “Salty + Fresh,” the artist becomes a giant goddess, tall and massive, rising from a mid-ocean sand bar on Virginia Key, her long, painted skirt lifting her like a turret. She wields a giant palette and an even bigger paintbrush, with which she paints three bodies, each carrying clay pots on their heads (to be clear, Wilson paints their butts, and only their butts). Tipsy picnickers on the sand watch her, less nonplussed than vaguely amused, and they snap photos with their phones, in the way that disinterested people often do — not totally disconnected, not wholly present either. Wilson looks too small in the viewfinders of their cameras; still, she is defiant, and she is huge.
Virginia Key Beach, a swath of coastline on Virginia Key, an 82-acre barrier island in Biscayne Bay, has — even on clear days — a faded pallor, as if the sun mellows its shine once it hits the sea. The mud at the shoreline is smooth and gray, and the sand is faded white, but this pale phenomenon is unmeasurable, inexplicable, and likely the product of my imagination. Though they’re unusual adjectives for a place, Virginia Key Beach feels exceptionally soft and subdued. It is one of my favorite beaches in Miami.
On August 1, 1945, it became Miami’s first “colored-only” beach, in response to a wade-in on May 9 of that year, when four black men and two black women stepped into the sea at Haulover Beach Park — then only open to whites, like all of the city’s beaches. Access to Virginia Key wasn’t easy before 1947; until the Rickenbacker Causeway was built, black beachgoers took a ferry from the Miami River, and some built rafts themselves.
Napping on the sand today, there is nothing to indicate Virginia Key Beach’s past. While we’re basking in it — blissful and momentary — nature seems exempt from fraught narratives. Wilson, who works with many mediums but especially paint, doesn’t so much retell stories forgotten to time as she does create new ones entirely, alluding to fragmented histories as she shapes her own.
Salty + Fresh is also the title of her new exhibition at Emerson Dorsch; the video greets you immediately, projected on a wall directly across from the entrance. “With ‘Salty + Fresh,’ I was very aware of it being a creation myth for myself; Virginia Key has this history, and I was having this biracial moment on the shore,” Wilson, who is biracial, told Hyperallergic. “I was also imagining how an artwork would see itself, or imagine itself coming into being.”
This kind of spiritual reverence permeates the entire exhibition, comprised primarily of paintings that recall stained glass and religious iconography. (It helps that Emerson Dorsch’s new space, which opened this past spring, has skylights that allow for streaming sunlight.) Not enough emphasis can be placed on Wilson’s love of stained glass. She is the granddaughter of a stained glass hobbyist, and it’s visible in her goddess’s skirt in “Salty + Fresh,” in nearly all of her paintings, and, in a quite literal sense, her tendency to craft together literal fragments, like they were shards of glass themselves. Her paintings, upon closer inspection, reveal fabric she’s dyed herself, machine-stitched linen panels sewn together, and collaged shreds from that seem to burst with joy. “What I love about stained glass as a motif,” Wilson explained, “is how it mirrors my own technique: cutting up and repurposing pieces that get fused together.”
It’s impossible to extricate the theme of stained glass from its religious framework, and though Wilson grew up atheist, the visible devotional reverence is intentional. In a piece appropriately entitled “Stained Glass Vision,” a brown-skinned woman opens her palm, one arm jauntily akimbo, to reveal floating, gem-colored shapes hovering above her hand. She’s surrounded by kaleidoscopic mosaics of glass, while an overturned clay pot reading “LOOK HERE” seems to give birth to an incomprehensibly massive plant. “Stained Glass Vision” hangs from a wooden hanger and has the effect of a tapestry displaying something holy; here, it’s the woman, smiling as if entertained by her own magic, who is all-powerful.
Women are everywhere in Wilson’s paintings. In her own take on the “Three Graces” — she frequently upends and pays homage to ancient Greek art — the Graces are red, yellow, brown, and support each other protectively. In “Inside Out,” the main figure, a woman, is silhouetted, gazing at a triptych of images: yellow-framed images of a couple kissing, a rainbow of color, and a brown woman with a stained-glass umbrella (nearby, a wood-crafted parasol that looks more like a giant flower rests on the floor, waiting to catch the light).
Wilson’s first solo show in New York was called The Stained Glass Ceiling (held at Bellwether Gallery, now closed), and one might imagine that in one sense, the glass is stained by the women who force themselves against it. “I am not interested in ascending in terms of corporate jobs,” Wilson said. “It’s about getting rid of a paternal, patriarchal world view, about zooming out enough to see how women can rule and be our glorious selves.”
Wilson’s 12-foot tall muslin display, “Stained-Glass Sisters,” depicts two women, who look an awful lot like Wilson’s water goddess, facing each other lovingly, a soft and yellowish pearl resting between their outreached fingers. The work is an allusion to Audre Lorde’s essay, “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” which is about the margarine rations during World War II, when packets of the white butter imitation were distributed with pellets of yellow food coloring. The pellets had to be warmed, softened, kneaded, and gently rolled into the margarine, until the color spread throughout. “I find the erotic such a kernel within myself,” Lorde writes. “When released from its intense and constrained pellet, it flows through and colors my life with a kind of energy that heightens and sensitizes and strengthens all my experience.”
Wilson proposes a new kind of deity — a sensuous, introspective woman whose strength is mysterious only because it’s potentially endless — and a series of prismatic churches in which she may be exalted. This same enigmatic, feminine energy is found in the water, its own kind of temple. In “Reflection Pool Near Nogal Peak,” the exhibition’s single landscape and the only piece with a dark palette, the titular pool has an unknown depth; it may have no floor at all. One imagines that the Virginia Key goddess might arise from that pool, bigger than ever.
Paula Wilson: Salty + Fresh continues at Emerson Dorsch (5900 NW 2nd Ave, Miami) through May 13.