"A hundred years ago, if you told people that they would have something in their pocket that would make an image that would go all over the world immediately, they would think it was witchcraft."
So says internationally recognized Kansas City artist and provocateur Peregrine Honig.
If that's the case, then Honig's been up to a whole lot of witchcraft in her artwork lately.
Unicorn, her first solo show in Kansas City in the past 10 years, is full of paintings created specifically with selfies in mind.
They're portraits, but they're all background and composition, made of Germanic flowers combined with pieces of mirrored disco balls. The place where the person usually goes has been intentionally left blank. Visitors are meant to stand in front of the paintings, so that their heads line up precisely with the empty spaces on the canvases before snapping selfies with their phones, making themselves the subjects of portraits painted in the lush, deep pigments of old European masterworks.
The cheap and the precious, the beautiful and the obscene, what's superficial and what's meaningful, the private thought and the public gaze. These are tensions Honig loves to play with, not just in her art, but in her life.
The 38-year-old artist is closely identified with Kansas City, and acts as a driving force in Kansas City's art community. But she was born and raised in San Francisco by parents from the east coast. She moved to Kansas City on her own as a teenager.
She is now surrounded by family here. She's opened a business, the lingerie shop Birdies (where her limited edition Royals-inspired undies were recently confiscated by Homeland Security for copyright infringement) on West 18th Street. She's preparing to open a second business on that same block: All Is Fair, a store with undergarments tailored to the needs of her transgender clientele.
That trendy downtown retail strip is one she's helped to develop and establish, through her business and her presence, as well as projects like the annual West 18th Street Fashion Show, which started more than a decade ago as a kooky little street party and has evolved into a high-profile citywide event with a runway, professional models, sponsors and VIP seating.
Kansas Citians who didn't already know Honig in 2010 became aware of her artwork through a reality television show on Bravo. The artist came in second place.
But more significantly, she lived and worked, for weeks, on camera. Everything she said and did for that time was fair game as possible material for television audiences.
"In that experience," she says, "I learned the power of objectifying myself."
Which brings us back to the selfie.
"People think of selfies as these sort of narcissistic acts, but the reality is, there's a space between asking people to look at you, and asking people to see you," she explains. "And so with these paintings, there was this beautiful self-consciousness of people choosing the image they wanted to stand in front of, and who they wanted to become in this instant narrative."
"When we see a selfie, we're just looking at the skin of what's going on," she continues. "And especially with people who have a hard time being seen, they want to see themselves and know what they look like when they're going through these experiences. So when we hear that a teenager has taken a selfie at her grandmother's funeral, it isn't that she's being disrespectful. She just wants to see what she looks like when she's sad."
Honig's most recent work has been a three-dimensional self-portrait. It's a small sculptural figure, one-eighth the artist's size, depicting the artist, nude, holding up a cellphone and taking a selfie.
"It's very meta," she acknowledges.
She wanted to capture herself doing what she considers to be "the most vulnerable contemporary thing going on."
Both the paintings in the Unicorn exhibit and her three-dimensional nude self-portrait are inspired by a Rumi poem.
"Truth was a mirror in the hands of God," Honig says, summarizing the poem. "And it fell and broke in two pieces, and everyone picked up a piece and looked into it and thought they saw the truth. In this way, I feel like I've created these portals, that however you make yourself is what you see is what you are ... is your truth."