The artist says he has always been honest about where he grew up. “That’s why I have UES [Upper East Side] tattooed on my wrist,” he says. “No one wants to admit they are from the Upper East Side. But it’s better to be grateful for what you have.
In some of the neighborhoods where Gaia works, it can be “weird to be a white kid from the Upper East Side.” But at the same time, he says he connects with the residents in those communities on many different levels.
Gaia, who studied sculpture at the Maryland Institute College of Art, lives in Brooklyn and in Baltimore. He chooses to paint under the name of the Greek earth goddess partly because he identifies with the “Gaia hypothesis” formulated by scientist James Lovelock, which theorizes that Earth is an organism infected with people. “It’s almost as if we are like a big cold,” Gaia says. “The humans are the disease.”
In his art, which has an end-of-the-world aura, Gaia confronts issues of environmental degradation, gentrification, immigration, segregation and urban development. He is well known for his black-and-white portraits of city planners, rich men, politicians who changed cities, and of humans morphing into animals.
Gaia’s work has been commissioned and pasted in cities including Buenos Aires, Seoul, London and Amsterdam. In Baltimore, the artist has drawn attention for his murals of a leather-covered rooster holding the head of John the Baptist, and for donating 100 signed limited-edition prints of his work “The Raven (Forevermore)” to the Edgar Allan Poe House, which had lost its funding from the city.
The installation at the BMA features two works pasted on walls in the newly renovated contemporary wing. One piece features portraits of 11 men and women from the nearby Remington neighborhood, their faces appearing to float on a linoleum block print background of Baltimore rowhouses — connected and at the same time disconnected from the setting.
On an opposite wall is a portrait of a woman bathed in an orange glow, holding a ripe mango, which was inspired by Gauguin’s painting “Woman With a Mango.”
“Gaia was interested in the idea that Gauguin was a French artist who traveled to Tahiti and produced a body of work about a culture that wasn’t his own. And lived in a culture that wasn’t really his own,” says Kristen Hileman, the museum’s curator of contemporary art. “I think Gaia has self-awareness to know that is part of his role as an artist.”