Relocating Context and Comparison in Rashid Johnson: Hail We Now Sing Joy at the Kemper Museum

There is a noticeable recurrence in the art press comparing Rashid Johnson with Jean-Michel Basquiat. A 2015 Johnson review in Pahaidon, and again in late 2016, looks at the superficial markings of both artists, leaving out the cultural subtexts from each.

The latter’s ascendance as an art market heavyweight has added a competitive layer that holds him up before all else.  To be seen as an Artist and not a Black Artist.  A concept that is Basquiat’s most enduring quality. Comparing the two is a scrim that hides the idea of how much easier it is to lump Black artists under one umbrella. It insinuates there is a lack of individual ideologies; everything is about the same experience, traveled upon the same road.  There is no lack, what does exist is the failure to nuance the subtle differences that define, rather than align, these artists.

Johnson’s work in this exhibition at Kemper Museum, specifically Antoine’s Organ, appears to respond to the Art Press’ desire to pigeonhole Johnson and his work.  Within this piece I am imagining his intent; ideas and objects that state, ‘I am the artist, these are my materials, and if anyone is going to pigeonhole my work, it will be me.’  The implications of this work have only just begun to take root;  a colleague closer to Johnson’s work than myself provided analysis that it is art-making “about anxiety experienced by black people in Post Black America.” These ideas need time and space before they are fully understood. One message to glean is to stop offering superficial comparison and instead attempt to express some vulnerability that absorbs the message and doesn’t propagandize the messenger.

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View of Rashid Johnson: Hail We Now Sing Joy, 2017, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Photo: E.G. Schempf

It would be wrong to ignore why these comparisons are made in the first place; to an extent, they’re valid. Both artists represents a cultural zeitgeist that underscores their eras so beautifully, with languages so different from one another. Basquiat delivers a eulogy of New York’s final decline; before the city’s gentrification a decade later that swept away the ethnic swell which made the city organically diverse and worthy of a shared growth that is no longer present. Johnson presents the sum totals of this “corporate rehabilitation”, not just in New York, but nationwide. A glacial movement of the historical countenance for Black lives and experiences that are the paradigm shift.

Rashid Johnson: Hail We Now Sing Joy does not necessarily elicit an indictment of  cultural stigmatization of people of color. Johnson is more subliminal than that; there are strong remarks everywhere, but as we cling to their surface value, that remain difficult to decipher.

This ideology may be better explained through the configuration as it is seen at the Kemper Museum, whose architecturally challenging space actually benefits the work. Ideas that might germinate new thought are in fact, shut down each time you depart one gallery space and enter the next. It becomes necessary to begin an emotional negotiation all over again. Profoundly exhausting, I cannot imagine what it means to be a person of color in a world where pursuit and retreat are an occurrence in forever mode.

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View of Rashid Johnson: Hail We Now Sing Joy, 2017, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Photo: E.G. Schempf

If you cease to experience these rooms as things or ‘what’ and instead see them as ‘why’ and ‘how’ you will come away with a better understanding of the ideas being delivered rather than objects on display. Johnson’s use of domestic materials  (shea butter, wood, ceramic tile, plants and, a thick mixture of what he terms, “cosmic slop”– black West African soap and wax), all have the ability to be wiped clean from the ceramic tile upon which they’re placed. Or removed from the table. Or the glass smashed. Or the shea butter melted. Or the paintings painted over. Or the plants taken away, one by one. Disappearing the object and rendering the subject as an unperson. It can all so easily slip into a memory hole. Therein lies Johnson’s biggest commentary; how the Black experience in America can be so easily erased. Should this idea be presented more loudly or is it at exactly the right volume?  This goes back to my thought that these questions should not be answered today, but instead await discussion by a generation still to come.

The human capacity for critical thinking is not a fixed quality and will atrophy if ignored. Our present administration, in so short a time, has shown itself to be a wellspring of ignorance and racism, flexing their finely honed powers of distraction. Johnson’s work requires that you separate yourself from those distractions- even momentarily. The spaces in the exhibition requires that you consider larger questions about such entrenched realities. The fact of living and making through this body requires sober and attuned comprehension.

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View of Rashid Johnson: Hail We Now Sing Joy, 2017, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Photo: E.G. Schempf

 

Rashid Johnson: Hail We Now Sing Joy runs from February 9 –  May 21, 2017 at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art

 

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View of Rashid Johnson: Hail We Now Sing Joy, 2017, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Photo: E.G. Schempf

 




The Drowning World of Travis Pratt’s There/Then

Teetering on the knife edge of our ecosystem’s collapse, there is a slow-churning sensuality in There/Then, Travis Pratt’s new paintings at Greenlease Gallery  Are we through anticipating and ready to take honest stock of our environmental situation or will we remain ignorant to this plight? This is a deeper question to ponder. For right now, Travis Pratt is documenting how and where the effects of globalization and climate change are making itself known. Clues, traces and footprints of what is now at the ecological fore have been present for years. Pratt does not over dramatize nor does he minimize his impressions. They are straightforward, giving his audience a chance to see up close for themselves how the ancillary and tertiary effects of global warming are perceived.

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Shack by Travis Pratt (Image courtesy of the artist)

Pratt initiated this conversation with The Joplin Paintings (Parts I and II) and this body of work continues the discussion. One can deny that something is happening to our environment if their belief system excludes the reality.  Is it willful ignorance or propositional knowledge? Each series of work espouses, whether intentionally or not, America as a decaying empire. Our carbon footprint is already manipulating nature’s Master Plan. Couple this with an incoming administration that considers global warming a fantasy and only then might we finally comprehend our limited choices.

There/Then culminates a six-week visit to Deep Creek off St. John’s River in Geneva, Florida, north of the Everglades, Pratt unintentionally approaches our ruin as a feeling of exhausted debauchery seen in long, swooping brushstrokes that dominate the canvas, sucking up all the oxygen in the room. It’s sensuous with a maw that is a bit used up, Not unlike the Everglades, or any wilderness, a fear of the unknown is instilled where one is curious, but trepidacious, before taking a first step inside. Still, it’s a place I wouldn’t mind spending an hour or two.

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Caution and Deep Creek by Travis Pratt (Image courtesy of the artist)

Consider Caution as a detail for the larger tableau of Deep Creek, insomuch the mark-making in each bears similarities. The more I think about the way Pratt gives us color the less my insistence of the acid yellow strikethroughs were phosphorous fog from the Everglades and think instead of something closer to radiation.  It is keeping more in line with the void presented here; somewhat unearthly, or worse still, of a post-apocalyptic surface. Perspective changes in the heavy Florida heat and it becomes a battle to see your way through the sultry stickiness. Decisions are made stemming from how quickly one can get back to the shade. But in an ecosystem that goes from beach-like to swampy, one never truly disengages from the reality of warmth. A root system is shown here, tied precariously to the rising waters of the Everglades, illuminates how the local ecosystem is destroying vast land masses. This is related to the exact problem of rising tides faced by the state of Florida itself. Pratt captures elements that aren’t necessarily the most provocative; they are an ordinariness of dying pastorals and therein lies the full impact of this series.

The thing that Travis Pratt does so well is convey a sense of time through the flatness of his paintings. Each one is a perfectly contained record of time. Although impossible to fully discern, the first marks exist with the last marks. Wheels takes us in different directions while the truck remains grounded and the stroller floats off on its own. There’s a myriad of symbols here; the ethereal gravity of fatherhood while the drudgery of everyday living forces our feet (or wheels) on the ground.  Here too, are the effects of globalization and its adverse effects not only on the population, but the psyche as well. The Everglades, and specifically quiet enclaves when extended families can raise their clans without outside influence, are seen in their twilight moment of existence.

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Wheels by Travis Pratt (Image courtesy of the artist)

Stop!  Let’s take this out for another spin and consider a different outcome. A long time is being spent envisioning “the forthcoming ‘breakdown of nature’”. What about the alternative; that we don’t go out with a bang but a whimper? Modest change, fashioned incrementally, is a stronger survival tactic and it’s an opportunity to forego, or at least acknowledge and understand the forces of eventuality are stronger than us. Therein lies the real seductive force; allowing change to occur. Pratt is portraying the slow movement of inevitability; a whimpering debtor rather than a gulping bankrupt. Pratt is a documentarian about the end of a life we assumed, or hoped, would last forever. And you can see how that’s not feasible or sound thinking. Even if we screwed up this planet, it isn’t permanently rendered fallow. We can prefer to think of this as preparing for the next wave of caretakers. Let’s hope they do things differently.

 




Fathomers‎ Fun Problems w/ Smart People: A Book Opening

To mark the launch of Problems and Provocations: Grand Arts 1995-2015, transcendental tour guide Timothy “Speed” Levitch leads a dynamic cruise through creative practice, as artists, writers, and thinkers from Grand Arts’ constellation take the stage to puzzle out problems of risk, magic, pleasure, ghosts, and what comes after art. Come find us in NY, KC and/or LA!

KANSAS CITY: OCT 20

Our KC stop takes place at Atkins Auditorium, as part of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s celebration of Diwali, Festival of Lights.

Guest appearances by Anthony Baab, John Salvest, Cody Critcheloe, Frank Shaw, Mary Kay, Megan Mantia, J. Ashley Miller, Shannon Michalski, Neal Wilson, Charlie Mylie and Jarrett Mellenbruch, and an exclusive multiple by Spurse — as well as special guests from the GA staff, including April Pugh, Summer Farrar, and Natasha Karsk.

5:30-7 p.m. Oct. 20, 2016
Atkins Auditorium, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art




F**k the Lollipops, Justin Beachler Hasn’t Got Time for Suckers

I profess a bias in my analysis of Beachler; he became a friend whose work I have been following and discussing for several years, starting with Smut Compositions (loved it!) and Srimary Ptructures (not so much.). Since then, a respectful relationship has emerged. I began to care about what he was doing. He doesn’t simply choose images at random, he and I share a thirst for historical referencing as it relates to pop culture. There is imagery on his Instagram that runs the gamut of mainstream seriousness and absurdities. It is why I find it easier than others to pick at the intricacies he projects in his work and also why I believe he isn’t going at this willy-nilly; there is a long-running end goal that as the internet portrays, has no end.

Justin Beachler’s new work at Haw Contemporary, Old & in the Way, is a pastiche of cultural recognition synthesized for today’s mindset.  Beachler has a social media presence that is a bit like rummaging through a thrift store run by intellectual lunatics (Think Brad Pitt’s character in 12 Monkeys). He is simultaneously mocking and tossing out the old formalist ideas of how one might look at paintings and other media in favor of a heartier “hunter-gatherer aesthetic.” The progression of his work embraces a strong personal philosophy that examines how the ideas and objects found in cultural ephemera are affecting our psyche; the way we think, feel and act.

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Image by Tim Amundsen

This show in particular — part of the gallery’s Enable Program — was a departure for Haw’s normal commercial focus.  Instead, showcasing work of younger artists putting light on experimentation. The one concession given to Old & In The Way was the burning of incense that permeated the back part of the ground floor space and led you upstairs to Beachler’s work like a Greek siren out of Euripdes, but once they burned out were never re-lit and that’s a shame.

For Old & In The Way, I was expecting a continuation of his online menagerie of image caching, but here he holds fast to one train of thought that delivered. He offers an idea based almost entirely from Grateful Dead love, circa 1974, consisting of assorted media; including painting, found material and sculpture. This group of new work is probably the happiest I’ve ever seen from Beachler. There is less nihilism and a more focused tone that fulfills a statement on the state of things in this societal moment.

Here, he lays bare all the things we think are semi-important;  the business model of capitalism, foodie culture, cannabis culture, and stock imagery aglow with radioactive pinks, greens, yellows and blues. There was a lot of reminiscing; with wondering about the work’s meaning rather than observing it and moving on, with some exceptions.

Not Fade Away is the best example of such an idea; the creases in the canvas appear to have been screen printed, showing the concentration devoted to the celebration of an error in original form becoming something exciting to new eyes. And it also shows how many people, at the opening I attended, focused on this one example rather than standing back and understanding the idea in full. But if one looked closely, dead center is a hibiscus flower. It was so exciting to discover this beauty hidden in plain sight that I could not stop pointing it out to people who appeared more interested in the nostalgic spin art and tie-dyed elements. Beachler presents the rare Nudie in a closet of leisure suits, but few cared. There were several conversations about other works in the space and I felt it became a case of not seeing the forest for the trees.  Do not think of only the surface element, but the intent that can generate a conversation.

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Not Fade Away | Image by Tim Amundson

The Haight presents a similar concept to augment this theory. Where t-shirts like this were found everywhere (I had a few!), now they are nostalgic, recalling what it represented and our longing for it; a period where getting high was an act of defiance in pursuit of personal freedom from a losing war being fed its young. Skulls & Roses and Alligator, with their recognizable context, play into feelings these harbingers are a constant. Slavery is Freedom. War is Peace.

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The Haight | Image by Tim Amundson

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Skull & Roses | Image by Tim Amundson

 

All of the materials for this show were either scanned from online sources or found/bought. By spending a long time in the space, I observed people of all ages having many interpretations. Several viewers wrongly mocked the  DIY-ness of Scum Rigs,  the multi-unit bong/sculptural piece made from plastic 2-liter soft drink bottles that was altogether serviceable. However, it is precisely the point of so much that Beachler observes. With this he presents a “Duchampian” readymade that is — as he would put — a “middle finger emoji” to the institutional machine itself.   I am afraid we are headed towards weed culture elitism similar to the foodie’s pedantic oration of “flavor profiles.” But here, Beachler heads it off at the pass, rallying against such nonsense before it’s even begun.

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Scum Rigs | Image by Tim Amundson

The Internet is either a vast wasteland of ideas or a looking glass.  It has successfully bridged the generation gap and from this are to be found an enormity of concepts and a new way of thinking. Some web-based work that doesn’t necessarily propose a strong theory of ideas can appear random and not useful, either as knowledge or information. It is important this art making is considerate of the way we parse data online through Google Searches and endless headlines on the Huffington Post. This recognition of form is  I consider Justin Beachler’s ongoing practice  to be among the more serious artists; he presents a succinct visual language, not random data. When you examine his imagery, rather than scroll past it, he discusses the absurdities of the world from then and now. The things one takes seriously is ridiculous, while the serious is sometimes glossed ove

There was a time when I thought Beachler ought to shy away from the Dan Colen/Joe Bradley axis of low-culture ephemera. But after watching his theories develop and take root, he is headed in the right direction. Beachler sees truisms masking deeper, more contentious feelings as we confront a harsh reality and this may be the rationale one holds onto as they skim image after image. It is grim, almost pointless, if you aren’t willing to pontificate on its meaning. He isn’t trying to fool us; he shows us that we have already been fooled.

The hypocrisy is still there to be construed, differently orchestrated than before and Justin Beachler is the right impresario for this moment.

 




Shadows and Light in the Court of the Crimson King: Annual Charlotte Street Award Exhibition at H&R Block Artspace

 

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Rejoinder and Membrane by Jill Downen Photo by EG Schempf Image Courtesy of H&R Block Artspace

The perception of high emotional tension culminates into loneliness at Charlotte Street Foundations’ 2015 Visual Art Award Exhibition at H&R Block Artspace. After receiving an unrestricted $10,000 cash award, artists Jill Downen, Rashawn Griffin, and Misha Kligman present new work in response to these awards. With the precedent the awards set in the community, there seems to be a blind date aspect to everything here. When face to face with the work created, I am less affected with the works initial impressions. It appears Downen and Griffin are both making attempts at redrawing the boundaries of public space. The ways in which we maneuver around such work, if such work even has any affect on how we exist in its midst, or if we see them as curiosities to observe and dismiss. Kligman’s work presents us with different impressions.

To the uninitiated, the front room of H&R Block Artspace has a two-and-a-half story ceiling and most work in it takes on grand overtones. This is the setting for Downen’s Rejoinder, a tall gold-leafed curtain, that hangs gently swaying as people move around it. Its shimmer gives off the tonal qualities of flickering flame and even the parts where the gold seems to be flaking off allow quick moment of being able to see to the other side. Much like watching a fire and getting a brief glimpse of what is being consumed, yet the curtain’s size doesn’t do its detail justice. Instead it is lost in the chatter of the room and overpowers the scale of the other work in the space.

Downen explains Threshold – the work in this series – as the structural effects of lightning striking her home. I can see how the natural elements play into her work, those elements are few and far between here, especially when viewed without a crowd. This gold sheet sits flaccid; the flame has gone out, nothing is consumed. The water element of Membrane, Downen’s cobalt colored  tiles, are not much more than a backdrop. Its presence in the space is timid and if it is intended to act as a metaphor for water here then we are well and safe from ever getting wet by it. The perspective is more of an outlier, an element that has been tamed and controlled.

Inscribe by Jill Downen Photo by EG Shempf Image Courtesy of H&R Block Artspace

Inscribe by Jill Downen Photo by EG Schempf Image Courtesy of H&R Block Artspace

The most electrical component, and the most provocative of this trio, is Inscribe, a gently protruding plaster work. As a sculptor, Downen has the power to persuade her audience by stirring up feelings within a space by inserting structures of thought and meaning. I see that idea best invoked here. Its quiet existence is silent and altogether powerful, much like an electric current. But it’s silence is also something of a problem in that one almost happens upon it by accident, when it seems to be center of all that Downen describes. Her three works deserve a modicum of conversation, but they are almost too passive with each other to engender a deep emotional impact on the visitor. A simple reorganization of the room might invoke different feelings of space and empathy.

Installation shot of Misha Kligman’s work Photo by EG Shempf Image Courtesy of H&R Block Artspace

Installation shot of Misha Kligman’s work Photo by EG Schempf Image Courtesy of H&R Block Artspace

For Misha Kligman, softer hues and a more pastoral imagery are slowly replacing his past work that once depicted strong political assertions. Kligman’s technique is not to be ignored, he is a fine draftsman,  but I am not yet fully convinced of this color palette. This seems to be capturing a transitional period for his work different from his Spring 2015 solo show at the 1522 Saint Louis Gallery in Kansas City. He merged his earlier, more somber palette of greys, blacks and graphite with a stream of color that took us out of the shadows and into a brighter light. That show displayed how through color he is segueing into another realm of storytelling and I felt that was some of his best work to date. Remnants of the Russian diaspora, of which his previous work was so elegant and sophisticated, and spoke to a strong personal feeling of emigration, were still present, but began to look more hopeful. Looking at his newer work in the H&R Block Artspace, I see this as continued experimentation and is worthy of pursuit. This work is the right direction but there are wrong turns that need to be addressed.

Grasp by Misha Kligman Photo by EG Schempf Image Courtesy of H&R Block Artspace

Grasp by Misha Kligman Photo by EG Schempf Image Courtesy of H&R Block Artspace

Grasp is one example of where the in-between changes are most obvious. The shorts of the reclining child are unfinished. Left without creases and therefore presents us without human movement, like an action figure no longer played with. Kligman’s usual attention to detail is lacking. Whereas he had previously taken us deeper and deeper into his mind of personal struggles and the trauma of history, I now a see a more comfortable stance in subject matter that perhaps tells us his personal traumas have been resolved. His landscape and portraits are happier and the jagged edge of past conversation is no longer present.

These particular figures and landscapes take on a more painterly gesture compared to past contributions that penetrate a personal history. Now, we see landscapes as the background. Perhaps this is Kilgman’s way of saying he has chosen to move past his own history and embrace the more comfortable aspects of his life. Any sense of emotional intensity is subdued with new color choices and presented on larger canvases that may take up space, but fail to impart a dialogue that ought to accompany it. There is little here that stands out as unique or intense. A sense of mortality and struggle has been replaced by sentimentality.

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Dimple Installation shot Rashawn Griffin Photo by EG Schempf Image Courtesy of H&R Block Artspace

Perhaps there is some deeper academic prose in Rashawn Griffin’s work I am supposed to understand, but I find his work extremely difficult to navigate and thus, appreciate.  Sometimes the best intended ideas always have a key from which everything grows. No matter what is said, or how it is perceived, an underlying compass must be present and on Griffin’s conceptual map. That directional guide does not make itself known. When I walked into the space I expected to see the same openness of feeling and expression that I saw with Downen and Kligman, but that is not the case. This work is shut down and locked up.

The centerpiece of everything, Dimple, is a free-standing rectangular structure where the indifference with the quality of its creation is obvious. Little here has changed from past work; there is no story here that I can discern.  Looking closely, mirrors paneling the structure’s exterior skew our voyeuristic tendencies and one can imagine the countless selfies taken there. This is the beginning of what I see as sloppy, sometimes lazy, craftsmanship throughout.

Inside, the room is no more revealing than walking into a darkened closet; my sense of space is not altered as much as it simply feels clumsy. A dim blinking light at the bottom quadrant inside Dimple reveals little to conjure any sense of space. The feeling of being in an isolation tank is about as far as one can take this, without the quietude said tank provides. Another writer described his structures as feeling as one might inside of a sex club; but from experience, those encounters proffer a sense of danger and a groin-level charge that I have never gotten from Griffin’s spaces. These structures do not offer anything in the way of sexual excitement. They are dark, awkward spaces with no sensuality.

As I see Griffin’s work, there is a desire to impart some sort of chaos in the ways in which we commune with the space, on the other hand, this implied frenzy is betrayed by his embodiment of proportion and form. This makes the incessant broken angles and sloppy edges impossible to overlook.  The walls of fabric are mis-stitched, probably intentionally, but then one contends with the spare threads that were never snipped clean. I cannot trust that these choices are part of the intended artistic vision. The Plexiglass mirroring that covers the stand-alone installation are of varying heights that betray the controlled tightness I have seen with Griffin’s other box rooms.

Untitled  by Reshawn Griffin Photo by EG Schempf Image Courtesy of H&R Block Artspace

Untitled  by Rashawn Griffin Photo by EG Schempf Image Courtesy of H&R Block Artspace

Untitled, the small orange anteroom is possibly the most bleak to observe. A readymade side gallery with little more to offer than jarring colors does not dissuade me from seeing – again – how hastily the fabric-covered walls are assembled. Inside are quickly rendered pieces that embody a sense that surface and concept are at war with one another. The overall look and feel is taciturn. As for the placement of fern-like flowers inserted into the floor in various places, it questions whether Griffin realizes just how cold and unfulfilled this work really is and needed to warm things up a bit, but they come across more as an afterthought and I have a hard time reconciling their existence.

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On opening night fellow audience members filled the space with warmth and celebratory cheer. Observed interactions with the work showcased a sense of wonderment with the look and feel of everything. My concerns were confirmed after viewing the exhibition again on a quieter day. There is an overarching sense of coldness or detachment. The problem I have is this work is the set up itself, coming off the tail end of a large artist fellowship award, the work has a preset mode of operation to impress the local audience. Unfortunately due to what seems like awkward time constraints, many of the works come off with a lack of ecstasy. This is the date my college friends set me up on; high expectations, handsome from a distance, and all the right credentials. In visual conversation with this work my eye wanders, looking around for a better prospect. We are not a match. Overall, The Charlotte Street Foundations’ 2015 Visual Art Award Exhibition gives a lot of compelling surface impressions that do not unravel and become something more.




The Citadel and the Circus

 

First Friday at 20th and Baltimore.

First Friday at 20th and Baltimore.

Imagine being inside a video game where you outmaneuver throngs of Sunday drivers on foot; the goal is to get past these slow walking opponents to enter various doors.  Now add a zig-zagging, baby stroller and panting, unhappy 70lb dog and you’ve got the ongoing game referred to as First Friday, played monthly in Kansas City’s Crossroads Arts District. I am dismayed how an evening of art openings has devolved into a circus maximus of food trucks and penny ante shopping; dropping dollars, swiping Squares, and mediocre music playing everywhere. Actually I’m not sure if it’s the ever-present retail element or the cheapness of the goods offered that has me more upset. Lately, I’ve noticed corporate sponsorships – Acura automobiles and local real estate companies are the most prevalent – creeping up on banners and street closings. I wonder if inside all those gallery doors being passed and left unopened are the toils of hard-working artists, attempting to ramp up the cultural factor but instead being steamrolled by endless displays of cheap earrings and artisanal cupcakes. Our city’s over excitement of an evening out has belittled the cultural integrity that it has supplanted.

The open invitation to see and feel new art in an open-door setting is what keeps the Kansas City cultural ecosystem unique and vibrant. The galleries here can be a perfect learning tool for novices; unlike visiting a gallery in New York City, where the attitude behind the counter can be a little icy for those not in the know. If one wanted to learn here, they could receive a mini arts education from gallerists or the artists themselves. This was my exact experience when I visited Belger Arts Center on a particularly steamy and crowded First Friday. The Belger, as it’s affectionately known, is located in the central east Crossroads, slightly away from the main strip  It’s a multi-story former warehouse with an enormous ceramics residency program and one of the very few venues to display large-scale works.  Case in point: a few years back, I got to sit amongst Tables and Angels, a Terry Allen installation with Gallery Assistant Mo Dickens. First and foremost, Dickens is a humble individual, but I personally believe the role he plays in the community as well as the Belger, is precisely the sort of support that enables Kansas City to shine brightly for artists of all disciplines and stages of their career. He has a fine ability to talk forever about a work with a wealth of art historical knowledge spoken through an informal delivery. On this evening, Dickens again was available to guide myself and artist Adriane Herman on a personal tour of People in the Belger Collection (on view through October 3, 2015.)

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Manuel Neri – “Untitled”, 1991, Bronze with paint. Image courtesy of The Belger

 

Inside the Belger it is quiet and very civilized; one is always able to stand still and converse about the work without being jostled by someone heading to a food truck. From time to time a visitor might chime in and join the conversation. To me, those who visit the Belger are a savvy group, not any more knowledgeable than the next person, per se, but willing to discuss art, and that is what has been depleted from the First Friday experience.

It’s hard not to be impressed when you walk into a space that is blissfully ignorant of popularly discussed trends in art collecting and collects what it wants because they want it.  With that mindset, it is difficult not to believe one has wandered into a small, well-curated museum. Frankly, after encountering so much “Mickey Mouse” sophomoric work of late, I was yearning for an adult conversation. I am all for experiencing and educating myself on the latest fads and ideas, but there appears to be a moment of laziness in some art-making corners of the city. What I have seen from some emerging artists has been a recycling of trending imagery that needn’t be repeated. If the grand gesture is to be assumed, then there must be the good work to back it up.  With that in mind, I must remark on That Used To Be Us, a recent installation at Haw Contemporary (which didn’t occur on a First Friday, but a Friday nonetheless). This gallery, usually so formal, was filled with cutouts and cheaply printed inkjet images of nude male forms along with historical and cultural figures; a spectacle which attempted to precipitate a serious conversation, but instead fell flat as contrived and sloppy. Inside that same space was the installation Drunk and Stoned by Kansas City based artist collective Blanket Undercover. The artists, Megan Mantia and Leone Reeves sat atop keg-filled pedestals, getting drunk and stoned- heavily documented for reasons unbeknownst to me- that elicited uncomfortable laughter from the onlookers.

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Image of Drunk and Stoned performance

Admittedly, I was intrigued, but wholly from schadenfreude than anything else. If MTV Spring Break and Jersey Shore were the points of discussion, then they succeeded. It returns to my original complaint that I am always more interested in the ‘why’ than the ‘what.’

Returning to the Belger, there is a narrative here that is the cumulative efforts of work that leans more closely towards linear storytelling. The argument of acknowledgement and discussion appear more organic. However,That Used To Be Us was more concerned with drafting a story out of the work selected rather than selecting work that unveiled a tighter narrative.

People in the Belger Collection demands a sharp eye. Dickens peppered myself and Adrienne Herman with questions and ideas about Douglas Bond’s Bathroom with Boots and Gun, (1973) that this lonely looking scenario had more life in its space than if one simply passed it by. That para-American scenario bookended Duke and Duchess of Windsor, (Herb Snitzer,1963), a photograph of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor from the early 1960s.a subject I knew far too much about and we stood in front of it for quite a long time parsing out the narrative. As we did with so many of the works encountered.

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Throughout the mini-tour, the conversation never lagged. Dickens stopped and had us pause to discuss so much, looking at things with a more critical eye. He did that with just about every work, recounting a story of a particular artist here, imparting significant art history there. He is the professor everyone wishes they had in undergraduate school.

We encountered a variety of work; including Jennifer Onofrio Fornes, Renee Stout, Larry Rivers and a subtle Picasso etching.  What I noticed about some of these artists, what made them admirable, collectible and worthy of lengthy discussions and debate was that their work all stood behind the artists individual philosophy. No trends burned to the wick that I could see.This is the caliber of work one finds here and it is less revered than it is loved and appreciated. Nothing is on a pedestal, except the ceramics.  My favorite joke to make is when someone asks where the washrooms are, I point to a hall and say ‘Turn left at the Jasper Johns.”  That’s how an art experience ought to be; casual, personable and accessible.

Conversation about art will always remain the core of what a First Friday in Kansas City represents. Belger Arts Center is not the only place; many such spaces are a respite from the flash-fried carnival just outside. While it has been diluted and distracted by a street fair atmosphere, one can find the intelligence and beauty if they are willing to seek out the experience.