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

 




Intimate Strangers: A Response to Dawit L. Petros and Emmanuel Iduma’s conversation at H&R Block Artspace

At H&R Block Artspace, Dawit L. Petros’ The Stranger’s Notebook, brings a conversation that asks what it means to be a stranger to other people, places and archives. The exhibition consists of photographic, video, and sound based works that documents Petros’ 13 month journey through Africa and Europe: from Lagos, Nigeria to Amsterdam and then to Italy and Morocco. It provokes an inner-conversation about being a stranger; as a large part of our lives are spent in transition. There are strangers I pass by on the street, share a space with, and even anticipate interaction with. Recognizing my ability to blend into the background of others’ lives, I understand that I am the stranger too.

I observed the conversation at the Artspace between Petros and Emmanuel Iduma (art critic and founder of the collective, Invisible Borders). Iduma worked with Petros for a portion of his journey while documenting The Stranger’s Notebook. Both investigating similar ideas within their practice, Iduma asks Petros these questions:

What does it mean to be an intimate stranger? How do you reflect on this experience of traveling? How do you write in respect to the manner of this fleeting kind of movement and experiences? Most importantly, How do you think about presentation in response to mode of travel?

Dawit explains that the starting point of his work was an image of a circus elephant named Snyder, which he encountered in Salina, Kansas.

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An image of Snyder the circus elephant, killed in 1920 in Salina, Kansas. Photograph courtesy of Dawit L. Petros.

Assumptions made about this elephant being from Africa (which it wasn’t) kindled curiosity in Dawit about images like this, where its complexity causes the viewer to place assumptions within the story of an image. Throughout his journey, Petros found himself at the center of “stranger-ness,” unaware of or had no access to the truth in the narratives he was facing. Having experienced migration himself as a refugee, he is researching and considering the experiences we all have of different journeys at different privileges. The presence of this show brought the opportunity for him to investigate his sense of distance from others as a stranger by circulating evidence, via his personal and encountered archives, of shared compassion, knowledge, and perspectives.

Historical Rupture by Dawit L. Petros. Image courtesy of the H&R Block Artspace.

Historical Rupture by Dawit L. Petros. Image courtesy of the H&R Block Artspace.

This piece, Historical Rupture, became a central point of the show because of its reference to the act of making assumptions while disrupting a linear arrangement.  In this work I found a direct correlation to how we look and then digest information to build a sense of the past. The fragments dispersed and not arranged within a chronological structure create questions about what can be seen with no clear answers. These are photographs of the ocean’s turbulence, rest, and horizon, but there are a few photographs of a kind of material and other unfocused images that suggest the ocean but are visibly not.

Again, I catch myself making assumptions of what I am seeing within a single photograph, but am then denied that assumption by what a photograph nearby suggests. The ocean was used as an allegory for history. The notion of history’s linear structure creates order but this is not the reality of how we actually experience it– in a fluid arrangement of knowledge. I visualize history as a grid of intersecting circles of people’s viewpoints of their personal or extended past. Because of the massive amount of archives kept to unfold ideas or truths about the past, there is a way to construct an interpretation of a past which considers multiple perspectives.

Install shot of The Strangers Notebook by Dawit L. Petros. Image courtesy of the H&R Block Artspace.

Install shot of The Stranger’s Notebook by Dawit L. Petros. Image courtesy of the H&R Block Artspace.

In this show, Petros was placed within numerous charged spaces where he had to decide how to document his surroundings. He explains that he assesses what is accessible to him within his surroundings and remains truthful to the complexity that exists there. “Stop, establish, reflect, and construct.” He experienced a sense of estrangement from these bodies, which allowed room to define a more intimate space by being empathetic.

Extending into a setting where we are forced to consider other histories can make us better citizens and allies. This is not some friendly reminder like ones from roommates to keep shared space clean, but is a persistent obligation to know that one’s experiences are not another’s. Specifically, the 2016 presidential election has brought attention to a condition of complexity in reality. This condition seems to exist at the periphery of  the social bubbles individuals can be isolated within. Centered in the information we want to interact with, we can easily be blind to the information we should consider that has been left at the periphery of our social bubble. If left unconsidered, we become ignorant and apathetic.

So, as we continue to make and see art, travel, experience the world, it is important to assess our own surroundings and be mindful of perspectives we may not have access to.




Piercing the Cultural Whiteness: Empathy and Survival Through the Lens of Silvia Abisaab

Silvia Beatriz Abisaab’s practice is one of reciprocity, giving care and attention to her subjects. She uses photography and video to document the humanity in the lives of people and communities, while providing access into the intimate spaces of others.  

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Latinx in KCMO (Nic Ortega), 2016 Photograph, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist.

For my latest curatorial endeavor ¿Qué Pasa, USA?, I originally invited the artist to expand her series Latinx in KCMO (2016), an interview and photography project that honors and reveals the untold narratives of ordinary Latinx individuals in a seemingly homogenous Midwestern city. Abisaab’s practice of uncovering the unnoticed empathetically, as well as her ability to connect with her subjects, originally attracted me to her work. While three photographs from the Latinx in KCMO series were featured, the artist’s centerpiece was a new video performance specifically created for the exhibition. It was this shift from her documentarian practice, into one of self-reflexive investigation, that excited and intrigued me throughout our process of working together.

Expanding from her usual form, Abisaab uses herself as the subject of this new 15-minute color video work titled As I reflect, I cry (2016). The video begins with a blank gray background, and then the artist’s hands enter frame. She interlocks her fingers and places her forearms on the gray table emitting sense of composure and strength. In the middle of the frame, the artist places an image of a joyful, young adolescent girl wearing a bright pink t-shirt with decorative lime green flowers. One hand holds the photograph in place, and the other is twiddling a pushpin in a menacing, yet calm manner. The artist begins to deliberately outline the face in the image with the point of the pin, then rips out the perforated chunk and pierces it repeatedly. Frantically, she begins to scratch away at the image, tearing away pieces in between this violent action and throwing the remnants away. She persists until the torn, minuscule pieces disappear and nothing is left.

As I reflect, I cry, 2016 Video, 14 minutes 25 seconds. Image courtesy of the artist.

As I reflect, I cry, 2016 Video, 14 minutes 25 seconds. Image courtesy of the artist.

There is a pause and the artist’s hands retreat. We are left with the flat gray tabletop for a few seconds until a new photograph appears and the process begins again—a contemplative attack on images of the artist’s adolescent self. She does this with four photographs in total; the last one is a recent image of herself.

Abisaab was born in Kansas City and raised in Oklahoma. She is a mixed race individual of Italian and Lebanese heritage with cultural ties to Ecuador and Guatemala, where her parents are from. With her father in the military, the artist’s perspective on being American is one of inclusion and plurality, accompanied by the narrative and values of The American Dream;where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is afforded to all. It was soon after September 11, 2001 that an adolescent Abisaab, growing up in Oklahoma, experienced heightened aggressions and microaggressions based on her physical appearance. Her friends at school would serve as a reminder of her “Otherness,” from directing slurs such as “terrorist” at her, to more subtle digs to her strong features like her thick eyebrows or pronounced nose. It is only until recently that she has focused on her experience with identity, visibility, and physical representation as a woman of color in her work.

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As I reflect, I cry, 2016 Video, 14 minutes 25 seconds. Image courtesy of the artist.

In As I reflect, I cry, Abisaab tackles the complexities of being and feeling different while trying to assimilate to the dominant culture. She presents a layered perspective that communicates the aggression toward oneself, a kind of self-deprecation produced by a society that marginalizes and excludes people based on trivial things, such as physical attributes. With each scratch and puncture, she inflicts pain on herself, or rather representations of herself. Viewers understand, or even relate to, the artist rejecting the adolescent versions of herself who is trying her hardest to assimilate. But, it is the last image—a very recent photograph of Abisaab—that is the most impactful. The artist doesn’t grant us a resolution, but rather emphasizes the lasting impact of existing and surviving in a prejudiced environment: internalized self-loathing. It is through this specificity, and the cyclical video, that Abisaab succinctly conveys a universal experience of many People of Color, one in which we are not only trying to survive the external consequences of our difference, but also maintain our sanity from the psychological effects of the condition of Whiteness.

Latinx in KCMO (Maria W.), 2016 Photograph, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist.

Latinx in KCMO (Maria W.), 2016 Photograph, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist.

The power of Abisaab’s work is in her understanding of the camera and specifically the lens through which she shifts the viewer’s gaze, inviting them to consider the world from another’s perspective. Making images, whether through photography, video, or installation, are all part of her consciousness as an artist, where she acknowledges the power of the image in both its physicality and ephemerality. Abisaab’s work induces respect, sensitivity, and compassion for her subjects and herself, while still critical of the oppressive behaviors and conditions that exist, prompting us to recognize our complicity in these systems.




Macro Essay: Kahlil Robert Irving Discusses Direct Drive by Kelley Walker at CAMSTL

Kahlil Robert Irving, a St. Louis-based artist, Kansas City Art Institute Art History and Ceramics alum (‘15), shares his response to the exhibition Direct Drive: Kelly Walker at The Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis  (September 16 – December 23, 2016).

In hindsight, I hoped Direct Drive was discussed and presented in a more organized, thoughtful and intentional manner. This was an opportunity for one of the Midwest’s major contemporary art institutions to take a stand in regards to racism and the current US socio-political climate. As unarmed Black women and men continue to be killed by police, ignorance and white supremacy continues to be fashioned as more palatable language. I think that CAMSTL could be a place of refuge, used as an environment for honest dialogue, where the work on the inside can respond poignantly to the chaos outside the museum.

Instead, Direct Drive exuded ignorance aimed specifically towards historical acts of domestic terrorism, as well as the ongoing and careless use of complicated iconography, which cited these direct examples of colonialist appropriation. Within this exhibition there were several different images of Black celebrities and entertainers, alongside images of racial injustice events from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s.  All of them had been covered in whitening toothpaste and/or chocolate. This is a blatant act of whitewashing, an overt fetishization of Blackness. The final images were blurred in such a way that gesture in the content perpetuates the same disenfranchised positions Black people are often seen through mainstream media. There must be a better way to engage a conversation where the transformation of materials, images, and content can work out the issues within the desired direction of the works.

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Image of Kelley Walker’s Direct Drive main installation space. Photo by Kahlil Irving

In the museum’s atrium gallery I first approached large scale sculptures that referenced recycling symbols cut out of sheets of metal, and a massive disco ball made of chocolate hanging from the ceiling, which, in and of itself, was disturbing. Also in the front space, a wall was removed to put one of Walker’s ‘premiere’ works; a huge light box illuminating one of Walker’s first toothpaste-smeared images. In the next gallery I encountered a massively oversized print of King, a gentleman’s magazine, on the wall across Civil Rights images smeared with chocolate sauce. What prompts the juxtaposition of chocolate and whitening toothpaste so blatantly? Presenting images of Black women covered with whitening paste did not only comment on the whitening of black culture; it also cites a lack of transformation. From there I was finished looking at the rest of the works on view.

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Image of Kelley Walker’s White Michael Jackson commissioned for Direct Drive. Photo by Kahlil Irving

The next day, I attended the artist lecture at the museum. In the audience were many artists, writers, curators, and patrons. Also in attendance were Robert Hobbs, professor of Art History at Virginia Commonwealth University and Jean Crutchfield, a curator from New York City. Both support and write extensively about Walker’s work. The talk Walker gave was void of any content. He approached every image, even those images of Black bodies, as if the figures were not human, but merely objects that he could erase, scratch, or delete without recognizing that they were actual people. It was no different than the way in which the media portrays the death of Black lives, painting them as criminals and removing their humanity.

His presentation was formatted on an anti-intellectual platform, lacking factual research to support his claims; mirroring the GOP’s aggressive tactics of propaganda. Walker uses his biography as a point of departure for his work. This has wrongly given him permission to not bear responsibility for the work I see as riddled with insufficient content direction. It is being considered and critiqued from the wrong perspective. For example, Walker spoke about growing up in Columbus, Georgia, explaining that he participated in desegregation programs growing up, which reinforces a problematic insensitivity towards race. To say this artist was born and raised in the South does not give him a justifiable platform for putting chocolate sauce on images of a white man torturing a Black man with a police dog. It is academically and creatively deaf, dumb and blind to the real world.

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Installation image of Shema and Blackstar Press by Kelley Walker. This work existed in the gallery that was closed off by the wall. Photo by Kahlil Irving

After his lecture, Walker opened the floor for questions, which included interest in understanding his approach to construction, content, and decision making within the works. As the Q&A progressed, he began to get irritated and was becoming hostile towards the audience. I asked, “You say that your work deals with CMYK printing processes and other technological advances, why do you focus intensely on the use of the Black celebrities, Black entertainers, and the racial injustice images?” He responded, “There is only one work where there is not both a black and white body present, so please rethink your question for me.” I was outraged. This attitude continued when he told another audience member “I am tired of repeating myself to you people.” Museum administration defended the artist’s actions and the lack of accountability Walker was taking for his work.

Image of Kelley Walker's Direct Drive. Photo by Kahlil Irving

Image of Kelley Walker’s Direct Drive. Photo by Kahlil Irving

Many audience members who support Kelly Walker shouted; ‘Did you read the Glenn Ligon essay about Walker’s work (Kelley Walker’s Negro Problem)?’ As if this is to legitimize what he was doing, this article clearly stated if this work was made any closer to the 1960’s it could be problematic. But I ask, ‘ Is it not problematic today?’  In regards to the killing of Michael Brown in 2014, which occurred just a few miles away from this very museum, the work should not have been curated here, or anywhere. Not supporting this work is actively taking a stance against racism and white supremacy. Kat Reynolds and myself were aggressively approached by critics and art historians in the audience who defended the artist, and then voiced several racist remarks, including, to Ms. Reynolds, “Since they were not slaves, they do not understand how it feels.”

The exhibition and subsequent artist talk led a call to boycott the museum by St. Louis-based artist Damon Davis and may have inspired the cancellation of Art 314, CAMSTL’s contemporary art auction, to support local artists and connect them with collectors. I spoke on a panel apart of Critical Mass Conversations which was a collaborative event that which was held at the museum. The event went through many changes before it was confirmed for September 22nd 2017. The panel also consisted of Professor Rebecca Wanzo, MK Stallings, Lyndon Barrois Jr., Vanity Gee, Kat Reynolds, Danielle McCoy, and Kevin McCoy.

When it was my turn to speak, I first shared a personal narrative then addressed the curator — Uslip — directly. I attempted to share the pain I felt in response towards his arrogant attitude about Walker’s work and the museum patrons inability to understand the inherent content of this exhibition. I used a quote from his own NPR statement wherein he said Kelly Walker is the artist grappling with race, among other issues. I used his words to explain what was wrong with this remark. Uslip was one of my seminar professors at Washington University in St. Louis and I felt his interests then were sincere. He wanted his students to build knowledge of critical assessment, but when it came to issues dealing with gender, class, or race, his remarks were murky. I felt that his intentions were to make a change, but to curate Direct Drive his intentions were not present. It was personally painful to listen to him idealize Walker’s work after listening to his lectures in class about other contemporary artists challenging issues in life with images and materials. It felt as if Uslip absented himself from the same critical eye he used when addressing the works of his students and other artists.

In response to the panel discussion and the constant protest, CAMSTL decided to erect a gallery wall, adding signage that read, “This Gallery contains content that may be difficult for some viewers”. In this viewing space were pieces Schema, White Michael Jackson, and Black Star Press. Taking this approach of not addressing the racism, while simultaneously, not accounting for its actions, disrespecting the support they have for other artists they exhibit, and the community they serve.

Image of Kelley Walker's Direct Drive. Photo by Kahlil Irving

Image of Blackstar Press in Kelley Walker’s Direct Drive. Photo by Kahlil Irving

In the art world and in St. Louis many do not want to see the racism in the system. Similarly, other canonized art institutions do not want to acknowledge that racism is present within the social and cultural history generally accepted  as fact. Rather than acknowledging the inherently racist system and societal structure, the leaders of these institutions show, in their actions and statements, that the problem lies not within the history we are forced to follow, but with their audience, local artists, and other non-costal-based arts supporters. Such thoughts dangerously assume people from the midwest are unintelligent and ill-informed on the genius within art brought to St. Louis by major art benefactors. As an artist, when addressing and analyzing this work it is not about “liking” or “disliking” it, it is about the conceptual and visual complexities that are presented within the works. Like many, I too have an art historical background. So visual analysis is just as important as conceptual analysis. It is not worth it to exhibit “controversial” works just to spark conversations. We need to address racism head on, and not support it institutionally.

The Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis has supported its local artists by providing a curatorial program, known as the Front Room. “Conceived as a smaller, experimental space that stands in contrast to the museum’s more formal galleries… the (ongoing) series gives critical exposure to younger artists from out of town that we wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to see.” One resolution would be continuing the fluidity and dynamism that will make the context of St.Louis important on a local, national, and international platform. A continuous program for guest curators and artists that strengthen patterns of growth and diversity. This proposition extends not only to St. Louis, but to all major arts institutions nationally. Be the change in politics people are fighting for on the streets inside and outside the institution.

Image of Kelley Walker's Direct Drive. Photo by Kahlil Irving

Image of Kelley Walker’s Direct Drive. Photo by Kahlil Irving

As a community, it is imperative to analyze the status quo, attend to solutions that call specific issues to the forefront. Racism and imperialism are strong within the museum system and as a group we can make a difference. The arts institution, although as a way to preserve a legacy, also has a responsibility to ensure factual, tactful, and systematic changes are met. Presenting images of Black people covered with whitening paste illuminates a lack of self-awareness. How do we complicate images and not perpetuate racism? Or white men in cultural authority being able to do what they want without question? Eurocentrism is not the only way to analyze art and culture. Starting with a widening of that dynamic is a start.




Building Equity Through Open Dialogue: A Response to What’s Missing in Kansas City

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Image from Front/Space’s State of the Space event presentation courtesy of the gallery

Just a couple of weeks before 2016 came to a close, Front/Space hosted State of the Space, an event which brought together an audience to serve as its “temporary board of directors.” Madeline Gallucci and Kendell Harbin, who run the gallery together, started the night with a presentation that shared the history and current standing of Front/Space. As an audience member, I felt that the presentation was offered with refreshing transparency about how exhibitions are selected, how the gallery’s budget is run, and why it is an LLC as opposed to a nonprofit.

After the presentation and some questions from the audience, we moved on to an activity—the co-directors asked us to take ten minutes and write responses to two prompts: “Front/Space is…” and “When you think of the Kansas City creative community…What is missing? What is already here?” After the ten minutes were up, I had just barely started my third sentence and had not even begun to grapple with the second prompt. So, some weeks later, this is my response:

Front/Space is a small, storefront, DIY, non-commercial gallery in the Crossroads Arts District that invites artists to create experimental exhibitions and host programming. Front/Space is physically small and awkwardly shaped enough that artists feel comfortable taking risks and leaps in their practices. Within the Kansas City art world, there is an understanding that Front/Space is a place for experimentation. Such experimentation sometimes yields wonderful results, while other times it does not pan out.

This is perhaps the streamlined, nonspecific way to share the first question of what Front/Space is. However, in conversations about Front/Space another descriptor that gets brought up in attempt to define the space is exclusive—so much so that Front/Space’s exclusiveness seems to be a hallmark trait of the gallery. Many people who I have come into contact with feel as though Front/Space is there to serve a very specific slice of the Kansas City art community. Again and again, I have tried to find justifications as to why Front/Space might seem exclusive, but why it really is welcoming; making the problem just one of perception.

Unfortunately, after leaving the conversation in mid-December, I felt disappointed in myself for the false justifications I had put forward. For full disclosure, I have worked with, looked up to, and share mutual friends with both of the co-directors. The Kansas City creative community that we belong to is so small that it has given me the opportunity to forge many close-knit relationships. But because of these relationships I am continually asking myself whether this closeness prevents me from being critical. When does closeness turn the community into a silo, making it difficult to open up to those trying to find their way in?

I want to push the conversation forward—to find out why I, and so many others, feel the gallery is restricted to a certain set of social groups when I don’t believe that reflects the intention of Front/Space.

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Image from Front/Space’s State of the Space event presentation courtesy of the gallery

When asked the reason for turning curatorial decision making to artists who have previously had exhibitions at Front/Space, Harbin alluded to the co-directors wanting to avoid showing a limited selection of artists. Gallucci and Harbin don’t want to only give shows to artists who look like them, think like them, and are their friends. However, with an audience that was majority white, full of Kansas City Art Institute alumni, many of whom are in the same social circles, the State of the Space was an immediate reminder that working towards a less insular community is very much a work-in-progress. For me, one of the most urgent answers to their second prompt—what is missing from Kansas City’s creative community?—is that we need to make more progress toward racial equity in order to create less exclusive and elitist social dynamics.

I am particularly interested in race and ethnicity because it is an access point to understand privilege and so many of the social dynamics underlying our art world. When we talk about race and ethnicity, we have to consider economic class, access to education, inaccessible language built into that education, and the limits of our social reach. The arts do not function separately from the rest of the inequity in this country, so we need to keep our eyes open to how, not if, the art world mimics the systematic racism that surrounds us.

A huge part of me believes that these gaps need to be primarily addressed by spaces and organizations that are structured around the experiences of marginalized groups, and are led by the members of those groups. While such organizations and spaces already exist, I look forward to the day when more emerge and when the Kansas City community is challenged on every front to recognize the incompleteness of our cultural awareness. But that does not mean that white-run spaces can continue to ignore the critical part they play in addressing similar questions.

To understand this inequity, I think turning to the local higher education system can often provide a starting point. It is important to take a look at the Kansas City Art Institute, whose alumni make up a significant portion of the local art world, and where I first met both Harbin and Gallucci. In 2001 only 11.2% of students were minorities. More recently in 2016, the number has grown to 32.5%((This does not factor student’s whose race/ethnicity is unknown. For 2001, there is no data for 5.4% of the student body ( 29 students). And in 2016, there is no data for 8.8% of the student body (56 students).)). Although KCAI has rapidly progressed in building more equitable student demographics,  this has not been the case over a longer time frame. The consequences of these statistics over many years are an unhealthy lack of diversity in Kansas City’s art scene.

Recently there was a comprehensive study of the U.S. art world done by the organization BFAMFAPhD. With information from the 2012 U.S. Census. They looked at U.S. art schools and working artists, and collected data for race and ethnicity. An excerpt from that study shows while 63.2% of Americans identified as white, 80.8% of American art school graduates identified as white. And this nearly 18% gap doesn’t take into account the problematic structure of the census—for example people of middle eastern descent were instructed to fill out the census as “white” because there wasn’t a separate category for them.

Receiving an arts education trains you to understand the logistics of the game and to market yourself competitively for calls for proposals, grants, and other opportunities. You come out of an arts education, even though sometimes awkwardly, walking the walk and talking the talk. Cryptic art language and concepts are often unreadable to those who don’t hold a BFA, which we’ve already seen isn’t a level playing field for all races and ethnicities. You could even say that art world standards for “high quality, innovative art” are primarily established by what goes on in art schools, so that many who have never attended will simply not fit the profile. On top of all of this, it is clear you must have the capacity to move around a room and network—social connections are a currency in our field, with art school giving you a built-in head start. But what happens to those who don’t feel welcome even being in the room? To those who don’t know anyone else in the room or don’t know the room exists? It is important to keep in mind this underlying system of social-connections-as-capital and inaccessible-language and ideas-as-norm.

So, turning back to Front/Space we have to ask what the role of an alternative art space should be when we understand that the art institutions providing education and exposure are built to favor one racial group? In a field that mimics the racial inequity of our country, if an institution does not actively make efforts to reach beyond its habitual audiences and collaborators then it is accepting these injustices as a norm and continues to perpetuate them. I believe there are questions that Front/Space, and all other white-led spaces, should ask at every step of the way.

What could happen if the panel who decides the exhibitions at Front/Space is made up of not only of past artists, but also of people who are actively engaged in equity issues and with the communities which they do not yet have an established relationship?

Who is your intended audience? If left up to happenstance, the audience of a DIY art gallery becomes the same insular community, which we know is skewed to prefer white folx.

What artists are showing in the space and benefitting your gallery?

How do you spread information about openings and events at Front/Space to new audiences? If there are flyers or show cards, are you leaving any at locations where majority people of color will encounter them? How can these invitations be genuinely delivered?

How does relying on word-of-mouth and social media algorithms that stay within already-established friend circles create an insular, white-majority community?

When the gallery is open, what small habits become exclusive? Who is allowed to go in the back?

How is success being measured? Even with the reputation of a gallery that invites artists to take risks, are those risks meaningful to those outside of our close-knit community, to those who don’t speak an inaccessible art language?

Who is being asked to give feedback about Front/Space? How do we invite critical input from our close friends and when do we purposefully ask those who are not close?

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Image from Front/Space’s State of the Space event presentation courtesy of the gallery

As an arts community, we need to be better at addressing these issues. Over the course of the night at the State of the Space, words like accessibility and audience came up, but we never really stated the obvious—that Front/Space continually draws a uniform crowd. The State of the Space was a perfect example of that, because, as far as I could tell, there were very few people of color in the room. We need to be suspicious of our own activities when we attract such an unvaried crowd without intending to do so. These discussions are not specific to Front/Space. These issues need to be addressed at all levels and on all platforms—from large art museums that have 84% ((Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey)) white curators and leaders, to small DIY galleries that only reach friends, to the host of this writing. Informality also needs to address the racial inequity present in this publication.

As we move forward, our art world needs to ask for more and to hold each other to higher standards—because we are capable of this kind of critique. We just need to work on shifting some of it toward ourselves. To paraphrase the artist Simone Leigh at the 2016 National Council for the Education for the Ceramic Arts, “making ceramic art for other ceramic artists is like learning from your mother…Sympathy undermines your ability to be critical.” When does our sympathy for our close-knit community undermine our ability to be critical?

Front/Space has been so valuable to me as a place that shows the potential of our community and has been crucial in forming an understanding of the possibilities artists have in our mid-sized Midwestern city. I am optimistic about Front/Space’s ability to be dynamic and responsive. Their willingness to receive feedback from anyone who came to the State of the Space is a great start; we just need to make sure the right people are in the room and that they feel welcome to ask questions that will cause friction.

 




Informal Studio Visit: Anna Van Gheem’s Ongoing Discovery

Maddie Murphy met with Anna Van Gheem — a 2017 BFA candidate in the Kansas City Art Institute’s Fiber department to discuss her playful and larger-than-life collection  from the 2016 West 18th Street Fashion Show, Wild Summer, and her current thesis work.

First hearing about the annual Kansas City fashion event from a classmate, Anna Van Gheem remarked, “I thought, [the show] is outside of school, I can reach a larger audience. I recommend that anyone do it, it’s such a huge platform. I sort of had to be a secretary for myself. It took so much time planning. I had never made enough items for a collection before.  To make five really coherent looks was difficult at first. I probably changed my mind at least ten times for each look. Sitting in the [KCAI Fiber] gallery, staring at and playing with different combinations. I asked anyone and everyone walking by what they thought, and those outside perspectives helped.”

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Anna Van Gheem’s Studio. Image courtesy of the artist.

Perusing her Instagram account, then glancing at Van Gheem’s studio space amidst a pile of sparkly fabric swatches, she embodies an enchanting and refined sense of style. Her past work hangs neatly on a rack, while materials and more tests were found piled on her studio desk, overflowing the long-arm quilting machine. Mood boards and scraps of inspiration collaged the wall behind. Van Gheem’s work is a more extreme version of her philosophy, a juxtaposition of silly and satirical but still seriously invested in and responding to current fashion.

“[Aesthetically] I have been always been inspired by Valentino. Last year, Marry Me Jimmy Paul. was huge for me, these super gaudy Dutch designers… this year it’s more Prada, Miu Miu specifically, because it is super quirky and girly.”

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Van Gheem design. Image courtesy Ryan Swartzlander 

Her process of making is pretty unique. “I have to be working on twenty things at once with ‘nests’ everywhere so I can see it every day. A mood board is the most important thing in my practice. It’s a subconscious thing, those colors and influences are burned into my brain and find their way into my work.“

In terms of material choices Van Gheem gravitates towards the hardest; enjoying the challenge of mastering vinyl and pleather. She believes the point of her undergraduate education is to foster experimentation, noting she doesn’t take herself too seriously but is ready to build a business.

“Last semester pushed me to think about who my client was and to be more relatable. So much was in my head that was hard to express with words. It was a challenge to be more inclusive, and not just make my work a personal diary of my feelings.”

I asked if she could change anything about her work, what would it be? She thought for a moment, and replied, “Craft is the biggest struggle. Patience is a huge thing that I struggle with, taking the time to do things, versus being impulsive.”

When asked what advice she has for Kansas City artists interested in pursuing fashion, and she replied, “There are lot of independent artists here interested in fashion, so Kansas City is unique in that way. Art is well supported in this community, so a lot of local fashion has a basis in fine art. That being said, don’t be afraid to move on and expand your horizons, if you can be more successful somewhere else.”

Van Gheem has begun working on her senior show, which is planned for April. She is planning sizes, focusing on equality and diversity of models, as well as meeting with collaborators, including photographers, graphic designers, accessory designers, and videographers. “I want to work with as many people as I can, make it a huge thing,” She expressed excitedly, “I have my own little bubble, but there are people out there with bigger bubbles.”

       




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.

 




Guerrilla Docents: Shifting the Carnival

– an earlier version of this essay was published in the Jan/Feb issue of Art Focus Oklahoma

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Guerrilla Docents talking with Participants in Front/Space’s exhibition More or Less. photo by Rebeka Pech Moguel

Kansas City’s First Friday is usually a passive motion where one follows along silently gliding into different galleries and gathering treats from differing food trucks. The Crossroads Arts District has established itself as a space for varied audiences to engage with art. In the heat of the summer, these First Friday’s erupt with people willing to stop and put their eyes on something. With Guerrilla Docents fellow Kansas City-based art critic Blair Schulman and I have a central goal; to take that passive looking and use it as a catalyst for conversation.

This surging crowd may have a lot to do with things beyond art; the prospect of free food, drinks, and a party atmosphere on a Friday night. It seems that culturally we have shut out the general public from the art conversation, but in Kansas City this crowd just grows larger. More often than not major newspapers have laid off their visual art critics on staff. The art world itself often buries its head in a language that is illegible to those without the education to discern meaning from it. Art education is slowly being pulled from the core curriculum of elementary and secondary schools, making talking about it or understanding how something is made a foreign concept. Culturally the arts are still vibrant, through music, videogames, and film, where the languages used in popular criticism allow audiences to interact on a deeper level. Yet in an image-based culture we are letting go of how deeply important an awareness of critical analysis can be.

The art of First Friday sometimes does seem to get pushed aside for the food vendors, fire breathers, and other entertainment. That’s where Schulman and I come in. On one of the most crowded blocks of the Crossroads Arts District we found our first post this July and established ourselves as Guerrilla Docents. This concept originated in an editing room, with fellow Kansas City art writers working on why it is we are frustrated with First Fridays. It seems like a great concept to get people involved, yes, but it also has a tendency to shut out any kind of vivid conversation or discovery. Most attendees eat, shop, and quietly watch the art through the window or pass it by. If someone spends more than thirty seconds looking, let alone talking, it is a rare occurrence.

Guerrilla docents is simple. Schulman and I stand outside in our all-black attire and ask First Friday attendees a simple question: “Would you like to come on an art tour?”

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Guerrilla Docents greeting “Art Tour Participants” on the corner of 18th and Wyandotte. photo by Rebeka Pech Moguel

Our first evening at this was in August of 2015. Kansas City-based artist Madeline Gallucci was exhibiting some of her new brightly colored abstract work at Beggars Table Church and Gallery. Located right in the center of the busiest First Friday block with an easy walk-up, this was going to be the perfect spot to attempt to engage people who were likely just out to enjoy their Friday night. Schulman and I began asking strangers, “Do you want to talk about art?!” which seemed to most like the entry to a pyramid scheme. One group of adults that had “never talked about art before” were prompted by the crowd to chug their beers and join in. With a simple question we had infiltrated the party atmosphere, convincing the revelers to do some thinking.

After climbing the stairs, we brought the group over to a series of Gallucci’s collages. Her work became the perfect world for these participants to explore. Bright pinks, teals, and lime green pepper a collaged surface, with a wide range of shapes and mark-making—the colors evoke memories of children’s advertising from the early 1990s. In front of these collages, we used a modified version of a museum educational strategy known as Visual Thinking Strategies; we turned the tour on the viewers to find context clues as to what the work is about. Rather than dictating facts, the group found their own answers to questions about what they saw in the work. This process of interpretation validated their opinions and observational knowledge.

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Guerrilla Docents talking with Participants in Front/Space’s exhibition More or Less. photo by Rebeka Pech Moguel

Our group started off just pointing out shapes. They found hidden images in the abstractions, uncovering sharks, ambiguous arms, band-aids, and pickles. Once we moved to another piece the group started to see their own personal experience in the work. “That looks like a sickle cell” and “… that one is totally mitochondria!” Our tour guinea pigs revealed their status as medical students through their observations. Group after group this same situation continued, with each new group following Schulman and myself up the flight of stairs and in turn discovering narratives in the work rather than processing through gallery after gallery with eyes half open.

Since our first Guerrilla Docents, Schulman and I have continued this practice on weather permitting First Fridays. Sometimes the environments we chose taught us lessons about how the space may or may not be ideal for conversation. Other times we realize that informally exploring the gallery with those already there yields the best result. During October’s First Friday we stopped by artist run alternative gallery Front/Space’s Exhibition More of Less featuring the work of Jessica Simorte, Max Manning, and Peter Shear. There we had a young boy tell us the narrative of his favorite artwork by finding the shape of a high speed train in the work and then running about the gallery, acting out his discovery. Visual art can make people come together and others completely come to life; it’s just a matter of how we’re able to continue to find meaning in the things we see.

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Guerrilla Docents talking with Participants in Front/Space’s exhibition More or Less. photo by Rebeka Pech Moguel

For more information on Guerrilla Docents or when the next pop-up tour will be SUBSCRIBE to Informality or email editor@informalityblog.com!

 




The Empress’s New Clothes

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As the opening date of All is Fair approaches, the new business started by Peregrine Honig in the Bauer building on West 18th Street in Kansas City, the usual media and Honig’s own following have little to criticize. Initial reviews, soft announcements of the shop opening, served to entice Kansas City with the promise of new territory being explored in an effort to relieve some of the oppression the trans community faces. The first article, written by Huffington Post writer Kayti Doolittle, spouted some of the usual uplifting predictions for the shop (and at one point even compared her own desire for non-lacey underwear to the trans experience—no I’m not kidding). The lack of critical voices on the matter make it more important than ever to deconstruct the implications of a prominent artist opening up a transgender lingerie shop—separate from her existing lingerie shop—and using the store as a reason to call herself an activist.

Let’s start with the obvious: a privileged white woman of a dominant social class is using her business skills and local connections to profit off a product that is marketed to an oppressed minority. Not only that, she is controlling the image on the product itself, injecting her own voice and her work on each garment. What seems like harmless business smarts at first can still be peeled back to reveal a cycle of gender oppression, misinformation, and misrepresentation of a vibrant community by someone who doesn’t belong to it. In my now seven-month long journey to understand this issue from as many sides as possible, I’ve discovered a lot of different ways to approach this issue—ranging from our culture’s problem of appointing Hollywood cis-genders to play trans roles, why high-profile organizations like SAGA believe straight allies accomplish things LGBTQ individuals simply cannot, and perhaps most important of all, how the wide umbrella of Transgender is in a constant state of flux. Everyone I’ve informally interviewed about this endeavor had something to say, most with a mixture of mild curiosity or indifference, some with enthusiasm for the product, others altogether enraged by the venture. One of the strangest things I’ve come across was that most of the straight, cis-gender individuals I chatted with seemed to have no problem at all with the store. What strikes many as support strikes me as an ignorance to the extreme inequality the transgender community faces all the time. It was much easier for the cis-gender straight population to show support and excitement because none of the issues affect them directly. Vehement non-supporters were quick to point out the ways in which this store directly insults or mistreats them/the LGBTQ community they belong to. Same goes for mild supporters, who displayed brief curiosity and a tentative plan to someday visit the store and see what it’s about. The only excited supporters in the LGBTQ community I talked to fell into the drag queen/performance artist category, an interesting point I feel needs to be made.

These were all one-on-one conversations. Hardly any of these opinions have made it into any of the major media articles thus far. Every other article I come across is an exclusive interview with Peregrine herself—obviously tooting her own horn for the sake of the business, as business owners do—and so far it seems none of these reporters are actually reaching out to the LGBTQ community for their opinions. Maybe they’re afraid of finding what I found in my journey: groups of people who either don’t care or are only mildly interested. Heading into a community that is always fighting against some injustice in one way or another, it is perilous to discuss something as material as what kind of underwear they would prefer to wear. Perhaps these reporters are content with one person’s opinion—the person who has the most to gain from a positive public appearance.

Maybe they just don’t want to put in the legwork.

Most likely, I imagine, each individual who has reported on All Is Fair and has put some major positive spin on the piece is of this cis-gender privileged class—the ones who talk about the shop most favorably. My biggest question to Honig, to Kansas City, and to anyone who is watching this story develop: Where are the voices that matter most? Why do the loudest, most supportive voices come from the privileged class? If the trans community is the last to speak up about this, will we still be listening, or will our attentions have drifted again to the next artist using social buzz words to fill their pockets?

Without the essential voices that are missing from this conversation, all I can hear is Honig using her media influence to open a new bank account. I can’t prevent that from happening, but I can offer you another side of the issue that is deeper and more sinister than you will hear from other media outlets.

I want to break this down so we can examine the ways injustice is hidden beneath an assertion of understanding. Keep in mind, neither I nor my correspondents are authoritative voices in the media, LGBTQ culture, or Kansas City’s art scene. Together, we have simply contributed our voices to navigate this complex and mutable issue in a way that allows for a deeper and more productive conversation to occur.

It seems Honig believes a new store front will be more inclusive than it is excluded from Birdies, the existing shop. This simplified model leaves the critical thinkers with more questions than answers. In her unique social position—in society and in Kansas City’s who’s who club—it might not occur to her that what she wants from a store may not be what the trans community seeks in their efforts to become more visible and incorporated into daily life. As Cy Lauz expressed in a written piece about the shop on KCUR: “If you are a trans woman who is not particularly ‘passable’ and are shopping at a store or public venue, you face the possibility of being harassed, judged and even physically hurt.” Although the quote was inserted as a promotion for All Is Fair within the context of that particular write-up, the concerns expressed are dangerously real. Ignoring what Lauz is saying, or worse, spinning it around to support Honig’s crusade, is just one more example of how local media is working to control our opinions while the Cream Club gets their backs scratched. The dangers of opening a separated store—in an alley, remember—that is targeted to gain the business (and trust) of the trans community are real and present. Even in the liberal 18th Street district of the Crossroads, nobody is prevented from bringing their narrow-minded hatred for non-binary individuals to a violent head. It sickens us to think it could ever happen, but it happens all the time. It appears the move reflects Honig’s real intentions with the store and does not prioritize the safety of her customers. I wonder if Birdies couldn’t work on rebuilding their brand for inclusiveness and encouragement, rather than detaching other aspects of human sexuality and the spectrum areas between gender expressions in order to remain relevant. All Is Fair is a new segregation, a definitive line between “our” lingerie and “their” lingerie, literally separated by a one-way street that could represent our passing interest in social politics. The trans community might prefer to walk into Birdies and be treated like any other customer, but that might involve changing the overwhelming feminine aspects of the store itself. Simply re-branding Birdies would eliminate a crucial aspect of this project for Honig: the hype-generating click-bait the media will clamber over to report on—an element that Honig has always depended on for each new venture to succeed.

The notion that human sexuality and the gender spectrum should be divided into different lanes for purchasing different wares is a dangerous one; one I don’t think Honig has considered from the perspective of the LGBTQ community. Sure, the shape and size of the lingerie will be different, but an eclectic mix of undergarments in an existing store might be more warm and inclusive. In talking with Sandra Meade and Una Nowling, each expressed a similar concern for the concept of stores that might be seen as supporting the notion that transgender people are fundamentally different, and should shop in their own spaces. Both prefer to shop at places for women, like Dillards and Nordstrom, or anywhere else that carries women’s underwear. When we talked about unique proportions to consider, Una made a scientific observation:

“It’s inarguable that a transgender woman with XY chromosomes will likely have a different body shape and proportions than an XX woman. If this clothing line takes that into account, along the lines of how good shoes made for transgender women will be built upon a ‘male shoe’ last, then that would be useful.”

The prefix to woman or man shouldn’t matter, but as the trend of talking about transgender and transsexual issues continues, more people are choosing to create stores especially for “them”. Thus, the harmful idea of “the other” continues to exist and to profit. Both women, who I want to remind you are not the authorities of trans culture (although their activism is admirable—and they were kind enough to meet with me and have a discussion) said they believe there is a niche market for this brick-and-mortar shop, including among cross-dressers and others who are not yet comfortable in mainstream stores, especially among those with a steady and reliable income, since such specialty shops may be expensive. We talked about the depressing transgender economic status, and that many individuals under the transgender umbrella would simply be unable to afford such material goods.

When you think of custom made underwear—made by a prominent artist whose work is collected nationwide—and you think of the details that must be paid regarding each individual’s unique curves and surfaces, the dollar signs start to add up. Factor in high-quality material and manual labor and we’re looking at some pricy undies. (Anyone who has shopped at Birdies can relate, as Honig’s choice of garments hardly ever falls below the $30 mark.) Marketing an expensive product to a community that faces a high rate of job displacement and income disparity based on their identity seems uninformed at best. Paying straight, privileged designers of the upper social class to create these products, only to sell them to a traditionally lower income class, seems stranger still. My correspondent, Vian May–who has helped me understand the issue from an individual perspective– had some things to say:

“At the same time, inclusiveness helps create an environment of acceptance almost as much as out living does. But this is an environment that we are still in the process of creating. And the backlash can be disheartening. I’m not sure if I can express the thoughts of other trans guys, much less those of trans women, but I have a legitimate concern over violence in my life due to being a trans man. That violence is a threat to trans women in an exponentially larger set of circumstances and exponentially more violent altercations, up to and including murder.

I think it’s easy to say ‘what should be’ when ‘what should be’ doesn’t affect you. Of course my underclothes should be easily available, there shouldn’t be a question of what changing room or bathroom I use, there should be no concern about me losing my job or my clients over my trans status. How things should be is rarely how they are.”

As a trans male, Vian’s approach to safety issues and concerns is not unique. An inclusive environment is completely necessary if trans people want to shop for their clothes and materials freely, but that inclusiveness is still in the process of being obtained. The idea that inclusiveness can be reached most effectively by separating “ours” from “their” material goods, rather than educating the public that might nay-say all-gender stores, is not inclusive. It is the exact opposite.

Fads are a problem in the art world. The more artists latch on to the hip new socio-political trends, the more they reduce them to their own voice and interpretation. Trans issues are all over the news these days, and although most of this exposure comes from a place of positive empowerment, a lot of it reinforces our existing ideas about the community. The rise of trans roles, often played by cis-male actors like Eddie Redmayne and Jeffrey Tambor, fill our curiosities of “what it means to be trans”, except for when they don’t. More producers, artists, writers, and subcultures are lifting the trans identity and applying it to their own pursuits. I didn’t think about this until just after I saw “Unicorn”—Honig’s first solo exhibition in years. When I got wind of what the new shop was about, something was off in the way “Unicorn” was off. In the middle of the gallery, surrounded by the Cream Club of Kansas City, I tried to put my finger on the growing discomfort I felt while watching people experience the work. Honig’s main representation of the trans community was a large image of the fabled “Unicorn”: a young woman with a penis between her legs/a young man with small breasts and engorged nipples. A young trans, essentially. This “slashie” of the sexes disturbed me—not because of the hermaphroditic genitalia—but that now, in the middle of a large gallery filled with the privileged majority, this was the take-away image of transgender. The rest of the subject matter was overwhelmingly female oriented: foxes, bunnies,women’s legs,little lambs—and I was left confused as to how that was representative to the other half of a culture that walk the delicate lines around what society wants them to be: “masculine” or “feminine”. Where were the traditionally male oriented images? Or better yet, where were the genderless creatures—the easily transformed and unhindered symbols that more accurately represent a culture and lifestyle of non-fixed gender organisms, like slugs and worms? Why was the female role so heavily portrayed while the male role was completely absent? It appeared Honig was oblivious to how one-sided her portrayal of the trans culture was, not only because the images seemed heavily influenced by her own feminine experiences, but the crowd itself seemed to lack representation.

We often make the mistake of equating popularity with influence, positivity with justice, and agreeability with righteousness. In fact, “activism” in the art world is often nothing more than a minority voice being refracted through a majority person’s prism. This happens over and over again in the Kansas City art scene: we assign the faces we see most frequently to the progression of social change. Those who control the media control the images and the descriptions, and mislabeling artists who appropriate culture as activists is one of their most damaging and pervasive qualities. In reality, it appears these are just the same people showing up to the same parties, riding on the coattails of a buzzword or movement, using their privilege to move between their world and another under the title of “activist”. Artists somehow get away with this all the time. Start seeing it. Start calling it out.

This is not to say there are not real activists in the art world. The late, great Steven Metzler was one of them. The community’s loss of his kindness and humility is large, but as someone who moved between the art and activist world, he was a shining example of what it means to be a wonderful person. There are others like him who have the heart and the means to do real good in this world, but they are often the silent do-gooders, not normally in the spotlight.

It must be difficult for a celebrity to distance themselves from the face of their own brand, but that is what Peregrine must do if we are expected to take her “activism” seriously. I have criticized actions like this in the past, and it’s no surprise Peregrine brought her youngest sister, Esther, on board for a photo shoot that appropriates the trans identity. You can see it on Facebook, the image of Peregrine and Esther side by side dressed in casual “boy” clothes with their hair pulled back and feminine features downplayed. Under #brothers, this image is evocative of modern-day blackface—a theatrical performance that does nothing to drive political or social activism towards a more equal world, but serves to feed the privileged majority an image of a culture they will accept. Like blackface, this image implies that we no longer live in a gendered world, which is highly incorrect. With the hashtag “brothers”, the Honig sisters have assigned a pronoun to a people who are, in part, trying to dismantle this aspect of language and identity. The very idea belittles anyone struggling against gender inequality, dwindling reproductive rights, lack of fair pay and housing, and sexual discrimination. Esther’s inclusion in the shoot may be the most perfect analogy of a privileged class kowtowing to the famous for seconds of internet share-ability without understanding the greater implications of their support and actions. Sister or not, her agreeability to engage in such a display is a telling sign of the veil of advantage she lives under. Esther is now probably best known for playing this kind of dress up before—a project that succeeded in feeding the beast that creates and perpetuates gender and beauty norms—so I was not surprised to see her continue to treat identity like a costume. The powers that decide what is manly and what is feminine have so much control, it seems the Honig sisters are just as normative as they are. This unaware state of privilege is so glaring, it hurts to look at. The image shadows the idea that maybe Peregrine and Esther are struggling within their heteronormative, privileged lifestyles and that this action is an expression of their truer personhoods. Sadly, like blackface, I think the two are so far removed from what the experience is actually like, they succeeded only in embarrassing themselves to those who face the struggles they pretend to understand. It is simply disrespectful.

Appropriation typically involves an exploitation or assimilation into a minority/oppressed culture by a majority/dominant culture. In this case, the dominant—two privileged women who enjoy their class and celebrity status—are laying claim to the identity of a marginalized community they do not belong to. Julia Serano breaks this kind of appropriation of the LGBTQ lifestyle into three motivations:

Erasure: Marginalized/minority groups have little power or voice in society. Therefore, when the dominant/majority group takes up their identities, ideas, and other cultural creations, it tends to undermine or erase the context in which they were created, and the original meanings and symbolism that underlie them. In other words, the dominant/majority typically takes up the marginalized/minority group’s creations while disregarding their perspective.

Exploitation: Sometimes members of the dominant/majority group will materially profit from aspects or acts that they have appropriated from a marginalized/minority group without ever giving anything back to that community. This tends to further exacerbate economic disparities that may already exist between the two groups.

Denigration: This can refer to a couple different things. Denigration can mean “to treat or represent as lacking in value or importance; belittle,” which applies to instances where important or sacred aspects of the marginalized/minority group’s identity or culture are appropriated by the dominant/majority group in an irreverent or disrespectful manner. Denigration can also mean “to speak damagingly of; criticize in a derogatory manner; sully; defame: to denigrate someone’s character,” which applies to instances where the dominant/majority group appropriates some aspect of the marginalized/minority group’s identity or culture in order to purposefully ridicule, parody, or insult members of that group.

These three motivations are not obvious to Peregrine if she is enjoying her dominance without respecting or relating to the culture she is borrowing. It is social colonialism, identity gentrification, and it is responsible for some deep seated misinformation that manifests into small or large injustices.

I’m not forgetting the point of this store: to provide unique, custom made underclothes to individuals who struggle with the annoyances of connecting their body to their mind. I can’t really imagine what that’s like, as my underwear is about as low maintenance as it gets and my sexual and gender identity fall under a different umbrella, but I can imagine there is something people will want, will benefit from, and will pay for that All Is Fair can provide. But Honig is creating a brand that neglects to imagine a body that does not embrace the cute, frilly aspects of underwear. Handmade garments with her own paintings on them reflects a one-sided understanding of how lingerie works. Has she considered the fact that many trans individuals would rather not draw attention to the parts of them they must alter in order to feel normal? As I was researching and asking about the differences in what trans people want from their underwear, my correspondent provided this:

“Why would celebrating the fact that I have to bind, which in our culture, makes me supposedly less of a man, be any different? If they actually manage to make a reasonably priced binder that doesn’t ride up or break your ribs and don’t paint it like it’s goddamned lingerie they may get my business yet, via mail order. It just seems like they still regard trans men as women who want pretty things to celebrate their body, and that offends me. While the wearing of bras and other female undergarments may be a celebration of femininity for trans women, I do not find the daily recognition that my body is not a reflection of myself any type of celebration at all.”

This was something I hadn’t considered before. The very act of covering ones body in an ongoing attempt to bring it closer to one’s true identity is something I don’t experience on such an extreme level. Of course, we all attempt to dress in a way that reflects who we are, but we can control and change our clothes whenever and however we want. We’re mostly stuck with our bodies, and trans individuals who do not seek or cannot afford operation must find ways to live with the body they were assigned without the constant reminder that they are not living in the correct body. Some people buy lingerie to celebrate their figures because they want, or want other people, to pay attention to it. It seems there is a great disconnect between the business model of hand-painted, delicate, meticulously created garments and some individuals’ need to just throw something on and not think about it as much as possible. I’m also not the target audience for this store, so I need to recognize there are many different preferences and lifestyles that would find some products in All Is Fair beneficial. Given my experiences at Birdies, with Honig’s “Unicorn” show, and as a viewer of her art on a more general level, I am curious to see if she is able to create a product that is not saturated in femininity.

I want to make one thing clear about myself: I do not speak for the transgender community in any way. I do not speak for a population that has a voice of their own. I do not claim to understand more than anyone else, or in a better way. I have not been asked to stand in for another voice, nor have I been assigned the role of reviewer by anyone. I am doing this because I want to say something nobody else has said yet. I am doing this because I have the ability to contribute to the conversation using my own tools. I am doing this because I am afraid we will repeat the past with a new vocabulary, steeped in altruism and communal interest but really guiding the movement in the wrong direction. I am doing this because I am not afraid of Peregrine Honig, her followers, or other people who may not like what I have to say. I am doing this because when a community is being appropriated by the privileged majority—when their lives and identities are being borrowed and used by the profiteering dominant—I want to stand on the side that is fighting for a greater and more equal world.




Art Hidden Beneath The Sugar Sweat: KC First Fridays

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Cotton candy treats at Front/Space

This summer Kansas City has once more filled the streets of the Crossroads Arts District with cotton candy hauling, iPhone selfie taking, snap-back wearing, sweaty too-close-for-comfort crowds. The few miles of mixed use real estate area the Crossroads makes up contains everything from traditional commercial galleries, pop ups, and artist-run spaces. While there are a lot of bodies to weave into the tight gallery corners and form food cart lines down the streets, it leaves me to wonder if they are here to be a part of Kansas City’s art culture or to just be entertained.

Typically, art gallery openings are stages set for artists to meet collectors and celebrate a specific duration of the artists’ work. The scale of First Friday is far from that cocktail party atmosphere. Instead it has become an attraction for tourists and suburbanites, and rightfully so. A free event with the opportunity to experience something outside of cul-de-sack lifestyle. Kansas City is transformed on the surface into an active bohemian metropolis filled with people willing to engage with art.

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remnants of the art party near Leedyville

In the latter part of the 20th century most industry shifted internationally. With the movement of jobs, most midwestern cities experienced a large suburban flight. Cheap rent drew Kansas City artists back into these downtown spaces that were once left behind. Now the Crossroads is booming and reactivated through art’s creative placemaking; however, that “place” has become less about artists and more about promoting real estate, along with the plethora of other corporate enterprises. The engagement with culture is left to the bystander. I spotted a woman outside a flower shop gallery peering in through the window to look at nude figure drawings. Her friends in matching Royals jerseys were busy perusing the craft table outside; potentially purchasing reclaimed wood pieces painted to cheer “Jayhawk Rock Chalk”.This woman on the other hand tried to usher her friends to join her in the space to no avail. Modern and Contemporary Art has a tendency to make people feel as though they just don’t get it or that galleries are sacred spaces where they don’t belong. Perhaps, First Friday is about creating a different experience. Among the impromptu DJ sets, fire breathers, and hula hoop dancers it seems there is an opportunity here for artists and critics to turn this hodge-podge into something better than what we have grown to expect.

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street vendor “Rock Chalk Jayhawk” sign

There was a lot of hype around The Art of Data exhibition in June at the new Arts KC building. Inside it, the exhibition was designed to visually showcase data utilized in large-scale decision making by city planners. An attempt for politicians to engage critically with artists, and thus, the community. However ambitious this potential conversation strived to be, the exhibition was thrown completely out of balance by classic cars placed in the center of the gallery. Looking at the work for longer than twenty seconds was impossible due to the conveyor belt of people pushing everyone along. With each short glimpse, the data felt like it was being used no different than a disjointed powerpoint presentation. All the work was so visually disparate from the content it appeared more like a loose prompt for the artists with little consideration of outcome. Thoroughly dividing the space and removing the cars could have made for an opportunity to be more critical of how the individual works flowed together. When looking at The Art of Data as a whole, an immediate comparison is drawn to You Can’t Hurry Love, an exhibition last summer at fellow Crossroads’ gallery Front/Space.

Off center from the main drag of Southwest Boulevard and Baltimore, Front/Space is an incredibly small artist-run gallery. Because of it’s size Front/Space was able to take advantage of curating a data microcosm.You Can’t Hurry Love, featuring Sean Starowitz, Matthew Hayden, Nate Kautzer, Andrew Lyles, Taylor Pruitt, and Jessica N Rogers, showcased city data that highlighted real world problems. Food deserts, abandoned homes, and a lack of important public spaces, such as parks were all part of the exhibition’s conceptual engagement. You Can’t Hurry Love presented data in its raw form next to the artists’ own experimental solutions in formats such as public art projects, new community organizations, and the release of a book on art, literature, and civics. It seems that artist-run spaces or galleries allowing full artistic takeover are the places that create experiences that keep First Friday from spiraling into a complete carnival.

Another instance of successful artistic takeover occurred on May First Friday at Leedy-Volukos Art Center. On a street lined with food trucks and photo booths, hidden amongst the hovering crowds is Leedy Voulkos Art Center. At the Art Center, many different exhibitions are presented throughout a conveyor of galleries with no clear curatorial conversation. Typically what I see here is the work of every Kansas City Art Institute Foundation year professor mingled next to unknown artists that are thematically the polar opposite. Art placed in close proximity needs to have some similar thread of visual or conceptual content. Non-linear can be interesting but this is usually just confusing. All gallery rooms at Leedy Voulkos are connected by doorways that lead you from one gallery and into another but with no specific flow to that movement. Some exhibitions starting from one end, others ending opposite the entryway where wall text is placed. All of these disparate choices continue a disappointing mission to experience great art.

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Laundry Day was Last Week image courtesy of Kadie Nugent

Leedy-Voulkos recently opened up the downstairs space specifically for local undergraduate student work. This windowless unit was transformed this May by fiber artist Kadie Nugent into a large-scale interactive drawing sculpture hybrid of a woman’s bedroom. With black and white objects breaking up the scale of the marks, it was easy to become immersed in this monochromatic world. The depth of the mark-making was intense and overwhelming. One could not even step into the space without first putting covers on their shoes and greeting the artist.

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Laundry Day was Last Week image courtesy of Kadie Nugent

It was found, an exhibition in the middle of all the chaos with a clear entry point, a limitation on number of people, and a truly curated story to walk through. Nugent’s installation shifted my perception. Maybe First Friday isn’t all bad, and quite possibly there are situations to participate and interact with these diamonds in the rough. Regardless of what kind of side show entertainment exists and what people’s motives are for coming, I think First Friday is an opportunity. It’s a chance for us to take it for what it is, and maybe flip it on its head. With thousands of people flooding the streets, there have to be some, like that woman at the flower shop, with a genuine interest in engaging with art.

Art and artists are still going to exist in this district. Even as it pushes artist-run and alternative spaces further from the centralized action, there are opportunities for great things to be found. The party of First Friday isn’t going anywhere and while these

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two separate camps seem divided there is potential for crossover. A curated conversation that merges these groups could be the space in which they find balance with one another.