Pictures Talking to Each Other: The Conversational Practice of Megan Pobywajlo

Megan Pobywajlo does not think of her photographs as separate entities. Although they can stand alone, for her, they exist relationally within the space of a publication or gallery. Narrative and gestures of communication are central to her practice; her collections of images rely on memory, time, and syntax in order to present a more fully contextualized story. Critical to her work is the democratization of knowledge about how a photograph is made. This often takes the form of workshops, gatherings, experimental programming and social media in which information about the photographic process is exchanged with an audience.

Red Chicken by Megan Pobywajlio. Image Courtesy of the Artist

Red Chicken by Megan Pobywajlo. Image Courtesy of the Artist

Deciding what each photo says to the rest of the images in a series is a process that can only be described as one in which the works get to know one another. Pobywajlo prints the photos out on cards and takes them around with her, occasionally pulling them out, shuffling and rearranging looking for associations that expand on their formal connections. Within those formal considerations ,the practice becomes less about what each image communicates to the viewer and more about what they say to each other. Her instagram feed offers a wealth of opportunity to discover this phenomenon of conversation between the images. From June 25th to July 3rd Pobywajlo posted a series of four photographs, that create a call to followers of her instagram account to explore the formal relationships around the image.

The fireworks tent, bathing its explosive contents in red reaches up to a triangular point that exclaims in one breath ‘Emergency’ and ‘Exit’. The following image is of a red chicken figurine that contains something but the form is elusive; I have thought perhaps it is a folded up drink umbrella but it has occurred to me that it is a firework. The chicken sits on a gray backdrop, curling at the right and the triangular shape from the previous photo is repeated but pointing in the opposite direction.The next two posts are of cherry tomatoes, first; three tomatoes in a sunlit hand posed in front of a ficus leaf and then three tomatoes (I assume they are the very same tomatoes from the first image) grouped around a previously snacked-on cucumber. The hand is open, ready to pop the tomatoes in a mouth but the next photo reveals that desire unfulfilled, made more striking by the inclusion of a cucumber that is nearly consumed.

14 Megan Pobywajlo tomato_eggs

Tomato Eggs by Megan Pobywajlo. Image Courtesy of the Artist

Pobywajlo’s writing displays the same poetic tendencies that present a word or object, only to refer to some other idea in a verbal sleight of hand that makes full use of parens and footnotes. One of her lengthier pieces presents itself as something more like an administrative document. It is a script for a workshop that teaches its reader or participant to make a photo zine. The text does more than just describe the ‘first you do A, then you do B’ process, it proposes a connection between an audience, an art practice and the place of images in our visual world.

I read a lot of artist statements. I read them online, I see them in various applications and I sometimes edit them for inclusion in project documentation. They are intentions, a way to contextualize a set of works within the larger scope of an artist’s’ practice. Zines & How Pictures Talk to Each Other does the work of an artist statement but also functions as a work of art. It is a radical and democratizing effort at not just leveling the who of who can make art and what stories they tell but how art and images operate in our world.

Red Chicken by Megan Pobywajlo. Image Courtesy of the Artist

Thought Experiments by Megan Pobywajlo. Image Courtesy of the Artist


This essay is part of a series commissioned, in collaboration with Informality Blog, for the exhibition Against the Screen at La Esquina Gallery (1000 W 25 Street KCMO) open from August 25 through October 7, 2017. These pieces, co-edited by Melaney Mitchell (Founder & Senior Editor of Informality Blog) and Lynnette Miranda (Curator-in-Residence at Charlotte Street Foundation) focus on a shared goal of bringing the eyes of national writers to the work of Kansas City-based artists. 




Encountering the Black Everyday in William Toney’s Photography

“The black aesthetic turns on a dialectic of luxuriant withholding – abundance and lack push technique over the edge of refusal so that the trouble with beauty, which is the very animation and emanation of art, is always and everywhere troubled again and again. New technique, new beauty.” The Undercommons, Fred Moten and Stefano Harney

Clippers by William Toney (2016) Image courtesy of the Artist

Clippers by William Toney (2016) Image courtesy of the Artist

In photographer William Toney’s Clippers (2016), a set of multicolored clipper guards, the artist’s own, are arranged before a black background, their teeth at some points intersecting —each guard in some way touching another. The blackness of the background feels almost infinite —it isn’t quite clear if the clippers are at rest, suspended in space, or falling together in a cluster. It’s an image that has likely been incidentally reproduced on the counters of countless barbershops. But in extracting these tools from their original context and placing them quite literally into the black space of a studio backdrop, Toney’s still life imbues these objects with a sense of wonder. Through this, a full recontextualization of the quotidian, he doesn’t raise the mundane to the state of beauty but rather troubles conceptions of beauty itself.

Toney’s work is an intensely personal exploration of the spaces and traces of black life. He describes the recent shift in his practice—which occurred after returning to his hometown of Kansas City from Columbia, Missouri where he studied photography at Mizzou—as a rencounter with the language of urban spaces, a re-immersion into the familial and the familiar. Left without the resources and support of his undergraduate art department, Toney turned to making work in his bedroom studio meticulously arranging “scenarios” to capture, some of which involved his family and friends, others which incorporated found objects and personal items. In triangulation with his studio-based work, the artist approaches his street photography through a similar lens. From his de Bechers inspired typological cataloguing of car sun screens across the U.S. to moments of flux or visual irony captured on the streets of Kansas City, Toney crafts a narrative of movement through space.

Still Life White (2017 by William Toney. Image Courtesy of the Artist

Still Life White (2017 by William Toney. Image Courtesy of the Artist

He considers these images to be in a state of interdependence, each a vignette standing both on its own and together which Toney compares to the relationship of tracks on a mixtape. Thematic refrains reappear in their full presence or in a gesture toward their presence. The clipper guards reappear in Stilllife White (2017) in the sculptural shrine-like arrangement of wilted and wilting flowers and leaves lit by a reddish light. Amongst the plants Toney places objects that ring of black urban life. The heel of the Jordan sneaker peeks out in the left part of the frame. A folded white “tall tee”— popular in the snap rap era of the mid-2000s — sits propped at the base of the arrangement. Elsewhere in the sculpture one finds detritus that Toney has collected from the streets of Kansas City: the face of a Newport carton and a generic styrofoam cup one would find at corner convenience store. Toney refuses to overlook that which is considered waste/discarded, whether in the form of cultural passe or actual objects that people have thrown away, instead bringing the viewer to an makeshift altar of blacknesses past, present, and future.

Here, his embrasure of refuse runs against expectations of beauty, distancing us the everydayness of the black everyday. It is this that is Toney’s act of refusal—a rejection of the terms of what is considered passe, ‘dirty’, or unworthy of an attentive eye.

Far from the Tree by William Toney (2010) Image Courtesy of the Artist

Far from the Tree by William Toney (2010) Image Courtesy of the Artist

The presence of the clipper guard echoes again in Far From the Tree (2010), a studio portrait of two closely shaven heads—Toney’s and his father’s—leaning into one another, the shadows of the crowns of their respective heads eclipsing the other. The image captures not only the physical similarity of the heads of a father and son but an orchestrated, nonetheless, palpable moment of tenderness and intimacy between two black men. The image acknowledges both the black familial space and the space of black masculinity as spaces in which there is the possibility of refusal of their imposed/supposed limits and acknowledgment of their beauty and complexities.

In a world where representation of blackness in the mainstream remains important, it fades as a goal or interest for both artists and mass political movements. Toney’s photographic practice enacts a practice of refusal, asking his viewers to encounter the black quotidian and its intersections and divergences with a mainstream on its own terms, in its own language in its full wonder and beauty.


This essay is part of a series commissioned, in collaboration with Informality Blog, for the exhibition Against the Screen at La Esquina Gallery (1000 W 25 Street KCMO) open from August 25 through October 7, 2017. These pieces, co-edited by Melaney Mitchell (Founder & Senior Editor of Informality Blog) and Lynnette Miranda (Curator-in-Residence at Charlotte Street Foundation) focus on a shared goal of bringing the eyes of national writers to the work of Kansas City-based artists. 




Journeys and Cross-Generational Narratives in Barry Anderson’s The Janus Restraint

A labyrinth evolves before us in Barry Anderson’s The Janus Restraint, the ongoing multimedia project begun in 2012. Anderson has created a kaleidoscope of epic semi-narrative proportions, which merges mythology, romantic landscapes, and personal symbolism.The project could be considered an extended portrait of the artist’s son, who’s featured heavily in the work, although such a simplification would do a disservice to the richness of the piece.         

Barry Anderson Come as You Are. Image Courtesy of the Artist

Still from Barry Anderson’s The Janus Restraint. Image Courtesy of the Artist

In 2010, Anderson took a trip across the American landscape, visiting national parks and landmarks with his father and his son. The journey extended for weeks, becoming the catalyst for a tradition that connects three generations of family and laid the foundation for the project that would become The Janus Restraint. Through these experiences, in addition to a solo sojourn to Iceland, Anderson has generated works of cinematic beauty and moments of transcendence in what is ultimately a metaphorical reimagining of boyhood rites of passage. 

The Janus Project shifts across disciplines, incorporating video, digital construction, black and white photography, and sculptural installations that progress and build on one another. They culminated in a series of exhibitions with a variety of these elements shown. Each form complicates and layers the work, recording time in different ways as we witness Anderson’s public and private experiences coalesce. In one moment the camera pans slowly across a deserted Icelandic mountainscape and takes our breath away, in another, we watch candid images of Anderson’s son investigating new terrain in a style that suggests home videos. In the midst of the majestic and the intimate, all is permitted.

Still from Barry Anderson's The Janus Restraint. Image Courtesy of the Artist

Still from Barry Anderson’s The Janus Restraint. Image Courtesy of the Artist

Collectively these videos reveal the Icelandic landscape and the Aurora borealis. As the Northern Lights and additional visual cues to Scandinavian lore accumulate, Anderson establishes a link to Norse mythology. Here we come to see the Bifröst, a bridge to the gods, and understand the natural relationship between a simple baseball bat carried by Anderson’s son and Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir. For a contemporary audience familiar with Marvel comics and immersed in a pop culture, saturated with their corresponding superhero movies, these connections provide us access and a vernacular through which to approach the work.

Anderson uses music as a vital element in his practice, one that he pushes as he experiments with different narratological structures. In addition to creating his own soundtracks, he has been working with a variety of musicians to score his videos. Like the unfamiliar influences from which his scores grow, Anderson’s symbolic language provides a slow burn: noticeable but not obvious, intimate but also indirect. The more time we spend with The Janus Restraint, the more the symbols reveal themselves and generate unexpected connections—from Icelandic mythology to Americana—establishing a visceral and psychological space that brings together disparate narratives. The Roman god Janus was two-faced, looking towards the past and the future, and was also known as the god of beginnings, transitions, time, duality, passages, and endings. The restraint Anderson references in his title may be a loose metaphor for the eternal search within the work for himself and the viewer, on various but akin journeys.

Still from Barry Anderson's The Janus Restraint. Image Courtesy of the Artist

Still from Barry Anderson’s The Janus Restraint. Image Courtesy of the Artist

Anderson’s pristine video quality and cinematic approach create a surreal experience when presented on multiple screens in front of the viewer, challenging the expectation of single-channel narrative. Seen across screens or broken up on individually, Anderson requires viewers to divide their attention and eventually experience all the images simultaneously. It is easy to get lost in the labyrinth of imagery and psychedelic colors, to lose your grounding in the shifting patterns, or to get caught in the symbolism and density of narrative. Anderson and his son reveal themselves to be adept collaborators and guides, however, inviting us to accompany them across unfamiliar terrain through private experiences which always just elude our understanding. Their shared vision welcomes the viewer into their journey of monumental scope, suggesting that even when you’re not exactly certain where you are, you might perhaps stay awhile and enjoy the view.


This essay is part of a series commissioned, in collaboration with Informality Blog, for the exhibition Against the Screen at La Esquina Gallery (1000 W 25 Street KCMO) open from August 25 through October 7, 2017. These pieces, co-edited by Melaney Mitchell (Founder & Senior Editor of Informality Blog) and Lynnette Miranda (Curator-in-Residence at Charlotte Street Foundation) focus on a shared goal of bringing the eyes of national writers to the work of Kansas City-based artists. 




Revealing Self: Patricia Bordallo Dibildox’s Poetic Objects of Identity

Patricia Bordallo Dibildox - Screenshot Untitled from the series At the Foot of the Mountain 2014. Image Courtesy of the Artist.

To acknowledge intellectually that one’s identity is fluid and intersectional is one endeavor; to make this visible through physical objects is another challenge altogether. Yet,this is the aim of Patricia Bordallo Dibildox’s practice; a personal and introspective journey through her experience as a Mexican artist and person of color in the United States. Though only at the beginning of her career, the artist has already developed a habit of reflecting upon earlier moments in her work and expanding upon them in new ways. Dibildox stops short of full nostalgia, instead recognizing the personal growth and wisdom that she has cultivated in a short period of time. Says the artist,

My work is a conversation between myself now and myselves throughout the fifteen years that I have lived in the United States. I focus on the way in which the inescapable whiteness around me and the predominantly white institutions that shaped my thinking have crippled my existence as a woman of color.”

Dibildox creates photographs, video and textiles that place heavy emphasis on linguistics and an an expansive notion of cultural and dialectical translation. The artist moved to Kansas City from Mexico at age 8, and more recently realized the vocabulary to describe the codeswitching and assimilation techniques universal to the immigrant experience in the United States. These epiphanies inform her work, though she admits that the process of reconciling her birthplace and contemporary context is ongoing. Dibildox recalls reckoning with Latinx identity during art school, and collaborating with a Mexican-American artist on a publication for her senior thesis. Although she admired her collaborator’s work greatly, ultimately she came to recognize the singularity of her experience and felt frustrated. “It wasn’t the work I wanted to make,” the artist tells me.

Patricia Bordallo Dibildox - Goddess 2016. Image Courtesy of the Artist.

Patricia Bordallo Dibildox – Goddess 2016. Image Courtesy of the Artist.

After experimenting with iconography readily associated with Mexican culture, Dibildox has shifted her practice towards creating objects that consider how identity is formed in relation to context and surroundings. The artist describes grappling with the sharp contrast between her childhood in Mexico and the rest of her life in a predominantly white suburb of Kansas City. In I know what I want, I want what I know (2017), Dibildox places the titular text on white vinyl globeros, or balloons, similar to toys she encountered as a child in Mexico. The objects marketed to her growing up featured Mickey Mouse and other American cultural icons, fostering what Dibildox calls “a never-ending desire for whiteness.” Though the artist became critically conscious as a young adult, she laments the internalized racism and white supremacy she sees other immigrants struggle with, including members of her own family.

While creating visual imagery has been the central focus of Dibildox’s practice, she has pursued a parallel yet separate exploration of writing. She describes language as becoming another medium for her, and cites etymology and semantics as particular interests. Although her use of text initially began as a way to explain and embed identity within conceptual work, it has since evolved into more deliberate wordsmithing. Visual forms are becoming a platform for her written experimentation.

Patricia Bordallo Dibildox - Untitled, 2016 Image Courtesy of the Artist

Patricia Bordallo Dibildox – Untitled, 2016 Image Courtesy of the Artist

Patricia Bordallo Dibildox - Untitled, 2016 Image Courtesy of the Artist

Patricia Bordallo Dibildox – Untitled, 2016 Image Courtesy of the Artist

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dibildox’s recent work has combined writing with abstracted self-representation. She has generated tonal images by scanning her skin and averaging out the pixels, which are then printed on fabric. On top of the skin colored impression are the words “Tu eres mi pan de Dios; tu eres mi hola y mi adios” (“You are my bread of God; you are my hello and my goodbye”). Though the juxtaposition of the flesh with religious references has clear allusions to Christianity (biblically Jesus is often referred to as the Bread of Life), the poetic wording is drawn from the artist’s partner and her family. She recalls hearing it said by her grandmother, who used the expression when referring to someone for whom she was grateful, and found to be benevolent and kind. For Dibildox, this person is her own partner, and the work becomes an homage to him. Though she feels that her identity is scrutinized by others because she is part of an interracial couple, her work defies outside tendencies to essentialize or stereotype. Rather, Dibildox’s works ultimately make the case that identity is not inherent, but instead a cultivated accumulation of experiences, relationships, and contexts.


This essay is part of a series commissioned, in collaboration with Informality Blog, for the exhibition Against the Screen at La Esquina Gallery (1000 W 25 Street KCMO) open from August 25 through October 7, 2017. These pieces, co-edited by Melaney Mitchell (Founder & Senior Editor of Informality Blog) and Lynnette Miranda (Curator-in-Residence at Charlotte Street Foundation) focus on a shared goal of bringing the eyes of national writers to the work of Kansas City-based artists. 




Why Should Artists be Writing in Kansas City: A Thesis Revisited

The following essay is a revisit to the current state of arts writing in KC by Founder & Senior Editor Melaney Ann Mitchell with contributions by Senior Editor Blair Schulman. 

Four years ago, when I started Informality, the call for an arts publication was constantly within earshot. Art Practical, the Bay Area-based arts publication, had just come through town for a lecture and to feature Kansas City in their latest issue. Noting the importance of writing for a healthy arts ecosystem, and the death of the former Review magazine — a much beloved local publication filled with arts writing — their visit was a call to the community to start something new. Informality’s beginning was rocky and humble, and after all this time that’s the best description for its continued development.  Arts writing is a profession that has seen its death, and been in crisis for such a long time, only to see it morph and adapt to a strong online culture that reaches vast audiences. But then again, painting has also been given a death sentence, too.  Neither medium is anywhere near an actual point of end, because art and its ideas will never reach resolution. 

I fell in love with arts writing, because I love art and the conversation surrounding it. Working in small alternative art spaces over the years, I learned dialogue is the currency of our culture. And from this dialogue, I learned that where we note a deficit in Kansas City’s arts community is the lack of a graduate program to retain young artists and lead them to employment.  More importantly, the lack of grad school also means a lack of real criticality for recent grads and mid-career artists. When making work in a vacuum with no constructive dialogue, a lot of folks leave to seek constructive criticism that leads to further experimentation and —  the elephant in the room —  a market for their work. The plateau for many emerging and early career artists can arrive here faster and earlier than in other cities. There are a lack of galleries that can afford to encourage artists to experiment and explore innovative curating while maintaining the economics that anchor it all.  Pats on the back at an opening from a friend is no substitute for written criticism and a strong gallery system.

Portion of the Informality Staff as Guerrilla Docents at Trey Hock's show, The Mirror Selfie at Beco Flowers. Image courtesy of Megan Pobywajlo-Bailey

Portion of the Informality staff as Guerrilla Docents at Trey Hock’s show, The Mirror Selfie at Beco Flowers. Image courtesy of Megan Pobywajlo-Bailey

Yet, after all this time, the optimism for wide-reaching critical discourse is far from complete. As our team has grown, I know we still have barely scratched the surface. Most of my time is taken up by my day job, site maintenance, editing, and my own studio practice.  My contributions to the site have come to a near screeching halt. The challenge and work of maintaining a critical arts publication has left me asking a lot of questions. With the rise of other publications that focus on coverage for the general public, but remain beholden to commercial advertising in order to sustain themselves, I start wondering if resistance is futile. Their content is influenced by ad sales, and serious critical analysis is sidelined; the very thing artists must have to feel their work talk back to them and be understood by their public. We’re underfunded, and the energy and enthusiasm of three to five enthusiastic editors and writers can only go so far. My team and I have reached a point where we know what’s needed; funded galleries with the freedom to both experiment and bring in collectors. And a final cessation  that Kansas City is not a strong, viable arts city that can hold its own.

At the critical turning point of Informality going into it’s fifth year,  I wonder what fuel can keep us going? There are more artists and amazing studio spaces in Kansas City than we have even begun to cover, and their work is growing at a rapid pace.  Can there be such a thing as Community Supported Arts Writing? What does KC need from an artist-run arts publication? How do we remain alternative and informal, considering social, cultural, and other macro issues that influence the art we’re all making? How can we showcase the questions and considerations that artists around us are working with?

What are some solutions to getting through to the collectors base in Kansas City? These ultimately, are the people who fund the lifeblood of this community. For whom are we doing all this? Or is that the wrong perspective?  Is the right idea, cynical as it sounds, because all the great work being made here is simply priming the pump for artists to make themselves more attractive to other cities where they are going to be recognized, shown and sold.

Cultural capital is an excellent investment and participation must be met on a level where all beneficiaries feel good about their stake. How can we make this labor both viable and financially valuable? We’re writing the histories of Kansas City’s contemporary art world as it relates to the current climate – both cultural and political – the action of encapsulating this dialogue, yet we’re underpaid, or unpaid, much too often. When all this started, the focus was on how to make Kansas City into an international art city through a focus on arts writing, We need a lot more than a committed few; we need civic backing, collective understanding of what is getting done here and fiscal understanding of why writing matters.

 




E S S A Y 3 / 6 : The Distance and the Manicure.

‘Cause there is no love
Where there is no bramble

– Bill Callahan, from the A River Ain’t Too Much to Love LP.

*

On our second day in Texas we could not swim in the pool below the grotto beneath the cow field because of too much manure runoff and too little rain, and besides it was busy with too many people to be good for swimming, and so we followed a sign pointing up into the high scrub and pine instead. We hoped for another pool–we had come all this way, you know.

Here is a structure for discussing Art — Art is not a thing to be got, it is instead a place to be got-to. It is a rare spot when described and regarded with honesty and accuracy, and it is a tourist dive when described and regarded callously. When in pursuit of Art one undershoots the ambition or overshoots the execution, one lands instead in the near-bys of Art–Hobby and Decoration the pleasant leeward; Commerce and Bad Art the windward. These are necessary places. They are worth caring for because they exist around Art and point in its direction, and because most folks have busy lives and Art takes time. It takes time to conceive beyond the initial attraction, it takes time to make virtuous in some way, it takes time to see beyond looking, it takes time to digest beyond having-been-seen. Sometimes the base camp is the only place to be gotten out to on a weekend, you know. 

**

We followed a path as it ascended the north side of a valley. The close growing pine trees made a dense tunnel of boiling sap air around us, the gaps in the branches showing across the valley to sun-facing hillsides of prickly pears in their fullest trout-belly-flower in the cloudless middle of a Spring-becoming-Summer midmorning. There was great beauty and almost no comfort offered by it.

Here is another structure for discussing Art — the title Artist ought to be applied in an aspirational sense during life. One hopes to make Art, one aims for it, only. It is not a marker of some aesthetic certainty, but instead a statement of intention. It follows that the Artist pursue by necessity experiences which feel like Art feels, even when there is no certainty that Art will be there waiting when the feeling has passed. And there is no certainty what someone makes in a studio one afternoon for folks to look at in a gallery one evening will be Art. Nor should we expect it to be, nor should we call it that just because an Artist made it and someone found wall space for it. More than likely it is the product of a hobby which the Artist invented alone in the dark over the course of a dozen years. More than likely the Artist will spend an unaccountable long time taking ideas out for little walks around the block, the specter of Art always a block further on. More than likely the Artist produces litter after litter of shaggy, mawing, three-legged farmdogs, all the while hoping to birth just one greyhound in full gallop.

***

A drowsy distance further on we heard water moving, emerging from the pine at the edge of a wide river bank; it was the great and flinty Pedernales, it still is. There was a breeze coming off it, and populations of birds and insects and fishes. We walked into water and piled our things on a low, flat rock in the middle of the river. We dog paddled upstream and floated downstream, going where the river took us. We found cold spots and warmer ones, deep spots and places we could stand up. We played for an afternoon and when we were tired we rested on our rock beside all our things. 

 Here is one last structure for discussing Art — Art differs from other creative pursuits in the distance of travel and the manicure of the terrain, but they all exist along the same path. Decoration right there with orchids in bell jars. Commerce at a stones throw with shredded tire mulch to guard against scraped knees. Hobby an arrow straight landing strip with a crosscut. Bad Art a backyard of disappointing grafts which won’t last the winter. Art the most distant and given over to a wild ecosystem of invasives moving towards the sun. It is a high function of a person to pursue any point along the path– there are easier ways to pass the time. It is a high function to make an effort to include beauty in ones life, and a higher function to seek to understand it, and then to share it. The fact that folks keep making an attempt despite all the labor gives me hope for the future.

****

We dried off in the sun and drank beers and passed around grass and bread and avocados. There wasn’t a knife and so we scooped out the avocados with our fingernails and washed off in water, laying our stomachs on the hot rock and waving our hands at the bed of the Pedernales as it passed by towards the Colorado, forever I hope. Heaven’s own blessing on accident, that afternoon felt like Art feels when it is really, really good.

Essay 3

photo by Twist.                                                           

 

*****

Next time: BabyCat Looks Me in the Eye.

 




Culture and Starters: S.E. Nash’s Cultural Inquiry Through Fermentation

Etta Sandry takes a microscopic view of the concept of culture in the work of S. E. Nash

While listening to an interview with the artist S.E. Nash and other fermentation enthusiasts on an episode of KCUR’s program Central Standard, I was struck by the use of the word “culture.” Taken from the Merriam-Webster English Dictionary online, the definition of “culture” in a scientific context is the act or process of cultivating living material (such as bacteria or viruses) in prepared nutrient media; also: a product of such cultivation. In the terminology of fermentation, this is the “starter”: a portion of food or nutrient substrate—wheat in a sourdough starter, for example—that has been colonized by bacteria that will enact the fermentation process.

S.E. Nash Lactobacillus Amongus Exhibition Installation at Plug Projects

S.E. Nash
Lactobacillus Amongus Exhibition Installation at Plug Projects

“Culture” is more commonly thought of in a social context, where the meaning refers to the development of human knowledge and the resulting beliefs, behavior, and social practices that are enacted to share and preserve that knowledge within a group. Both uses of the “culture” originate in its Latin root, “colere” meaning to tend or cultivate. The original use of the word referred to a knowledge of the land. As human history developed, the contextual meaning expanded to include the cultivation of the mind.

S.E. Nash’s work investigates culture through all understandings of the word. Beginning in 2015 with a show titled They/Them/Their, at Black Ball Projects in New York, Nash began incorporating micro-organisms and fermented foods in their work. Amorphous sculptures made of paper maché, burlap, and paint housed glass vessels of fermenting foods including kimchi and kombucha. Each sculpture is created with the specific fermentation vessel in mind and the color, form, and shape are informed by Nash’s interpretation of the spirit of the microbes in the food fermenting. Wall works such as An Incomplete Index of Bacterial Morphology gave the viewer an enlarged visual abstraction of a look under a microscope. Members of New York’s fermentation community were invited to leave jars of their personal ferments on a shelf in the gallery for the duration of the exhibition and Nash hosted programming around the process of food fermentation from initiation to consumption.

 S.E. Nash The stability of sourdough ecosystem during time is debated 70 in. x 48 in. x 36 in. Wood, polyurethane foam, cardboard, sculptamold, burlap, acrylic paint, acrylic sheeting, glass jars, sourdough starters


S.E. Nash
The stability of sourdough ecosystem during time is debated
70 in. x 48 in. x 36 in.
Wood, polyurethane foam, cardboard, sculptamold, burlap, acrylic paint, acrylic sheeting, glass jars, sourdough starters

These workshops, meals, and demonstrations are now a regular part of Nash’s work. The artist’s recent solo show Lactobacillus Amongus about sourdough bread at Plug Projects in Kansas City culminated in a bread bake and community potluck. These events stage the gallery as a site for inquiry and knowledge sharing while inviting people from across disciplines to come together to cultivate a new community of artists, fermentors, and others.

 S.E. Nash Propagated under peculiar technological parameters (1) 48 in. x 36 in. x 7.5 in. Wood, burlap, sculptamold, acrylic paint, glass jars, sourdough starters

S.E. Nash
Propagated under peculiar technological parameters (1)
48 in. x 36 in. x 7.5 in.
Wood, burlap, sculptamold, acrylic paint, glass jars, sourdough starters

In this work, worlds of culture collide. Cultures of microbes are actively fostered and cultivated throughout the duration of Nash’s shows and new networks of exchange are formed through the outreach and events that take place within the exhibition. Through researching the history of fermentation and by interpreting microbial activity, Nash’s work also explores human culture and social behavior. As a non-scientist researching microbiology, there is a tendency for Nash to personify the micro-organisms, even referring to them as “collaborators” in the work. For the artist, understanding the microbes becomes a way to “unpack how we relate to the idea of life” and a meditation on aspects of human behavior such as relationships, gender expression, symbiosis, reproduction, social networks, and group dynamics. Nash’s fermentation-themed work and related events invite participation into this cultural inquiry.


This essay is part of a series commissioned, in collaboration with Informality Blog, for the exhibition YET, UNKNOWN at Paragraph Gallery (23 E 12th St, Kansas City, MO 64106) open from July 27 through August 26, 2017. These pieces, co-edited by Melaney Mitchell (Founder & Senior Editor of Informality Blog) and Lynnette Miranda (Curator-in-Residence at Charlotte Street Foundation) focus on a shared goal of bringing the eyes of national writers to the work of Kansas City-based artists. 




Zoe Chressanthis’ Utopian World

Kimi Hanauer explores the subtle familiarity in the sculptural worlds of Zoe Chressanthis.

Part I: A Place To Rest

"Excerpts from Swamp Island Cave with Albino Gator" 2017, Plasticine, Acrylic Paint 4 x 6 inches

“Excerpts from Swamp Island Cave with Albino Gator”
2017, Plasticine, Acrylic Paint
4 x 6 inches

The exhibition YET, UNKNOWN proposes that knowledge is dependent on an understanding of the unknown that is based on our own experience of the world. Humans are motivated to understand, and attempt to control, the contexts in which they inhabit. We use common sense to determine our own behavior, language, and understanding of our surroundings as we navigate different environments. In the text Outline of a Theory of Practice, Pierre Bourdieu, a French theorist, defines the term doxa as a commonsense knowledge that is tied to the specific cultural identity of a place and defines social norms that are often left unspoken, or taken for granted. Doxa is a kind of commonsense that certain ‘natural’ inhabitants of a place are indoctrinated into, and others, visitors for example, are not able to easily pick up on.

The idea of doxa came to mind while investigating Zoe Chressanthis’ body of work and wondering what type of logic or commonsense defines the creation and navigation of her constructed environments. Chressanthis’ style embraces a naivety while remaining assertive, building miniature worlds out of plasticine clay accompanied by dramatic colorful lighting that pushes each scene to appear as a dreamscape. Made up of seemingly ‘natural’ occurrences, organisms, plant life—generally uninterrupted by human behavior—these environments linger between known and unknown realities. Her spaces feel quiet and empty of human touch, with the lone animal-like presence of a small snake crawling up a rock, for example. In this tranquility, agency is held by the artist’s characters such as metallic palm trees, gravel, starfish, cactuses, and other plant-like organisms that are less recognizable. While typically presenting her work through films, animations, and images, in this exhibition Chressanthis moves her practice into the realm of sculpture, presenting the worlds themselves. For YET, UNKNOWN, she is creating a new ecosystem for our minds to find rest and ease within, a space we have probably unconsciously desired to escape to at one point in time.

"Still from Mers Springs: Shell Bed" 2017, Clay, Acrylic, Paper Mache, Plasticine (animation 1:08)

“Still from Mers Springs: Shell Bed”
2017, Clay, Acrylic, Paper Mache, Plasticine
(animation 1:08)

Chressanthis transports the viewer into an environment where the existing landscape and logic isn’t immediately identifiable, uniquely positioning them to experience a mismatch of internal and external doxa. This position, between the known and unknown, initiates our own subjectivity, thus allowing the acknowledgment that our understanding of the world is based on personal, emotional, and experiential factors. In other words, through these works, the artist asks us to identify the place from which our knowledge comes from—the subjective lens through which we see and understand the world around us. Through producing these utopian environments within a paradoxical frame, Chressanthis is asserting a type of authority over our society’s relationship to the natural world, reminding us of our emotional and physical ties to that which gives us life. These environments, seemingly thriving, subsequently ask us to reflect on exactly what it is we are escaping during a time where society is readily on its way to destroying our natural world.

Chressanthis’ ability to connect us with our place of ‘escape’ is a powerful questioning of the viewer. What makes the viewer feel free, safe, comfortable, and calm in these spaces? What are the conditions and variables the viewer is escaping from? What limits the conditions of safety and freedom the viewer experiences within the work from existing in reality? This questioning reinforces work being created by many other artists, cultural producers, and activists today, working to shift and expand our understandings of the world around us, in the hopes of transforming society. For cultural change to take form, we need artists who guide us to recognize our biases and prejudices, who ask us to acknowledge the experiences of others, and who are finding and facilitating moments of empathy. Chressanthis’ work and the experiences she creates is a necessary complement to other modes of cultural work happening today. This work is a call for empathy: when you accept your own subjectivity, you must also  accept the subjectivity of others. This positioning is a fundamental and powerful shift away from dominant dichotomies of ‘right and wrong’ or ‘truth and false,’ that often violently structure our co-existence.

"Still from Mers Springs: Sea Floor and Reef" 2017, Clay, Acrylic, Paper Mache, Plaster, Plasticine (animation 1:08)

“Still from Mers Springs: Sea Floor and Reef”
2017, Clay, Acrylic, Paper Mache, Plaster, Plasticine
(animation 1:08)

Part II: Speaking with Chressanthis

What motivates your work? Powerful and sometimes merciless parts of nature: the desert, the sea, mountains, volcanoes, and glaciers. Also forming a space in which people do not reside, or maybe they have been taken by the land itself.

How would you describe the relationship between the different, yet related, landscapes you are building? Destinations like, Dune Valley, Pink Desert Clouds, Lagoon Falls, Mers Springs and now Palm Lake appear to exist alone, but really they are different environments with varying climates that reside within the same world and universe. As of now, I do not know the name of this world, or planet but I intend to form an atlas of sorts that fully describes the terrain of each location and what falls in between.

You talk about your environments as being transformative for the viewer. Can you expand on what experience you hope to create? Until recently, my environments have been viewed through animation or in photographs and paintings. “View of Palm Lake,” is an immersive environment, and like my films, it is simply an observation of a habitat, currently vacant of any inhabitants. I intend for it to be a destination that you can place yourself in while experiencing not only its visual details but also its sounds, and scents. This full sensory experience may give the illusion this place is possible, when in our reality it is implausible. A fully imagined land, presented without a perspective through film or 2D format.

ZoeChressanthis04

“Still from Dune Valley: Palms” 2015, Plasticine, Composite Images (animation 1:45)

This exhibition circulates around the idea of knowledge and the unknown. Do you feel like you’ve learned more about our reality through the creation of your environments? Yes definitely. This piece in particular is more tropical than others before, yet it lies in a cave, on an island, somehow still thriving. While my work often combines opposing vegetation and characteristics, it isn’t intended to be proven, I prefer it to remain mysterious. Much like certain aspects of our own reality, whether in nature or in society.

What is something that makes you feel free? Visiting my hometown, Topanga in Southern California. It is nestled in a canyon and if you drive only 15 minutes down a winding road you will find the ocean. Ironically I am afraid of water.


This essay is part of a series commissioned, in collaboration with Informality Blog, for the exhibition YET, UNKNOWN at Paragraph Gallery (23 E 12th St, Kansas City, MO 64106) open from July 27 through August 26, 2017. These pieces, co-edited by Melaney Mitchell (Founder & Senior Editor of Informality Blog) and Lynnette Miranda (Curator-in-Residence at Charlotte Street Foundation) focus on a shared goal of bringing the eyes of national writers to the work of Kansas City-based artists. 




Tactile Rituals and Feminine Power in The Work of Shelby Burchett

Anna Harsanyi reflects on Shelby Burchett’s use of magick and ritual as Goo-Witch.  

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Thesis Exhibition install. Image Courtesy of the Artist

Being in touch means understanding the people and the ideas that surround us. By touching things we form a deeper connection with the physicality of our immediate world. Touch is an intimate part of Shelby Burchett’s work, simultaneously both ritual and experimentation. Through  a tactile experiments and ritualistic installations, the artist conveys a sense of desire and mystery that prompts the audience to interact playfully with the materials at hand.  

Burchett’s installations invite the viewer to engross themselves in her experiments with materials like goo, organic fabrics, and fur. These are assembled in immersive environments, often seeping through surfaces or oozing out of multiple structures, daring the audience to touch them. Embodying the persona of Goo-Witch, a maker who works with symbolic objects in order to conjure sacred qualities into a space, Burchett presents installations that change over time based in large part on how the audience participates in their evolutions. Tactile experiments draw attention to the importance of hands in the making of magic, with its array of crafted rituals. Spaces are restructured manually, organic materials are mixed together so as to cast spells that aim to alter both the physical and the spiritual realm.

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Goo Witch performance as a part of Flesh Crisis 2017 at the Drugstore. Image Courtesy of the Artist

When experiencing Burchett’s installations, the viewer is called on to alter their own perception. In a recent performance, Cord Spinning, Burchett spun cord for 3 hours, inviting others to add herbs and organic materials to the circular space she created. The herbs and colors of the spun fabric held symbolic value and were part of a spell, though the audience was not necessarily aware of their direct participation in a ritual. The process of adding to and entering parts of the piece formed a point of collective access that allowed the participants to encounter moments of magic through touch and physical creation.

In Burchett’s work, magic is experienced in the form of mystery or the unknown, a collective wondering that brings the audience together through their shared desire to both participate in and further explore the tactile experiments they are engaging in. This experiential quality empowers the audience, who is given an agency in their desire to touch and to feel, and drawn into the creative process.

Goo Harvest from the exhibition Future Human at PLUG Projects. Image Courtesy of the Artist

Goo Harvest from the exhibition Future Human at PLUG Projects. Image Courtesy of the Artist

Using this approach to play and experience, Burchett further conceptualizes power and collectivity as inherently feminine qualities. In many magic practices, deities and spirits are female, holding symbolic and metaphysical importance as embodiments of power and wisdom. The spells that invoke them seek to produce empowerment in their execution. In Burchett’s work, the feminine is an essence, an object, a feeling, or an unnamed sensation—related to a concept that can be accessed by anyone, and is not necessarily gendered. Feminine in her practice signifies power, propelling this notion to a spiritual place where such qualities represent multiple aspects of our world, and are not tied to contemporary conventional social structures. This subverts the concept of femininity as female-oriented, rather allowing for it to be integrated into a universal sense of experience.

Through play, touch, and collective experience, the audience grows more “in touch” with their physical surroundings which allows for an agency in shifting and evolving the practical and the magical within a shared space or collective identity.


This essay is part of a series commissioned, in collaboration with Informality Blog, for the exhibition YET, UNKNOWN at Paragraph Gallery (23 E 12th St, Kansas City, MO 64106) open from July 27 through August 26, 2017. These pieces, co-edited by Melaney Mitchell (Founder & Senior Editor of Informality Blog) and Lynnette Miranda (Curator-in-Residence at Charlotte Street Foundation) focus on a shared goal of bringing the eyes of national writers to the work of Kansas City-based artists. 




Hidden Metaphors of the (Clay) Body in the work of Kimberly LaVonne

Kimberly LaVonne’s conversation with Gisela Morales centers around the metaphysical history and presumptions placed on the bodies of women and considered through clay.

Kimberly LaVonne Feast Your Eyes, 2017

Kimberly LaVonne
Feast Your Eyes, 2017

Kimberly LaVonne’s work is an examination of the unseen body through ceramic object. Employing organic bodies both in concept and medium produces work with flesh and organ-like qualities punctuated with Illustrations of saint-like female figures, which denote a need for self discovery and introspection. Fluctuating as specimens and relics, her sculptures deconstruct the human form into physical parts of divine abstraction, revealing what is not real into distorted and faintly familiar anatomy. In so doing, LaVonne awakens a new sense of wonder surrounding the investigation of the body. One that acknowledges the human body’s tension between scientific endeavor and religious belief, and underscores the use of women in building western anatomical knowledge.

Kimberly LaVonne_Sadness Is A Blessing, 2017

Kimberly LaVonne Sadness Is A Blessing, 2017

Motivated by the dichotomies present in the study of the body, LaVonne combines forms and shapes culled from anatomy books, medical collections, and gothic curiosities with illustrated references to the narratives of saints and holy women whose internal organs were mythologized as religious relics. Knowledge of the organs and their functions has been driven by myth, wonder, taboo and stigma. Human dissection throughout much of western history was considered sacrosanct. In this way, LaVonne is drawing a direct lineage to modern science and the taboos that placed limits on it. Human dissection was normalized as medical and scientific inquiry by the Greeks in the third century but then saw its decline with the introduction of Christianity. The advent of Roman law prohibited the dissection and autopsy of the human body in much of Europe. Instead, Christian culture, predominantly in its Catholic strain, has consolidated its anatomical understanding around the cult of saints. In their bodies, saints are thought to be present even after death,, making their corpses a source of protection and magical power. This created a fascination with saint relics and funerary practices involving the body’s  mutilation and disembowelment. It was not until the 14th century that the study of dissection remerged as a valid pursuit. This is the moment in history from which LaVonne’s iconography emerges. Much like the earliest folios of Fasciculus medicine or da Vinci’s studies on the human form, there is something inherently romantic in they way she molds form with illustration. Using a high fire clay body, her work yields rich terracotta forms that transform this history and iconography into intriguing tactile objects, resulting in a collection of fragmented parts made whole by the female bodies they represent.

LaVonne’s sculptures appear as perfectly sliced specimens whose flat surfaces provide the canvas on which organ forms are personified by women. The illustrated figures illuminate how the objectification of women has been a conduit to systems of knowledge regarding human physiology. During the time period LaVonne references, european women, and holy women in particular, appeared not as agents of knowledge, but rather as the objects of knowledge itself. This dispossession of knowledge has created persisting power structures in which women are relegated to role of vessels and unwitting participants. By working in ceramics, the vessel of the work itself is a metaphor for this societal predisposition While male bodies have become proxies for universality, the sole significance of female bodies has traditionally resided in the uterus. In the service men’s need to uncover the mystery of human generation, the uterus became the prefered object of Medieval dissection. As a result, internal anatomy became intrinsic to the the female body. Female corporal obsession combined with religious belief collided in the bodies of holy women. Accounts of holy women’s hearts being mummified, framed, and transformed into relics are the type of curiosities permeating through LaVonne’s imagination. Within this context, LaVonne’s figures express a certain level of self awareness, At times the physiological expressions are serene, self empowered and inviting, while at others they appear introspective, uneasy and distressed. The juxtaposition of these images onto three dimensional objects provides a holistic point of view into the forces that continue to shape self perceptions of the body that oscillate between the physical, functional, abstract, and spiritual.

Kimberly LaVonne We Together Make A Limb, 2017

Kimberly LaVonne
We Together Make A Limb, 2017


This essay is part of a series commissioned, in collaboration with Informality Blog, for the exhibition YET, UNKNOWN at Paragraph Gallery (23 E 12th St, Kansas City, MO 64106) open from July 27 through August 26, 2017. These pieces, co-edited by Melaney Mitchell (Founder & Senior Editor of Informality Blog) and Lynnette Miranda (Curator-in-Residence at Charlotte Street Foundation) focus on a shared goal of bringing the eyes of national writers to the work of Kansas City-based artists.