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.

Antoine1

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.

Install 1

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.

Install

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

 

Install 3

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

 




Light and Dark, Sight and Sound: Janet Cardiff- 40 Part Motet Meets The Photographs of Dave Heath

40PM_Vertical_People_email

Image of Janet Cardiff’s 40 Part Motet. Image courtesy of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Photo Credit: Bob Greenspan.

Walking through the Nelson-Atkin’s contemporary wing, you could hear the gently building reverberation of Janet Cardiff’s 40-Part Motet. This sound piece and Multitude, Solitude: Photographs of Dave Heath were advertised as a joint exhibition, but the synergy of both shows became a happy accident.

AR_2005-37-15x_Heath-DialogueWithSolitude_Recto, 12/10/13, 11:32 AM, 8C, 6942x9219 (888+624), 100%, Custom, 1/12 s, R54.7, G28.1, B39.0

Washington Square, New York City, 1958. by Dave Heath. Gelatin silver print, 12 1/2 x 8 3/8 inches. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2005.37.207. 

Motet is the stronger of the two, creating a joyful sound experience which brightened Heath’s somber portraiture. His Multitude, Solitude are a collection of mostly black and white photographs from 1931-2016, that dealt with themes of human loneliness, “loss, uncertainty, pain, love and hope.” While Heath’s work awoke human despair, leaving me raw, Cardiff’s work functioned as a salve, restoring hope that even in this broken, violent world, we are still deeply interconnected.

The arrangement of both shows had Heath’s photography exhibition first. If one wanted to bolt straight to Cardiff’s sound piece, as I did, you still needed to pass by his work first which sets up an emotional tone for the viewer. Multitude, Solitude included photographs projected on the wall and torn out pages from a book. Framed portraits, also too small, hung wall to wall, and digital flip books of Heath’s work were presented at center.

Undeniably beautiful, Heath’s street photography captures the fleeting transition between emotions that can occur in public, but which most rarely witness; capturing a secret smile, a glimpse of joy or a moment of loneliness.

However, the weakest aspect of this show was its set up. Torn-out book pages were framed in such a way they cut off portions of several images and the digital archive of Heath’s photography looked like an afterthought. The curator crowded the room with similar imagery when strong editing could have made the very same points with more elegance. This abundance of repetition made it difficult to decipher the overall strength of his work, and was more likely a disservice to his keen photographic eye. Selecting a few of Heath’s strongest works from each decade would have been a simpler approach. Although it is unclear whether or not the two exhibitions were meant to be viewed in tandem, giving more consideration to an intended interaction between Heath and Cardiff’s work would have elevated the creative synergy from both artists.

AR_2005-37-15x_Heath-DialogueWithSolitude_Recto, 1/6/14, 3:13 PM, 8C, 7508x8952 (422+561), 100%, Custom, 1/10 s, R42.2, G19.1, B30.0

Image from Heath’s Multitude, Solitude. Image courtesy of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

The audience become voyeurs with Multitude, Solitude, witnessing archived loneliness in the faces of passers-by. With each wrinkled brow or teary stare, we get a glimpse of humanity’s  daily suffering, how one can feel isolated in a crowd, or even the task of getting through the day. These images tear into that part of our hearts where walls are built, the sensitive core that makes us turn off the news or avoid eye contact. Photography gets painfully close to the truth,  illuminating how frequently we gloss over moments of pain with desperate optimism.

Outside the 40 Part Motet, a wall of note-cards provided museum-goers an opportunity to record their thoughts right after any epiphanous moment. Overarching themes of connectivity and spirituality came through, despite the variety of backgrounds and beliefs. Though I am skeptical Nelson curators went into enough depth examining the conceptual interaction between the two exhibits, these notecard reflections epitomized the Multitude, Solitude of Heath’s work. “Motet” transcends human understanding of this world, of art, of music, even of religion. With Heath’s work, one begins to think one understands what it means to be human, and that much of the time it can be unpleasant. Cardiff’s work, on the other hand, takes us out of our deep-seated cynicism and competitive mentality without washing away our individuality or community.

multiple

Image of Janet Cardiff’s 40 Part Motet. Photo Credit: Maddie Murphy.   

My best friend and I entered the Motet space together, then quickly split up, allowing us to have separate experiences not influenced by our friendship. We walked in near the end of the recording, but it played on a loop every fourteen minutes or so. 40-part Motet is a collection of inward-facing speakers arranged in an oval, where visitors can sit on benches, stand, or walk around the interior. The speakers are arranged in eight groupings, for the eight different choirs recorded. Every speaker has its own a cappella voice from England’s Salisbury Cathedral Choir, singing in Latin. Surrounded by these speakers, the audience became a silent hive. It was refreshing in that the reverence for the music went beyond modern museum etiquette. No one had their phones out for photography or recording, an anomaly. It was as if they were in a place of worship. Some stood, meditating before one speaker, some walked methodically in thought around the room, some sat on benches, some even sat cross legged on the carpet, with closed eyes. I couldn’t find words to describe this energy yet, but it had something to do with peace, with connectivity, and it was transforming the space.

The combination of 40 voices struck me immediately, giving me goosebumps as the song swelled from a soft hum to a booming wave of vibration and sound. I stood at center for a moment, already tearing up, and closed my eyes to feel the energy of the room. Due to its circular arrangement, Cardiff’s work enveloped the audience, as if we had entered inside the music itself.

It was deeply important that I absorb every vibration. Forty individual voices with unique inflections blended into sharp, clear sopranos, deep basses and baritones, and sweet tenors. I imagined the speakers were people, not technology and they were singing directly to both me and a higher power. I became the most emotional when the intensity increased and the harmonies hit full blast. I forgot where I was and who I was with, the beauty of the work stirred a sad, aching joy of happy tears. My fellow listeners and I became vulnerable, perhaps experiencing contemporary art of this genre for the first time. Looking around the room, people of all ages and ethnicities were present, many with the same misty-eyes I had. Just as the multitude of voices combined into one voice, never losing the variety of tones and voice types, we became one, never losing what made us uniquely ourselves.

unnamed

Image of Janet Cardiff’s 40 Part Motet. Image courtesy of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Photo Credit: Bob Greenspan.

I recognized the potential for universality, especially after reading audience reactions, which ranged from “God spoke to everyone here,” to “Namaste,” to a nearly blank card with a tiny word, “Wow.,” written at the bottom corner. Performed in a language few know, the audience relied solely on emotional energy to comprehend the song.

I spotted one girl, likely near my own age, sitting cross legged on the floor, eyes closed and weeping. I sensed she was deeply spiritual like I am. But I let it go, understanding this was one of those fleeting moments similar to Heath’s work in the next room.

At the intermission, the recorded singers began speaking to one another, a different sort of bubbling chorus. We could hear a young choir member saying she had to use the bathroom. The other members discussed the weather, coughed, laughed, and warmed up their voices. It was these sort of breaks that changed the tone of the piece and the audience was pleasantly startled by this sudden inclusion of humanity. It also broke the tension in our atmosphere too;  people began speaking, our own voices united with the chorus. Based on Cardiff’s interviews, I don’t know that she intended this inclusion as an opportunity for the audience to relax, though it functions as such. Cardiff wanted to highlight the way run-of-the-mill human speaking voices can metamorphose into an angelic choir in a single breath.

During my research it became apparent how much this musical sculpture could transform its surroundings based on the work displayed. In The Art Gallery of Ontario, Motet was situated near a collection of spotlit abstract sculptures. At the Nelson, Cardiff’s piece stood alone visually, but the sound carried into different exhibits. Placing Motet on its own prevented visual distraction, but sound can rarely be contained between dividing walls. While other works could not disrupt Motet, Motet radiated out into surrounding galleries. I’m not certain Heath’s Multitude, Solitude would stay in memory when Motet washed over the room, but when I forced myself to see the photo exhibit, I couldn’t get the music out of my mind.

Though Cardiff’s Motet had traveled across many continents, it remained a remarkably universal, immersive experience. Reactions to the work touched on it’s spiritual nature, calling it “a choir of angels in heaven” or “a connection with God.” Other notes commented on how it united the room, even the world, reminding us how our different voices come together as one humanity. Most artists struggle to communicate ideas or emotions visually or through sound; Cardiff is a master of both. What makes 40-Part Motet so revolutionary is that it doesn’t require us to decipher by listening or by seeing, but rather requires us only to feel.  Multitude, Solitude also made us feel the  power in its honesty and leave us to ask, what is the solution to suffering?  Motet was cathartic, fourteen minutes of healing I wished could be a daily practice. Works like these offer a way to recover enough to find our own answers.


Janet Cardiff’s 40-Part Motet and Multitude, Solitude: Photographs of Dave Heath were temporary exhibits at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, which ran from November 19, 2016 to March 19th 2017.




Woman’s Work: A Conversation with Misty Gamble on Decade

Blue Sunday

Blue Sunday by Misty Gamble. Ceramic, pearls, rhinestones, beads. Image courtesy of the artist.

The invitation to peer inside women’s underwear is hard to resist. Strewn across the gallery wall, the ceramic artist Misty Gamble’s confrontational “Blue Sunday” stimulates a reaction of curiosity and repulsion. Shaped like they were just removed and left crumpled on the floor, the ceramic panties expose a strip of fabric rarely glimpsed in a public setting, sparkling and colorful with costume rhinestones pasted to the private interior. The installation suggests a body, and the inner functions of a body, without introducing the figure herself. A simultaneous desire to approach and avoid means “Blue Sunday” successfully interfaces with our own sexual desire, since we are not looking at newly shed intimates, but baked clay in disguise as lingerie. We find ourselves in the physical Uncanny Valley where the subjects of “Decade,” ten years of Misty Gamble’s agitated feminine expressions, become real enough to raise questions.

Forevermore by Misty Gamble. Ceramic, flocking, Ralph Lauren gold metalic paint. Photo credit: E.G. Schempf

Forevermore by Misty Gamble. Ceramic, flocking, Ralph Lauren gold metalic paint. Photo credit: E.G. Schempf

Our meeting at YJ’s offers an interestingly contextual  view of bright white BRIDE text in the window across the street, a falsely angelic glow advertising wifehood like a sought-after brand in the dark evening. It’s an appropriate backdrop for a conversation with an artist who spent her life thinking about desire, traditions, and what it means to be female. Across the small table, Gamble recounts the creation of her huge wall installation, “Forevermore.” “This was finished in 2016, but it took a year and a half and a lot of hands to make. ‘Forevermore’ is only a fraction of what we actually produced in the studio,” she lays her hand on the image of the lilac ceramic wedding cakes between snaking gold ribbons, installed vertically on the Leedy-Voulkos main gallery wall. “I did these in the symbolic colors of bridesmaids: lavender and white. I criticize conventional ideas of what makes people happy, such as being a bride, having glamorous weddings, the notion that more is always better.”

More is better in the case of the installation. Almost every piece in the show employs the use of multiples to overwhelm an idea and drive the viewer to consider what limits we will go to to have excessive wealth and status. At a distance, “Forevermore” becomes an illusion of wallpaper that has sprung up out of the second dimension. The gold material woven between the lilac cakes outlines an unmissable vulvar shape, locking in the inseparable bond between societal decadence and primal desire. Ceramic wedding cakes direct the conversation to a ravenous hunger for social authority, and one of the means of acquiring it.

Excessively adorned hairdos and desserts exude a passion for wealth, status, and sexual parading. Figures are grotesque and out of proportion, but still decked out in facsimiles of the finer things. Gamble’s unflinching criticism is rooted in her formative years. Rather than damn outright the norms of wealthy Palm Beach and Los Angeles trophy wives, Gamble adopts the role of cultural anthropologist to observe the ways consumerism and lifestyle are inextricably linked by status, which changes color and shape in each location. Palm Beach is garish and bright. LA is fashionable and severe. “I used the Kardashians for some of my research to find out what women of a certain status want from the world. But it’s odd to be commenting on it, and to come from it, make work about it, satirize it, and want to sell it,” she considers. “I always knew I would make the work I wanted to make, and nobody was going to stop me, because the only thing I want to be is authentic.” Authenticity itself is under the cultural microscope of Gamble’s studio. The disheveled piles of pastel pumps borrow imagery from every women’s department store in the nation. The artist’s name in a Kate Spade-esque font inscribed on the inner arch denotes factory-processed shoes at an affordable price. As style consumers, we too can wear cheap and reasonable heels out into the world, provided we don’t mind them coming apart after their factory set sturdiness has worn off. Lucky for us, fashion is easy to replace.

Tan Hands by Misty Gamble. Ceramic, resin. Photo credit: Dan Wayne

Tan Hands by Misty Gamble. Ceramic, resin. Photo credit: Dan Wayne

The same fascination with the lifestyle of the rich and vapid amplify “Tan Hands,” a series of nineteen hands sticking out of the wall, showcasing gaudy faux diamond rings, in a manner a woman with such a rock might exhibit to her friends. Prim and dainty, fingers stiff and angled down to give the admirer a better look at the towering stone atop a gold band, “Tan Hands” explores the culture of pride that comes with following convention. But even with a rotation of studio assistants through the years, Gamble cast her own hands for the piece, uncovering another layer of personal history in the procession of wives-to-be. “I’ve been one of them,” she says, flexing her retired piano hands. “I’ve come from these worlds, but I was always the outsider.” As an outside observer, Gamble’s comments could be misconstrued into bitchiness if one neglects to consider the intellectual analysis the artist subjects herself and her topics to. None of us are really outside the reach of pretty things, of being liked by our peers. “Tan Hands,” like other work in the show, examines a type of solution to our cultural insecurities in a personal manner.

Betsy After School by Misty Gamble. Ceramic. Image courtesy of the artist.

Betsy After School by Misty Gamble. Ceramic. Image courtesy of the artist.

Misty Gamble grew up in Los Angeles, where the lines between culture, class, and kitsch are more blurred than in the Midwest. While she was pursuing her MFA in San Francisco, she earned the reputation as a troublemaker in the male dominated ceramic program. “I did different things to antagonize my professors. I set out to make work that was so beautiful and terrible in its horrendousness, that it couldn’t be avoided. Women are told throughout their lives: be pretty, be smart, get educated. But for god’s sake don’t make any waves.” The figures in “Decade” evoke a visual puppetry without the strings, but the gesture of her subhuman figures recall the unsettling weightlessness that animates a marionette. Metaphorical strings attached to each woman and woman-like caricature are socially imposed by the greedy clamoring of society to have more, to prove more with frivolity. “Sweet Terror” came out of this drive to challenge what society expected of women and women artists. The childlike figures in “Sweet Terror” are at once humorous and terrifying, like demonic waifs escaped from a personified version of daily insecurities. The green teen on roller skates, “Betsy After School,” reacts to her environment by messily eating dessert in the middle of the floor, one hand stuffed underneath the folds of her pleated skirt. All the figures in “Sweet Terror” linger somewhere between real and imagined, on the cusp of becoming human, but denied by their desires and the imposing expectations of the environment they were born into.

Gamble’s ten year retrospective is presented at the perfect time, and every piece in the show is worth seeing. Today, femininity is continuing to be redefined by strength and courage, and the bold figurative work in “Decade” is a reprieve from the enigmatic conceptualism that dominates a male-driven scene. “People are so scared and fearful, and that’s the last thing we should be right now. I’m going to keep making this work because I won’t be bullied,” Gamble says of recent political events and the timeliness of the show. I nod in agreement, recalling the stoic busts “Decadence” and “Luxuriant,” two perfectly styled figures whose hair denies each a chance to speak or listen.  


Misty Gamble “Decade: Selected works from 2006-2016” is on view through April 1st at Leedy-Voulkos Main Gallery (2012 Baltimore Ave, KCMO  Hours: Thurs-Sat 11-5)




iPhones & Rembrandts: A Conversation About Advancements with Catherine Futter

Catherine Futter, the Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, spoke to me about her process of planning exhibitions and finding her personal inspiration to preserve the traditional methods of art institutions, while also being cognizant of the prevailing trends in museums and the contemporary art scene in Kansas City.  Sitting beside the Bloch Lobby Info Desk, she revealed the extensive planning that comes with being the Director of Curatorial Affairs, while discussing how she views the Nelson-Atkins as both a place of academic inquiry and one of inclusion in the current political climate.  Being on the board of Charlotte Street, as well as holding a high position at the Nelson-Atkins, Futter expresses interest in how technology and the advancements of society contribute to the accessibility of art, specifically in an encyclopedic museum setting.

Photo by Brennen Zerbe

Photo by Brennen Zerbe

Rebecca Swanson (RS): How many years have you been working at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art?

Catherine Futter (CF): I’ve been here fifteen years this March.

RS: When you’re planning an exhibition, what is your process?

CF: First off, I ask what the idea will be.  From there, it’s proposed to the director, who then decides if it’s going to go forward or not.  Then if it is, he developed it more fully. After that, we have a group that’s called the strategic leadership group, who consist of education, administration, presentation, curatorial, finance, HR, fundraising, external affairs.  So they are given a presentation about what the exhibition would consist of and how big it might be, all while thinking about the schedule and the budget.  Then, it goes in front of the full curatorial division, who might have some feedback.  We get together what we call a “core team,” which is made up of an interpretive specialist, the curator, and designer who are the central core of the exhibition.  From there, we expand it to a larger group who handles external affairs, such as fundraising for it, graphic design, public programs, etc.  There is a progress report at 30% and another at 70%, which is typically wall colors or graphic design, proposed fonts.  After that feedback, they go away and finish the project.  

RS: So it’s a pretty elaborate process?    

CF: It’s elaborate, and takes us a long time to do projects.  A typical, big exhibition will take us around 5 years.  If it has a catalog, it has to go to press about a year ahead of time.  You need to handle that, plus the idea stage, plus the fundraising stage, so it is rare but we sometimes do exhibitions quickly, but quickly in our mind is around a year out.  We have an exhibition schedule, so we know now what we are doing until the end of 2019.  If something drops out for some reason or something gets added, we have to adjust but exhibitions kind of get locked into their schedules.  

RS: What would be the factors in those schedule changes?

Photo by Brennen Zerbe

Photo by Brennen Zerbe

CF: Sometimes we can’t get other venues.  We take traveling exhibitions, and sometimes we develop our own.  For instance, maybe we want something that’s going to travel and we can’t find other venues that might be a reason that the museum is now taking the full, financial burden of an exhibition as opposed to sharing it amongst other venues.  No exhibition comes free, as you can imagine, just as installation costs money, insurance costs money, so they all have budgets.  Large budgets.

We have Forty-Part Motet, which is a sound sculpture by Janet Cardiff.  The sculpture explores sound and music in an immersive experience unlike any other. We also have the photographs of Dave Heath, which are really beautiful and poignant, and very human in both their portrayal of the individual within the context of groups.  Admittedly, I was born pretty soon after he took many of those photographs and I grew up in New York City.  Many of the photographs are of New York, and I keep looking for my parents in the photographs, and I gather that I’m not alone in finding that very human thinking that you might know someone in them.  You make a really strong connection to them, as individuals who are part of a larger community.  He himself had a very hard life, so he really found art as a way to connect with people and find his voice.

Photo by Brennen Zerbe

Photo by Brennen Zerbe

RS: Are there any things in the current culture influencing you right now?    

CF: Absolutely. We are focused on making stronger connections to the community by promoting the fact that this is a free institution where you can come and see millenia of art for free. We also represent many communities here with the art that is in the collection.  It’s about opening that up, and letting it be a major message that we are here for all people.  We are also thinking about being a place where you can take solace while also having hard conversations about diversity, multiculturalism and globalism, all of which are big issues right now.  We are talking about increases in technology and it’s rapid acceleration. For example, the iPhone is only 10 years old, but imagine a world without it.  It’s almost inconceivable, and there is probably something else that will be released soon that none of us have thought about that could change the world, which we see happening more and more frequently.  So it’s about thinking about how the museum will adapt to that, and have it be a place of tradition, a place of the present, and a place of the future.  So we try balance those things, and try not to be a place of dead art.  We want to be a place where you can connect on many different levels.  We don’t want people to think we’re a place that’s ten years behind, we want people to see our relevance to today.  

RS: What typically motivates you personally to make a show?

Photo by Brennen Zerbe

Photo by Brennen Zerbe

CF:  I am very interested in the way that people interact with art in other ways besides just visually.  I’m interested in participation, whether that means conceptual participation, or purely physical.  We’ve had an exhibition where we’ve had a designer present a wavy floor, so people could sit on it, roll on it, and literally interact with it.  We had another exhibition where people became owners of a cup, and that cup was on view with their name on it, so they were lending it to the museum.  In that way, they participated through ownership, participated as lenders, participated in contributing to the history of the museum.  It also related to the permanent collection, even though they were done by contemporary artists. Therefore, it goes back to things provoking our participating.  For example, classical music reminds me of art, and vice versa.  So it’s about how we can have people not just look at a painting, but think about ways they can interact with it on a bunch of different levels.  

RS: So in a way, you’re trying to make art more accessible by reaching out to various kinds of people?

CF: Yes! Exactly.  We all connect on different levels.  For example, if I looked at the Lee Krasner painting that’s on loan over there you and I see completely different things.  What you may see is color, what I may see is motion.  Those aren’t exclusionary, but we’re also talking about finding our own interests in the same work of art.  You may hate abstract expressionism, but I love abstract expressionism.  You bring all of this stuff to it as a viewer, so you have to connect with it on different levels.

Photo by Brennen Zerbe

Photo by Brennen Zerbe

RS: Do you take an interest in the Kansas City art scene, or do you focus more on art on a national scale?

CF:  I’m on the board at Charlotte Street, and it’s something I support in many ways.  I go to first fridays a few times a year, and I try to go to gallery openings.  I’ve done studio visits with artists here, like in the Charlotte Street residencies, and I try to be available to artists if they are interested in me doing a studio visit.  I love doing it.

RS: Would you ever be interested in showing a Kansas City based artist?

CF: I think what we would say is, “if an artist is good, it doesn’t matter where they come from.”  The answer is yes, and we have some Kansas City artists already in the collection, and we are always interested in building that collection.  I also feel like we think that there are other museums in Kansas City that do that better than we do, so then it’s about how we compliment each other, not compete with each other.  The Nerman now has a Kansas City room.  The Nelson has always been individualized.  What you see here, you can’t see in other museums.  Whether it’s historical art or contemporary art, you see something different than other galleries.  We don’t want you to see the same thing when you come to the Nelson-Atkins.     

 




A Reflection on Cord Spinning (Working Towards Patching Holes in the Veil) A Performance by Goo Witch

This piece was part of Part of FLESH CRISIS: Pop Up Performance Series at The Drugstore Thursday, January 19, at 7 PM – 9 PM


Everyone was clumped in groups around the periphery of the Drugstore’s front gallery. The mood was jovial, except for a ritual-like circle of woo in the middle of the space where no one dared to stand, as if it was a cursed or holy ground. Between the multi-colored tufts, there were spice jars, containing what appeared to be herbs, onion skins, smelling salts, dirt, and some unidentifiable natural materials. This stage for the impending performance kept the audience holding up both walls.

During this pop-up performance series, several performances took place simultaneously, including works by Christina Silvius and Wolfgang Bucher. Musical artists Valerie Kuehne and the Wasps Nests performed, as did King of Herrings. These layered performances brought its own level of energy that wound up impacting the intensity of one another. I particularly connected with Goo Witch’s piece, her Cord Spinning performance and practice as a whole.

Two people dressed entirely in black entered the circle. They began spinning the wool into yarn on handheld spindles made with a slice of tree bark. The artist, the Goo Witch (Shelby Burchett) began speaking in a calm, even voice, “We are making a spell. Grab some materials and we will spin it into yarn.” The rest of the piece was silent.

Displaying

Shelby Burchett, “The Goo Witch,” Photo credit : Maddie Murphy

Glancing uneasily at one another, we hoped someone would make the first move. Someone did step forward, and the crowd soon began carefully treading nearer the circle, in reverent fashion. We crushed onion skins and lay them in the wool, presenting a crackling sound and a bitter smell you could almost taste. Someone put what looked like salt in the wool. As more people participated, the spell’s ingredients created an intoxicating scent, sharp and bitter at first, then sweet. My head rang, and I felt lightheaded, reminding me of incense used to create an augmented spiritual state.

Watching the artists spin became hypnotic. As more people engaged the work, the scents and smells intensified, and we all became part of this ritual. The audience interaction played an important role, keeping the performance from becoming overly precious and inaccessible.

Fellow witch and Fiber artist Robin Cossel spins wool into yarn. Photo credit: Maddie Murphy

Researching Burchett’s work, I discovered her choice of materials for this event made sense. She used animal fibers, plant matter, and human hair, all natural materials linking her rituals to the earth. However, I had a hard time uncovering meaning from the ritual’s spice jars. Their uses were not readily clear. Perhaps the artist intended to preserve some mystery and labels might make things too literal. However, any symbolic meaning of the onion skins and herbs needed to be read in that moment. Keeping information intentionally obscure does ask the audience to take a leap of faith, but this point is where audience ought to rely upon her expertise.

Cord spinning is a very old form of magic where chords are braided while concentrating on a desired end. Burchett’s spell focused on “positive and radical change, inclusion, and feminine power.” Printed pamphlets that explained her spiritual practices and detailed the materials’ symbolism were placed on tables at the back of the room. They were very helpful in understanding the symbolic ritual of Burchett’s piece, but their placement was not optimal. The audience would have been better served if she had them either consult the handouts first or place them in closer proximity to her wool circle.  So, while we were asked to place trust in Goo Witch that her rituals would resolve the questions she presented, we were also reliant upon these handouts for exposition.

Meeting in my studio, Burchett described art as “the act of making something that needs to be shown.” Historically, she has focused on time-based installation work, such as her Goo Corridor, but this was the first piece she expressly labeled as performance. “I realized I needed to be making performance work when I was working toward my MFA,” Burchett explained, “when all my time based work required me to be physically present and interacting with the piece.”

Burchett also explores the mythology and Magick rooted in textile crafts, relating her role of female maker to spiritual femininity and the making of one’s own alchemy.  Magick is another word for spiritual power, a force of nature like gravity. There are different views as to whether or not Magick violates the laws of nature, or is a law we cannot yet explain scientifically. Witchcraft is highly personal, and often requires devotion to research, meditation, along with trial and error to discover what works best for each witch. This is a spiritual practice about harnessing the power inside of a person to influence the world around them. Witchcraft exalts women, says Burchett, and is structured towards equality as a fluid system of beliefs. Burchett’s interest in femininity came through by employing two femme-presenting people as performers, and by titling herself “witch,” a traditionally female-gendered term.

The audience participates in Burchett’s spell. Photo credit: Maddie Murphy.

Growing up, Burchett began to find power in the feminine while struggling with her own identity and this strengthened her spirituality. Magick offers women power where other systems or entities fall short, thus, witches are not stuck in the patriarchy of Western ideals. Magick upsets the notion that women are subordinate to men, and actually asserts that femininity has its own unique strength. Historically, female witches or those perceived as witches have been persecuted for their beliefs, even killed because of them.  Shelby uses textiles processes once dismissed as “women’s work” as a source of power, combining them with Magick, which draws on the energy of her feminine spirit. Is seems possible that the reason female witches were and still are seen as threatening is because of how they embrace their feminine power, which dismantles the status quo.

Burchett and I openly discussed our own spiritual experiences and ideas of a higher power. I could feel the energy exchanged between us as two spiritual women, and felt respected and validated by Burchett. It was surprising how similar some of our spiritual experiences had been. As a devout Christian who in some ways rejects my traditional “religious” upbringing, I could relate to Burchett’s experience of growing up “very Christian.” She explained that her spirituality didn’t go away, but eventually found her place in Magick. Though we didn’t always see eye-to-eye on this subject, I found comfort in a shared passion for our beliefs. Our traditions look very different, but we both felt the presence of a holy force, one she felt was divinely feminine. Whether we call it the Holy Spirit or Goddess, I knew we were both chasing the same thing.

Details of Burchett’s wool and herb materials. Photo credit: Maddie Murphy




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.

IMG_0194

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.




Misty Gamble’s Decade of Femininity and Indulgence

Placed around the gallery are sculptural forms of women that defy presumed standards of beauty coexisting with ceramic bedazzled panties. Within these offsetting representations of femininity lie truths about beauty, all held within a thick coat of Rococo pizazz.  Misty Gamble’s ten-year retrospective, Decade, at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, takes a critical stance on the problems of womanhood, indulgence, and modern day communication. A current professor at School of Foundations at the Kansas City Art Institute, Gamble’s work fetishisizes the cultural critique of women, while challenging the current status quo of communication in present time.  

The interesting part lies where these two ideas merge to create one societal commentary.  Women are used in advertising to sexualize everything, from hamburgers to high end cars.  Selling through the lens and seduction of the body activates the desire of consumers.  Gamble is taking our knowledge of this and exploiting it; we are aware of our tendencies to be attracted to things that look good on the exterior, while the interior tells a more haunting truth. The work also provides a disturbing look at the reality of women’s lived experience, mainly in the realm of body image and introspection.  There lies a strong contrast between Gamble’s figures and the thin, photoshopped celebrity ideals that are at the heart of American culture. These psychological connections bring about a disturbing, yet real narrative of the lives of women who exist outside society’s connotations of beautiful.

Photo of Nelly Has Scissors. Photo by Erin Woodworth.

Nelly Has Scissors by Misty Gamble. Photo by Erin Woodworth.

The superficial surfaces of seductive color Gamble uses wisely, making us get close, look deep, and see figures with truths that are haunting, painful and close to reality.  This work stands in contrast to the fixated realms of body image. Deeper psychological connections are brought to the surface and illuminate the lives of women who exist outside society’s strict rules of beautiful.

In viewing this body of work as individually, the themes of feminism, cultural critique, and capitalist overindulgence appear.  The celebratory use of gender-specific objects woven with glitter and sequins provide a flashy take on womanhood that we normally don’t get to embrace without the fear of criticism.  In all of Gamble’s depictions, they are sculpted with a hand of sympathy.  Gamble simulates the lived experience of womanhood through the facial expressions and body positionings of the figures.  The most emotion provoking and haunting gazes lie in the eyes of her full-body sculptures, depicting figures of different ages as sleep-deprived zombies.  Each one of these works provides a snapshot of the playfulness and compliance that every good woman is expected to possess.      

Photo of Indulgence & Succulence. Photo by Erin Woodworth.

Photo of Indulgence & Succulence by Misty Gamble. Photo by Erin Woodworth.

While her work draws references to physicalities and bodily deformations, Gamble also sheds light on the psyche of women.  In her sculptural busts, the identity of the figures is taken over by the unrealistic standards imposed on them.  These pieces usually contain abstracted cranial deformations or something the audience can grasp as concrete, such as cupcakes. Gamble’s work reveals private conflicts inside the mind of a woman, mainly in her use of gesturing and sexual objectification. This creates tension between the viewers and the work, as some of the pieces are hard to face for long.  It is important to witness is the extreme, personal connection viewers form with each one of these works.  We can either relate to the emotional state of the figures, or to the trance you’re brought into as you’re encompassed in them while you come together with various states of the human gaze.  

Photo of Betsy. Taken by Erin Woodworth.

Betsy by Misty Gamble. Photo Credit: Erin Woodworth.

Overall, Gamble challenges the stereotype of women by exposing the underlying fetishes and their flirtation with disaster.  By exploring the psyche of an individual, she distinguishes the various levels of consciousness we possess, and acknowledges the struggles we face ethically as humans capable of change.  Gamble’s exhibition has a conversation with the contemporary political climate, as her work shifts throughout this showcased decade.  With the ethical stances held by the majority of America seemingly shifting backwards in progress, we face the problem of gender equality being exploited even more than it was under previous administrations.  Gamble’s work shifts the conversation from the acknowledgement of the divide and it’s prominence within a contemporary context, to making a comment on the emotional tolls that challenge has on women and their individual psyches.


Misty Gamble: Decade runs from January 6th, 2017- April 1st, 2017 at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center. More info on the exhibition can be found here




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.  

04 Abisaab_Nic O_small

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.

abisaab_silvia_quepasausa_Fall 2016_image06

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.




Where is Nuance Found? A Review of Arterial Echoes: Three Generations of Creative Mentoring

Arterial Echoes: Three Generations of Creative Mentoring, at UMKC’s Gallery of Art , which ran from September 8th through October 28th 2016, presented a series of work shown in eight groups of three: one UMKC faculty member, their mentor, and a student (the faculty member taught). With a diverse representation of drawing, painting, print, and digital media, cohesiveness was achieved through presenting these triad relationships.

The carefully crafted title, Arterial Echoes, was meant to showcase parallels in the highly diverse works. That diversity as a whole lessened the specific emphasis on these shared connections.  Our ability to trace the routes these artists followed to conjure their own work stopped short when we only got to see one piece from each artist in a grouping.

Installation image of Arterial Echoes image courtesy of UMKC Gallery

Installation image of Arterial Echoes image courtesy of UMKC Gallery

For instance, with the work of Ricky Allman, we saw only a single painting from his larger body of work, and only one work plucked from his mentor’s and student’s portfolio. This relationship is narrow.  The problem is that the works chosen were too distilled; they did not seem to be carefully decided and consequently destroy the contextual oeuvre of each artist. They focused more on comparing directly to the professors than to the mentors and students as artists with broad practices themselves. The show would have been stronger if  it focused on more work from one or two triads of artists and allowed conversations to occur within the gallery.  There is simply not enough to compare, and ironically, too much.  

julia_a_e

Works by Timothy App, Andy McIlvaine, Davin Watne. Images by the author (left) and courtesy of the UMKC Gallery (right)

This show did not showcase all three artists’ works made concurrently, which could have better represented practices in adjacency to each other. The years in which the work were pulled appear random and unconsidered.  Within one triad of works, professor Kati Toivanen’s has work from 2015, mentor Stephen DiRado’s was from 1987, and the student Sarah Kraly’s was from 2009. Contrarily, in another triad, professor Ricky Allman’s work was from 2015, mentor Hyunmee Lee’s from 2015, and student Sopearb Touch’s from 2016. Logically, with narrowed time gaps between more current works, routes are more accessible and cohesive. This particular grouping of  Allman, Lee, and Touch was one of the strongest in the show in terms of how it highlighted the formal kinship between the artists.

With an intent to emphasize a route where the artists gave themselves permission to use the tools their predecessor provided, connections became apparent formally, moving from surface to surface of each piece in the show. The oil paintings of UMKC professor Davin Watne, his mentor Timothy App, and Watne’s student Andrew McIlvaine did strongly represent this route. What becomes evident in this grouping is that we often overlook the impact of our influences. The similarity of the monochromatic color palettes were obvious. After recognition of what else exists within the frame of view, the rest of the linking elements became clear. While content is broad in this group, compositionally, the paintings were very similar through the treatment of the frame. The atmosphere, dull and thick, surrounded the illuminated centers of each work.

pic4

Image courtesy of UMKC Gallery

But these were three works out of twenty-one. The other eighteen were not necessarily linkable to these three. If they were — it is a stretch.  There are photo prints, etchings, and video work; all of which don’t necessarily talk to any of the other groupings. This show is full of separate micro conversations, without a focus on the whole. Unlike a museum, that sections off works in expansive rooms by time period  showing a large breadth of a particular movement, this show was doing too much with too little space.  If this had been eight mini shows with more work, and more room it could have been more exciting — and also more specific.  The goal of the exhibition, to exhibit three generations of mentoring, lost its luster when too many connections were trying to be made

This exhibition found success in how these relationships echo one another formally. We expand our ideas through being influenced by those around us. This particular exhibition complicated this intent with its broadness. There were many disparate pieces that made the show like a garment unraveling a broad history. One could find the thread between the work of Stephen DiRado from one triad, of Elija Gowin from another, Andrew McIlvaine from another, and so on.  These possibilities made it apparent that there were an infinite amount of threads to be traced without the support of a solid thesis beyond formal comparisons.

 




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.

Processed with VSCO

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.

Processed with VSCO

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.

Processed with VSCO

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.