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“A Shift in ‘Perspective’”
by Elisabeth Kirsch
the Kansas City Star

Kathryn Arnold in Perspectives

“A Shift in ‘Perspective’”
by Elisabeth Kirsch
the Kansas City Star

In this second biennial survey of Kansas City art at Johnson County Community College, certain questions are bound to emerge: Art the artists in this exhibit the same as those in the biennial of 1996? Are these really the best artists in Kansas City? Why isn’t (name your favorite artists) in this show?
To answer the first question: Only two of the 10 artists in “Perspective: Kansas City,” James Brinsfield and James Woodfill, were in the first exhibit, and both artists are now represented by quite different work.
Like the previous “Perspective: Kansas City,” most of the artists chosen are young and without gallery representation here; it’s probably that few people in Kansas City have seen art by many of these artists. Once again, more than half the artists graduated from the Kansas City Art Institute (fewer than in the first “Perspective,” however, in which nine were KCAI grads).
As for picking the best artists, this “Perspective” differs significantly from the earlier version in that the curator, Raphael Rubinstein, senior editor at Art in America in New York, has selected artists whose work revolved around a particular theme. Dan Cameron, the 1996 curator, chose artists as diverse in style and technique as possible. Rubinstein decided artists in his show must share an interest in repetition and difference, i.e., they must establish a basic formal or thematic unit and then explore the possibilities of continuity and variation that it offers. This decision, obviously, automatically excluded several artists from consideration.
Both “Perspectives” involved the same process: The curator was given dozens of names from a variety of local contemporary art professional, the list was weeded down from slides, studio visits were made, and 10 names were ultimately chosen. The results this year: a hip show, full of surprises and beautifully installed.
A decided change from the more visually oriented show of 1996, Rubinstein’s choices make for a very conceptual and theoretically based exhibit in which artists unflinchingly tackle difficult and ambitious themes. If most of the artists represented here are unfamiliar, it is because conceptual art or work with sexual themes by regional artists is rarely shown here.
Rubinstein is a writer, which could explain his fascination with art that tells stories. The works by Shauna Alterio, Peregrine Honig, Christopher Leitch, D.F. Miller and David Ford — half the artists in the show — all deal with either explicit or implied narratives.
Alterio’s autobiographical wall sculpture, “Trophies,” consists of a row of 35 powder-blue toothbrushes, all identical except for the name of a different man on each handle. She began the piece in 1984; each toothbrush represents a man the artist kissed over a 14-year period. Like all the artists in “Perspective,” Alterio combines myriad artistic influences from the past 50 years — in her case, minimalism, neo-geo and body-related art — to evince a highly personal statement that is both artistically and conceptually charged.
Christopher Leitch contributes black-and-white graphite drawings with text taken from dream journals that all revolve around his relationship with Sherry (the artist and curator Sherry Lacy, with whom Leitch once worked). Like Alterio, Leitch deals with specific people, although in a much more revealing manner. Unlike Jonathan Borofsky’s numbered, stream-of-consciousness dream pieces of the 1970s, Leitch’s drawings are all self-contained little stories, dealing directly with issues of sexuality and identity.
Sherry and the other characters in Leitch’s diaristic drawings are always portrayed with their eyes closed, reinforcing the sense of repressed emotions simmering in these works.
Equally pent-up are the 32 seal canisters by sculptor D.F. Miller, who is best known for his large-scale, kinetic sculpture installations. “Condenser (the Posten sub-set)” is an ongoing conceptual piece, begun in 1994, in which each unit is made the same way: The artists asks someone he knows to wind up a clockwork device, which is then prevented from ticking by the insertion of rods that block the mechanism. The device is then closed and sealed with wax and red string, and the canister is labeled with the day’s date and the individual’s name.
The most conceptual work in the show (it is elegant looking but unintelligible without the wall-label explanation), this piece invites endless speculation on a variety of themes: the tensions of life, the frustrations of unachieved goals, key moments frozen in our mind, our futile attempts to deny death.
Peregrine Honig’s “Awfulbet,” a series of 26 brown paper bags with delicate line drawings of girls in underwear, is also about individuals, although they are fictitious. Each bag corresponds to a letter in the alphabet, which is also the initial letter in the girls’ names. There are simple rhymes on each bag, most of which pertain to eating disorders: “E is for Emma throwing up dinner,” “F is for Faye who prayed to be thinner.”
Honig’s drawings are very moving, a cross between Egon Schiele and nursery book figures. This is the kind of subject matter that typically makes Kansas City audiences uneasy. Giving exposure to artists such as Honig is one of the surprises and strengths of this exhibit.
David Ford’s examination of middle-class lifestyles might also make a few suburbanites queasy. Ford takes a group of 16 found architectural drawings, each one outlining a modest, 1950s Levittown kind of home, and then alters the piece in some way. He paints a burning cross in front of one, scrawls “take everything” through another drawing, and lays waste to the father-knows-best mentality that infused America in the ‘50s.
Straightforward painting receives its due here, but with a twist. James Brinsfield challenges the mindset and myths about abstract art that have been perpetuated since the abstract expressionist day of the early ‘50s. Two muscular and aggressive works by him in this show demonstrate that this artist is painting better than ever. In both cases, Brinsfield mounts a large, shiny oil and enamel painting next to a small replica of the same. He deftly attacks the notion of the artist as hero, working from an inspired state of consciousness, spontaneously making one masterpiece after another without design or deliberation.
Brinsfield’s work can also be seen as a commentary on an age in which marketing and the media prevent us from experiencing anything, even art, as truly unique. The Mona Lisa’s face is replicated on thousands of coffee mugs, and Bill Gates now owns the copyrights to many museums’ most famous paintings. Any art work now being made can be scanned as a potential moneymaker that can be mass produced in the form of a poster, a tie, a pin, or stationary for the museum bookstore.
“100!” by Kathryn Arnold, a painting of 100 identically scaled and interchangeable abstract paintings, also reinforces the notion of arbitrariness, even meaninglessness, in the old-fashioned game of painting. On a more empowering level, Arnold’s work supports the trend toward a more interactive environment in today’s computer-driven world.
In “Thirty Three,” Kyoung Ae Cho has abandoned paint altogether, preferring to make burn marks in varying degrees of intensity on 33 canvases 6-by-4 inches each. Although this work recalls that of the Italian Lucio Fontana’s, Cho’s work, with its subtle patterning of brown and black marks on the white canvas, is more remote and hypnotic. The intensity of color and depth of slashes, which build slowly from both ends of the row of paintings to a crescendo in the center, also make this piece subtly erotic.
The wall and floor installation “inflation (spill)” by Nate Fors counts as one of this artist’s best works. Gone is the fussiness that has plagued some of Fors’ earlier paintings. It has been replaced by offbeat, minimal color schemes and the unexpectedly witty juxtapositions of painted inner tubes interlaces with feather boas. As with Cho’s work, the sexual innuendos add tension and impact.
The only video in this show is the 9-minute black-and-white film “60HZ” by James Woodfill (made with two film collaborators). Woodfill is known for his kinetic and light sculpture. The video records, in an edited version, the action of one of these works, which consists of only a few components: a swinging light bulb, rotating discs and dramatic shadows. “60HZ” is strangely riveting, at times sinister and suspenseful, occasionally reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” and always mesmerizing. The film score, made from guitar feedback, is also by Woodfill and underscores the eerie mood.
As with all the artists in the exhibit, Woodfill artfully demonstrates that much can be accomplished with an economy of means, if one has the skill and heart to persist. Fortunately, “Perspective: Kansas City” gives these artists one thing they are often denied: an audience. With any luck, we’ll see their work again in Kansas City.




“100!” by Kathryn Arnold, a painting of 100 identically scaled and interchangeable abstract paintings, also reinforces the notion of arbitrariness, even meaninglessness, in the old-fashioned game of painting. On a more empowering level, Arnold’s work supports the trend toward a more interactive environment in today’s computer-driven world.






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