Known for his incisive social commentary in photographs and other projects, the artist also has an impressive history of creating spaces for his art.
Brandon Frederick calls himself a photographer, but he’s also a sculptor, a fiber artist, a ceramicist, a gallerist, a curator, a publisher and probably a few other things too. His artwork often focuses on trash, though he doesn’t call it that. And for the last decade, Frederick has been creating art and organizing art events in KC.
Frederick was raised in Lenexa but didn’t see much of the Kansas City art scene until college. Growing up in the suburbs, his earliest exposure to art came from his family, specifically his grandmother’s passion for making latch hook rugs out of scrap fabric and his mom’s sculpture classes at a community college.
Frederick attended the Kansas City Art Institute from 2007 to 2011, and during his senior year he got his first taste of arts organizing. The impetus was simple: He and his peers in the photography department were required to put on a senior thesis exhibition. With so many students trying to find gallery space, Frederick decided to make his own. With some friends, he rented a space in the West Bottoms, named it The Roost, and from 2011 to 2013 the group worked and lived in the space, putting on a dozen art exhibitions and music shows. Frederick admits it was chaotic. None of them had ever run a venue, but it proved a valuable learning experience for what would come next.
In 2013, Frederick, along with Brittany Ficken, Ben Hlavacek and Max Wagner, founded Archive Collective. Unlike The Roost, Archive Collective was more organized but still initially a DIY affair. Through Archive Collective, Frederick helped organize numerous photography exhibitions, fund and publish photography art books and hold community events like crit nights and film screenings. Archive Collective has received numerous awards, including a Charlotte Street Studio Residency and an ArtsKC Inspiration grant. And unlike the Roost, Archive Collective turned into a lasting, professional organization. Although Frederick left and handed off his duties to others in 2017, Archive Collective continues to be a part of the KC art scene.
The year 2013 also saw Frederick’s first solo photography show. “As Honest As We Are” at Vulpes Bastille was a transitional exhibition for the artist. It contained many of his black and white photographs of rural Kansas and Missouri, depicting things like water towers, crumbling buildings, old drug stores and industrial districts. It also featured Frederick’s first foray into sculpture. “BRAND/HOMES” was a flimsy plywood and two-by-four construction serving as a scaffolding for photographic prints. It was inspired by seeing model homes under construction.
Frederick’s move into sculpture was motivated by a number of questions he began asking himself about photography: “How do I get someone to slow down? Am I really there when I am taking a photo?” During this time, he made a series of cyanotype prints called “Land Impressions” while traveling through Europe. Frederick would place dirt directly onto the paper and photosensitive solution, bypassing the camera and the feeling of being taken “out of the moment” by peering through a lens. It is no wonder that he began asking these questions in a decade when personal photography exploded onto social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram.
Asked if social media threatens photography as an art form, Frederick isn’t fazed. “No, not at all! I think it’s great that everyone is a photographer. Everyone thinks about lighting now! We shouldn’t be threatened by that. People say, ‘Oh, I couldn’t be an artist,’ but you can. Anyone can be an artist.”
And Frederick isn’t just paying lip service to that idea. From 2011 to 2017, he worked at Imagine That!, a local non-profit art studio that serves adults with learning disabilities, helping them make paintings and sculptures, record music and engage in other artistic pursuits. As one of the first employees of Imagine That! Frederick initially worked one-on-one in an older man’s home, helping him foster his love for painting.
Funds were scarce at first, so Frederick put his DIY skills to use, walking around the neighborhood with the man, searching for scrap wood that could be used for painting surfaces. As the organization grew, Imagine That! moved into a small space and then a larger one. Today, dozens of individuals attend the studio, and the organization is well-known for its celebratory exhibitions and street festivals, many of which Frederick organized.
Taking on Consumer Culture
In 2015, Frederick’s work took a political turn with his project “Turn-A-Profit.” On Black Friday, Frederick took a rented U-Haul and converted it into a mobile film screening platform. He drove it around to parking lots and projected videos of Black Friday riots on the back of it. Enormous signs that read “SALE” were placed on the sides of the trailer, and audio recordings of planet earth taken from outer space were used as the soundtrack. The project is dark, perhaps even pessimistic. It was during this time Frederick began questioning whether art is a good platform for social change. The crowds barely noticed his project and continued their shopping frenzy unfazed.
In 2016, Frederick created another site-specific project called “Thanks, I can see it from here.” At the corner of Johnson Drive and Roeland Drive in southwest KC lies the infamous Mission Gateway Project. Since at least 2010, developers have been proposing, then canceling, reviving and revising development projects at the mostly empty intersection. Frederick went there with a push broom and filmed himself slowly pushing trash and dirt across the vast empty lot. The resulting 18-minute looping video has a true sense of desolation about it.
In 2017, after leaving Archive Collective, Frederick began a new project called Open House. He and collaborator Olivia Clanton took over a small house next door to his own home and transformed it into a gallery. Since its inauguration, Open House has had more than a dozen exhibitions and events, ranging from Garage School, in which local artists taught classes, to art exhibitions and music concerts. The space recently received a DIY Fund Grant from Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The space itself is bare bones. The interior is empty, with only a few walls and completely exposed carpentry. Each group that uses the space is in charge of transforming it, as in the inaugural show, “Making Do” by Lizzie Green, in which pictorial quilts depicting interior domestic spaces covered the walls. Open House has continued its programming and received numerous awards, including an ArtsKC Inspiration Grant and a Charlotte Street Foundation Rocket Grant. Harking back to his roots, Frederick thinks about his family’s weekly pizza nights and tries to recreate that intimate, familial experience in Open House programs.
In 2017, Frederick continued his exploration of consumer culture, documenting trash using photography and other mediums. In a recent interview, Frederick unwittingly used a telling euphemism to describe his subjects. He didn’t say trash, but “objects on the side of the road.” One object that made it into the group exhibition, “Sensible Disobedience” at La Esquina gallery, was a discarded aluminum Michelob Ultra can. Frederick walked by the litter on his way to work day after day, seeing it slowly weather and crumple. Eventually, he photographed it, printed the photographs on fabric and created stuffed plush sculptures of the aluminum can. The plushes are a weird and contradictory object, soft and comfortable, yet depicting the archetypal “object on the side of the road” that no one wants to touch.
Another project that explored the “trashy” side of consumer culture is “Big Chill Zine.” Scouring Instagram and other media platforms, Frederick collected selfies of people posing with oversized plastic cups of soda, the kind you’d buy at a gas station or corner store. A simple pleasure, maybe even one with low-class signifiers, but Frederick isn’t trying to call out these people as uncultured; rather, the zine (and much of Frederick’s art) is doing the exact opposite. It’s bringing that world of trashy consumerism directly into a high art context that often erases such cultural phenomena in favor of the purportedly “beautiful thing” like geometric abstraction or idyllic landscapes.
Unlike Warhol’s now ubiquitous Pop Art aesthetic of perfect consumer goods, Frederick shows the dirtier side of consumerism. His art isn’t about the minimalism of a Campbell’s soup can, but the maximalism of a 64-ounce gas station soda. In Warholian Pop Art, the object has a first life as a consumer good, then a second life as an art object. In Frederick’s method, the object has a first life as consumer good and dies as trash before it is reborn as art.
Speaking about his art process Frederick says, “It feels empowering. We have to believe in things. That things can be made beautiful again.” It is precisely this optimism that distinguishes Frederick, both in his arts organizing and in his own art practice. Indeed, if artists can’t make the world beautiful, who can?
Brandon Frederick will be part of Open Studios at the DrugstoreKC, 3948 Main St., from 6 to 10 p.m. May 11.
Upcoming exhibitions at Frederick’s Open House gallery, 4419 State Line Rd. include “Chain Mail: Brandon Bandy, Shawn Burkard and Wil Driscoll,” opening with a reception from 6 to 9 p.m. May 10; “Drawing Club,” a group show, opening with a reception from 6 to 9 p.m. June 8, and “Same, Pero Diferente: Rebeka Pech-Moguel (Beky Pech) and Kiki Serna,” opening with a reception from 6 to 9 p.m. July 26.