What does it mean to be a “Regionalist” today? The Kemper at the Crossroads exhibit, “The Center is a Moving Target: If You Lived (T)here,” features six artists, all residents of the Midwest, whose artworks can be understood through the cities they live in. Curator Erin Dziedzic has selected artists whose styles vary between the poles of abstraction and realism and between fantasy and documentary.
Nearly 100 years ago, critics and artists used the term “Regionalism” to refer to realistic paintings like Grant Wood’s iconic American Gothic or John Steuart Curry’s famous painting of John Brown, Tragic Prelude. Regionalism was known for its realistic style, but also for depicting everyday American life and American history.
Kansas City-based regionalist Thomas Hart Benton declared himself “an enemy of modernism,” against the European art movements which embraced abstraction and against the East Coast American painters who were just beginning to create Abstract Expressionism.
But the first work you see in “The Center is a Moving Target” isn’t a realist painting, it’s a minimalist sculpture.
Jim Woodfill’s Kansas City Architecture is an abstract sculpture made of metal frames, laminated plywood, fluorescent light tubes, two by fours and other hardware. Further inside is Woodfill’s Unfolded Enclosure, a work made of six hollow-core wooden doors leaning against the wall, painted in a soft institutional mint, white gesso, and dull dusty black paint.
Unfolded Enclosure is a modernist monochrome artwork that couldn’t be more different from historical “Regionalism,” but neither is the work the flashy, polished abstract art that is popular in corporate lobbies and mansions. Woodfill’s sculptures are like buildings that are being taken apart or still under construction. The hollow-core doors have cracks in them, and instead of sitting on a pure white pedestal, they rest on little unpainted scraps of particle board.
Woodfill’s minimalism recalls the early, grungy years of minimalism, when experimental artists like Carl Andre and Donald Judd had to make do with simple, cheap materials. Woodfill’s abstraction is about Kansas City architecture, just like he says, as this city is not a millionaire’s metropolis of shiny surfaces, but a working class city with repurposed buildings and a preference for function over fashion.
Kansas City resident Caitlin Horsmon’s Superlinear Living shares Woodfill’s interest in the KC landscape, but through filming the city’s streets. The installation features three projections, showing street scenes, maps and satellite photos of KC and accelerated videos taken from a dashboard camera. One segment shows a memorial of flowers on a crumbling street curb, likely the location of a crime or accident. The films themselves are projected over and inside of strange sculptures of unknown objects wrapped up in opaque white shrink wrap.
It’s counter-intuitive to go into a gallery in to see the city right outside the gallery doors. Typically, museums hold images and objects of faraway places or long lost histories. But in a media-saturated world, we are so preoccupied with images of fantasy and faraway places, we no longer see our own cities or see the crime on the streets. Even when such events are brought to our attention, it is already too late. Much like the shrink-wrapped sculptures of Horsmon’s installation, we don’t get to see the insides or the truth of such situations.
Tulsa, Oklahoma artist Eyakem Gulilat’s “Site Unseen” photograph series shows pictures of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and locations relevant to the 1921 Race Riots. Guililat photographs old boarded-up homes, crumbling cement steps that lead up into empty lots and the residents of Tulsa today. One array of photos shows decorative plaques of buildings in the historic Greenwood District where the riots took place; most of the plaques are tarnished and hard to read, some have fallen off the buildings, leaving empty indentations in cement.
Gina Adam’s “Survival/Zhaabwiiwin” are sculptures made from large nylon camping tents, which have had sections of plastic and mesh removed, replaced with tanned elk, deer and buffalo hides, held together with wax and sinew. The tents are turned onto their sides, as if they’ve been blown over. Adams, who traces her lineage to the Ojibwa tribe, is a resident of Longmont, Colorado, a region now popular for recreational camping but that was once frequented by many different Native American tribes when the United States Government pushed various tribes west of the Mississippi.
K.C. artist Jill Downen’s sculptures are, much like Woodfill’s, minimalist constructions of wood and hardware, but unlike Woodfill’s they incorporate large blocks of plaster with smooth undulating surfaces. Downen also shows us sculpture that appears as if it is being taken apart, but these works feel more anthropomorphic, like we are seeing the guts and skeleton of a building.
Peter P. Goché’s sculptures take a different approach to minimalist regionalism, incorporating intricate wood joints and the old spoon-like blades of a rotary hoe. Through his sculptures, Goché’, a resident of Ames, Iowa, investigates Black Heritage Farms, a fifth generation farming operation.
Since the time of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry, Regionalism has been a reaction against modernist abstraction, its glitzy expensive materials and its fashionable European heritage. For some time, artists have been afraid of being pigeon-holed as Regionalists, concerned it will hurt their ability to exhibit work in the imperial centers of the art world, places like L.A., New York, Paris and Venice.
Today, Regionalism as a term is losing its taboo qualities. People are concerned with their immediate communities, they desire to eat locally, to reconnect with their neighbors and experience their city. It is no wonder then, that a museum like the Kemper, which often exhibits contemporary artists from faraway places, should also get in on the rising trend of “thinking locally.”
Yet, for an exhibition which proclaims itself to be concerned with “Regionalism,” “Post-Regionalism” and “Meta-Regionalism,” nowhere in this exhibition is there a realist painter, a successor to the legacies of Curry, Wood and Benton. Such successor artists do exist in Kansas City and in other Midwestern centers. Perhaps this is a sign that the stigma surrounding being a Regionalist realist still exists.
Still, “The Center is a Moving Target: If You Lived (T)here” is a powerful statement of the manner in which styles have changed and, and how abstraction, once antithetical to the Regionalist mindset, can now illuminate the cities we live in.
“The Center is a Moving Target: If You Lived (T)here” continues at Kemper at the Crossroads, 33 W. 19th St., through Jan. 6. Hours are 10 a.m.to 4 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday; noon to 4 p.m. Saturday. For more information, 816-753-5784 or kemperart.org.