Restrictive, confining cultural expectations for physical appearance, along with subtle and not-so-subtle demands for conformity, are themes reflected in the work by two artists currently showing at the Kansas City Kansas Community College Art Gallery’s exhibit, “Diversity in Contemporary America.”
Tennessee-based artist, Andrew Stephen Norris and Kansas City-area painter and KCKCC alumnus, JT Daniels share parallel, life-long journeys in a diverse society that doesn’t necessarily accept diversity or embrace individuality.
In his series, “Toxic Masculinity,” Norris explores gender roles and the two-edged struggle to conform to or reject unrealistic and restrictive media and advertising constructs. Daniels looks at the role of race and society pressure to adapt one’s identity to others’ expectations in his series, “Bangin’ Hair-Do’s.”
Norris first began to consider the roles of men in media and advertising while drawing comic book superheroes as a child. “I looked at these images of how men are expected to be and look. We are surrounded by it constantly. Everything that men do is socially constructed on advertising and how men look as superheroes. It takes a toll on our body image.”
Norris began the “Toxic Masculinity” series in 2014. A painter and graphic designer, he works in Photoshop to pair celebrity images with simplified superhero costumes in order to create a composition that will convey his messages. Dressed as superheroes, the celebrities become archetypes for Norris’ themes. “There is a preconceived notion of what celebrity is,” Norris says. “Their big personalities represent these false ideas about body and behavior and the absurdity of them.”
Looking deeper, one finds insidiousness in these social and cultural expectations and the subsequent pain that results. “When I was making the work, there was a level in which I wish I could be these people. You want to look like that and you don’t want to look like that. Being a gay man, it was an emotional experience all the way around.”
For JT Daniels, art is a way to connect with the world around him and share our collective experiences.
In his series, Bangin’ Hair-Do’s, begun in 2011, Daniels chooses women’s hair styles to also explore societal expectations for appearance and conformity. “In our culture, you have to fit into a certain mold. You should act this way and be that way. That box was designed with me in mind but I don’t want to fit into that box.”
Daniels’ personal experiences and identity as a biracial man are deeply woven into his large-scale, mixed-media paintings. Through surrealistic depictions of women’s hair, he explores emotions, cultures, and roots symbolized in physical appearance, specifically through hair styles.
“Hair is an essential, universal symbol for a lot of things and hair style is a voice for many people’s emotions and what they are thinking,” Daniels says.
In his vibrant, energetic compositions, Daniels’ expressive brushstrokes imbue the hair curls with their own language and each lyrical curl makes a statement. Twirled throughout the lush, rich hair swirls are fighter characters who battle each other with ray-guns and knives. These personified curls reflect the subjects’ inner dialogue, as each claims her own identity and place in the world. “Do I conform or do I thrive in my own truth?” ask the curl fighters. Ultimately, Daniels’ subjects reject society’s confines and their independence resounds in the freedom of their exuberant, natural hair.
Though themes and ideas parallel in the two artists’ works, they also diverge.
Just below the surface of the impervious, aggressive conceit found in the expressions and body language of Norris’ celebrity superheroes lies something else entirely. Uncertainty, self-doubt, and angst are the true consequences of the roles they play — or feel compelled to play. In “Circle Jerk,” the most recent painting in the Toxic Masculinity series, the celebrity is not wearing his superhero costume. Minus the usual swagger, he is, instead, reluctantly putting the costume on, while feeling the pressure of a society that seems to leave him no option.
In contrast, Daniels’ subjects emanate a different energy. Strength and power exude from their reflective, thought-provoking expressions. The women, some of whom are based on superheroes, reflect a resilience and confidence in who they are. They clearly reject the world’s expectations and conformity by silently shouting their strength and identity.
Through their commitment to their visions, both Norris and Daniels transcend individual experience in conversations with the audience. They speak to the ongoing storyline about choosing and believing in one’s own identity, while rejecting external pressures to do otherwise.
“Diversity In Contemporary America” continues through Nov. 2 at the Kansas City Kansas Community College Art Gallery, located on the lower level of the Jewell Building on the campus at 7250 State Ave., Kansas City, Kan. Hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday – Thursday. For more information, contact Gallery Curator Shai Perry at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 913-288-7408 or www.kckcc.edu/campus-life/arts-entertainment/art-gallery.