Honors: Michael Converse

The veteran artist will show his provocative collage-style works on the Missouri Bank artboards this summer.

The Charlotte Street Foundation recently announced its selection of eight artists to create artworks for the 2017 Missouri Bank Crossroads Artboards, a pair of double-sided billboards at 125 Southwest Blvd. The images change out every three months, and each rotation features works by two artists.

One of the eight is Michael Converse, a veteran KC artist known for his signature collage style of mixing cartoon drawings and abstract painting into artworks that are rarely in a fixed state.

Converse often reuses his drawings and paintings, creating sculptural installations that grow across gallery spaces. His art isn’t pretty — his cartoon drawings revel in abject humor and his abstractions are reminiscent of blooming molds and psychedelic acid trips.

Converse attended the Yale Summer School in 1989 and graduated from Kansas State in 1991 with a bachelor of fine arts in painting and printmaking. After college, he lived for a while in Seattle, but made his mark as an artist when he returned to Kansas City in 1996. After appearing in numerous group shows across KC, in 2004 Converse received one of KC’s biggest honors, a Charlotte Street Foundation Award. He was a collaborator in the Whoop Dee Doo artist collective in the mid-2000s. In 2005 he participated in the prestigious Art Omi Residency in New York and in 2007 his drawings were added to the Museum of Modern Art’s Artist Archives.

Since the 2000s, Converse admits, he retreated a bit from the KC gallery scene. Fed up with hype and demands of curators, he turned inward to his home studio. Seeing his work spaces leaves no doubt about Converse’s artistic dedication: There are rooms filled with hundreds of painted panels and canvases and dozens of three-ring binders containing thousands of drawings.

Indicative of Converse’s somewhat contrarian views, he often paints and draws on both sides of his artwork — he likes the idea of forcing a curator or collector to decide which side to display. His drawings range from heavy political meditations on gun violence, race relations and poverty to obscene bathroom humor and sex jokes.

When asked about his artistic influences, Converse mostly cites so called low-brow culture: cartoonists like Tex Avery, Jack Kirby and R. Crumb, and Mad Magazine, but he also has a deep appreciation for Philip Guston and has on a few occasions recreated the artist’s famous cartoon-like paintings of KKK figures.

A key part of Converse’s recent art practice is his website, starbarph.com, a maze-like archive which lets him show off his artwork without a curator demanding coherence. In his studio, a large map of the website allows him to plot out sequences of images and branching paths. But a visitor to the site is given no map; they must click from one painting or drawing to the next, sometimes looping back into early pages, an experience that is a lot like looking at his large-scale collage installations.

For the Artboards, Converse has set upon a similar collage strategy. Drawing upon his photographic archives, Converse has collaged his drawings, paintings, sculptures and installations into new images, stretching and skewing the photos to fit the confines of a billboard.

For Converse, these billboards present a unique opportunity, and he has even begun investigating whether he wants to buy more billboard space. The chance to speak to such a large audience, to reflect the ugliness of the world back at it, is appealing to Converse, but he fears that the artworks will, in the end, be drowned out by the fluorescent colors and bold typefaces of advertising and obscured by the speed of the highway.

Converse’s artworks join an ethical debate that has divided artists for centuries: If the world is ugly, is it the artist’s job to create beauty to compensate? Or, if the world is ugly, is it unethical to paper over that ugliness with beautiful art instead of reflecting that horror?

Converse definitely subscribes to the second school of thought. So if you see his Artboards this summer and find them a bit ugly or upsetting, look at the world around you . . .

The Michael Converse Artboards will be on view from June through August.

Above: Michael Converse at home with one of his artworks (photo by Jim Barcus)

About The Author: Neil Thrun

Neil Thrun

Neil Thrun is a writer and artist living in Kansas City, Missouri. He is a 2010 graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute and was a resident artist with the Charlotte Street Urban Culture Project in 2011 and 2012. He has written for publications including the Kansas City Star, Huffington Post and other local arts journals.

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