“Now/Here,” H&R Block Artspace at the Kansas City Art Institute

“Now/Here,” a fresh survey of 30 recent works by Kansas City artists of color, shows an interesting spectrum of both artistic media and approach, ranging from expressionism, conceptualism, figuration, geometric abstraction to cultural reinvention.

Kathy Liao’s monumental mixed-media work “The Continuous Line” sets the stage in the Block’s tricky two-story main gallery. A labyrinth of posts and barriers, the kind at airport security or immigration and customs, recedes from the foreground like an endless livestock chute toward the dark horizon. Huddled in the far-right corner, an exhausted family bides their time. Above the curiously empty scene a turbulent sky of broad gestural marks rises and falls over their heads. We empathize with their uncertain fate relative to shifting immigration policies.  One thing is certain: there will be waiting.

Patricia Bordallo Dibildox’s adjacent installation takes a more open-ended approach with a piece of mylar unfurled from the wall onto the floor. Like a fun house mirror it reflects a distorted waist-down image while a wad of string and deflated balloons sits at the base. A transparent piece of vinyl with subtle vertical stripes hangs next to it higher on the wall. Though we can see through it, it remains a barrier nonetheless. “I Often Forget How to Spell Perseverance” suggests that the grass may not be greener over here when the experience of migrating disfigures the self. 

Three beautifully rendered large scale nude drawings by Hyeyoung Shin, titled “Push,” “Pull” and “Abyss,” communicate the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual toll of dwelling as an immigrant “other.” Kwanza Humphrey’s nearby “Clarissa” is a pugilistic portrait of a woman of color with her fists up, ready for battle.

The seamless inclusion of wearable art is most welcome and appropriate to “Now/Here.” Whitney Manney’s kickin’ couture is an exuberant blend of street aesthetics, trippy textile design and recycled fabrics. “You Gettin’ Dressy Dressed or Just Dressed?” pulls off a hi/lo balancing act that combines elegant silk, satin and tulle with an embellished denim waistline and a humble bustle of faded canvas, denim and twill, even a surprising dash of Dorothy’s gingham.

Throughout the exhibition the theme of bilocation surfaces in the way that images store memories and family narratives across both space and time. Kiki Serna collages personal letters and paintings of residential Mexican architecture into maps that constitute multidimensional memories of place. In contrast, Rebeka Pech Moguel presents a visual catalogue of familiar Kansas City dwellings in “Hogar/Lugar” that reminds us that when we identify with a place, when we make a house a home, it requires an act of intention.

Prints by Heinrich Toh and Carlos Ortiz-Gallo utilize family photos as the basis for interrogating and reordering the past through the artist’s eyes in the present. Andrew Ordonez buries his tabletop photo collage and found objects in a loose pile of sand, a visual analogy for fading memories covered up by the sands of time. Only the clawed back areas reveal the fragments of a half-remembered postcard “Paraíso.”

Ruben Castillo memorializes the emotional and bodily impressions of a loved one in his elaborate installation “Drawing of our Closets (Love Notes).”

Several other artists in the show appear less concerned with issues of race and place in favor of formal experimentation. An successful transition from one gallery to the next features William Toney’s monochromatic mise-en-scène “Stilllife (white)” with its dead flowers and urban detritus on one side contrasted with Desiree Morales’thinking / in black,” a luscious soft-edged abstraction in hues of tangerine and blood orange on the other.

The deep black oil on panel paintings of Jorge García Almodóvar’s triptych “Level (Gradient: OLV 26)” revels in austere abstraction. His addition of beeswax creates a uniform comb-like texture over most of the panel, but the asymmetric edges of seem to harbor entropic forces in thin layers of matte and glossy blacks.

Angelica Sandoval’s internally illuminated porcelain pods, suspended from the ceiling by steel rods in a dense cluster, are noteworthy for their lifelike qualities. Circling the installation, we anticipate the capsules to open their apertures to deposit seeds or spores.

Guest curator, Silvia Beatriz Abisaab, active herself in the Kansas City art community as a self-identifying artist of color, delivers an exhibition with a satisfying balance of early to mid-career artists who know who they are and what they are doing. Kudos to the Block Artspace for empowering emerging curators to show varied visions of Kansas City’s fertile art scene.

“Now/Here” continues at Block Artspace, 16 43rd St., through Aug. 31. (Closed July 4 and 5 and Aug. 3 – 12) Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday – Saturday. For more information 816.561.5563 or kcai.edu/artspace

About The Author: Brian Hearn

Brian Hearn is an interdisciplinary arts writer, curator and consultant active in both film and visual arts. For two decades he has shared his passion and expertise with arts organizations large and small, from art museums to film festivals, galleries to collections. He and his wife Sarah recently collaborated on a new art project, a baby boy.

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