“2021 Kansas City Flatfile & Digitalfile,” H&R Block Artspace at the Kansas City Art Institute

2021 Kansas City Flatfile & Digitalfile, installation view; courtesy of H&R Block Artspace.

Makayla Booker, Angel Boy Series (2), 2020 (Photograph Courtesy of the artist)

Has the turmoil and angst of the last year and a half gotten to you? Are you suffering from a chronic, low-grade case of the pandemic blues? Are you someone who believes that art is one of the necessities of life, after water, food, and shelter? And — lovers of digital selling modes like NFTs aside — are you feeling a little starved for in-person viewing of actual works of art? Then let me suggest a remedy I’ve found most helpful.

Go to the “2021 Kansas City Flatfile & Digitalfile exhibit” at the Kansas City Art Institute’s H&R Block Artspace and pull open some drawers. Not just once, but several times, savor the experience of looking, touching and holding (with gloves on) unframed works of art by more than 250 artists from the Kansas City region. At a time when keeping one’s distance is the norm, there is an inexplicable emotion that occurs when you are up close and personal to another human being’s most explicit feelings and thoughts expressed strikingly through the vehicle of art.

As one visitor exclaimed at a recent visit: “This is so exciting! I feel like it’s Christmas!” And since most of the pieces are for sale, and very reasonably priced, consider buying some of the artworks as well. Because much of the art here is very, very good.

Deanna Dikeman, Bedspread and pillow, 2020, pigment inkjet print (Courtesy of the artist)
RJ, Junger, Build a Home, 2019, video, 12:26 min. (Courtesy of the artist)

Lavon King (Imagine That!), Lady, 2018, oil pastel and paint pen on paper (Courtesy of the artist and Image That!)

Start your visit by looking at the art installed on the walls. Dozens of works are hung, often salon style, around the gallery, which offers a broad, overall perspective. Materials range from graphite, ink, crayons, paint, embroidery thread, earth, and dyes, which are applied to paper, canvas, textiles, ceramics, collage, and photography. There are also books. The only criterion was that the art had to fit into a file. For this part of the show, a group of young curators in Kansas City were chosen to install works of their choice, and individual walls are changed regularly.

All this keeps the show fresh and surprising. In the Artspace exhibition handout, all participating artists are listed alphabetically with the number of their flatfile drawer. On the opposite side of the page, the drawers are all listed with the artists’ names, whose work lies inside them in large, white, handmade archival files. (The only entrance fee for participating artists was $20 for their file, which they can keep.) Many artists paid for new files for artists who couldn’t afford the price. It doesn’t take long before one feels like a participant in a very fun archaeological dig.

Anthony Marcos Rea, Constructing new territories of line across an already undisclosed body – No. 1, 2021, pigment liner, acrylic ink and pen on watercolor paper (Courtesy of the artist)

The Flatfile exhibit has been a biennial event at KCAI since 2000. “Last year was meant to be the 20-year celebration of what has become a signature event at the Artspace,” Director Raechell Smith said in a recent interview. “Covid stopped what had become a rhythm in the art community here.”

But the extra time also allowed Smith, her assistant, artist Marcus Cain and others to organize what is the most exhilarating Flatfile exhibit to date. This Flatfile show is genuinely and purposely diverse, cliques and collectives pushed aside. “This time,” Smith said, “I organized a community curator group to help find artists new to the community, and to invite artists not familiar with the Flatfile process.” Eric Dodson, Jose Faus, Lueknu Knabe, Brandon Frederick, Kathy Liao, Harold Smith, Isabel Vargas, and Davin Watne did a first-rate job bringing in more than 70 artists who had never participated before. For some of the entrants, it was the first time showing their art anywhere.

That’s one of the main reason this exhibition is such a standout. Another is that many of the best known, and finest artists in the metro area have chosen to be in the Flatfile, and the mix of the known with the unknown is invigorating and provocative.

Bernadette, Esperanza Torres Solace, 2020. Ink on paper (Courtesy of the artist)

Some of the long-time stalwarts of the regional art scene in this show include: Norman Akers, Barry Anderson, Ky Anderson, Maria Vasquez Boyd, James Brinsfield, Marcus Cain, Patty Carroll, Deanna Dikeman, John Ferry, Ariadne Fish, Nate Fors, Archie Scott Gobber, Rashawn Griffin, Marcie Miller Gross, Peregrine Honig, Kwanza Humphrey Jessica Kincaid, Amy Kligman, Misha Kligman, Don Kottmann, Christopher Leitch, Judith Levy, Kim Lindaberry, Marilyn Mahoney, Karen McCoy, Mary Beth Moley, Dylan Mortimer, Yoonmi Nam, Johnny Naugahyde, Laura Nugent, Rebecca Ofiesh, Anne Austin Pearce, Jason Pollen, Jane Pronko, Robert Quackenbush, Sara Sonié Joi Thompson-Ruffin, E.G. Schempf, Chico Sierra, Mike Sinclair, Harold Smith Jr., Kati Toivanen, Gerry Trilling, Maria Velasco, Jane Voorhees, Davin Watne, Mary Wessel, James Woodfill, and Carol Zastoupil.

Also included are many artists whose signature work does not lend itself to the parameters of the Flatfile show, although it was a real treat to see two-dimensional work by sculptors and ceramic artists such as Bernadette Esperanza Torres, Linda Lighton, May Tveit, Jason Needham, Susan White, and Mark Cowardin, among others.

Another delightful inclusion are two files of works organized by the Johnson County Developmental Supports (JCDS) agency, which has worked with individuals who are developmentally disabled since 1972. Whatever label you apply to this art — outsider or visionary — a number of the artworks are simply extraordinary.

In a separate viewing room, there are also 30 digital files on view, 22 by artists who also have work in the flatfile.

One insight that struck this viewer, after looking at the work by the artists above, is how extraordinary it is to have so many artists of this caliber who have contributed to the cultural vibrancy of this city for years. Another revelation is how many other terrific artists whose work

is not well known live and create here. As I make my way through all the drawers, I plan to make their acquaintance.

“2021 Kansas City Flatfile & Digitalfile” continues at the Kansas City Art Institute’s H&R Block Artspace, 16 E. 43rd St., through Oct. 14. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday. For more information, 816.561.5563 or www.kcai.edu/artspace.

Elisabeth Kirsch

Elisabeth Kirsch is an art historian, curator and writer who has curated over 100 exhibitions of contemporary art, American Indian art and photography, locally and across the country. She writes frequently for national and local arts publications.

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