An enchanting warren of color and passion

Installation view of “A Layered Presence/Una presencia estratificada.” The center structure features “Untitled” (2019–2023) by José Faus, an etched copper plate and patina mounted on wood piece inspired by dance, and (right) “Mis raíces” (2023) by Vania Soto. (photo by Dana Anderson)

Nelson-Atkins’ “A Layered Presence / Una Presencia Estratificada” exhibition showcases the vitality of KC’s Latino artists

Replete with visual treasure, “A Layered Presence/Una presencia estratificada” marks a dazzling and richly emotional experience at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

As its name suggests, this exhibition is an immersive affair whose themes, aesthetics and stories invite scrutiny and catharsis in a variety of ways. Featuring 22 Kansas City artists working across a range of media and subject matter, “A Layered Presence” explores complex topics like identity and family — spaces that are both universal and uniquely intimate.

Beyond the sheer beauty of the artwork, the other unifying element of the show is that all the artists have a connection to Latin America. But rather than being reductive, this lattice of geography and culture hones each creation into a vibrant font of distinction and voice. In fidelity to these themes, the artists wrote their own labels for their pieces. This practice encourages the audience to lean in and, privy to the inner workings of something magical, adopt the role of co-conspirators.

Although the gallery space is modest, the exhibition beckons visitors into an enchanting warren of color and passion. Much like the subject matter, the layout is non-linear and empowers patrons to explore in their own way and at their own pace.

Adolfo Gustavo Martinez, “La Adelita” (2023), acrylic on masonite, 71 x 48” (from the artist)

But regardless of how one navigates “A Layered Presence,” the motifs of family and sacrifice are inescapable. Adolfo Gustavo Martinez, for example, offers a stoic portrait of a woman in the acrylic on masonite work “La Adelita” (2023). Set during the Mexican Revolution of 1910, the piece draws inspiration from a famous black and white photograph taken in the conflict that depicts a young woman leaning from a train platform amidst her comrades and staring toward something with a look of anxious determination.

According to Martinez, whose grandmother left for the United States by rail in 1917 with two children of her own, popular portrayals of the Revolution in his youth were grandiose and perpetuated an idealized version of the history. “La Adelita” honors the suffering endured by people like Martinez’s grandmother and reflects the active role that women played in Mexico’s revolution. Beneath the heroism lies sorrow.

Another artist who channels family in her own way is Eulalia C. Pulido, whose acrylic on canvas and mixed media piece, “Tony’s Dream” (2007-2023), celebrates the happy home that her father made possible. With the trappings of an uplifting fable illustration, the work introduces visitors to a mother and father, surrounded by seven smiling children on the front porch of the artist’s childhood home in the Armourdale neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas. Beneath a soothing twilight sky, a flock of chickens and rows of corn keep the family company in the background.

Pulido describes this modest home as her father, Antonio Castro’s, very own “ranchito.” She wistfully recalls how Tony not only provided for the needs of his children by laboring at the Armour Packing Company, but he also brought his dreams of a garden and backyard animals to life for them. As stated on the textual component of the piece, “we were dirt-poor, but we didn’t know it.”

Installation view of “A Layered Presence/Una presencia estratificada,” showing (right foreground) “La Muerte y la vida” (2023) by Rodrigo S. Alvarez, and (left rear) Maria Vasquez Boyd’s Cicatrización (Healing)” (2023) (photo by Dana Anderson)

Commendably, “A Layered Presence” affords both literal and symbolic space to accommodate a diversity of interpretations of familial sacrifice, the most prominent of which is the sculpture “La Muerte y la vida” (2023), by Uruguayan artist Rodrigo S. Alvarez.

Situated near the center of the gallery, this enormous steel and copper spider hanging from the ceiling is impossible to miss, and at first glance, appears downright menacing. But upon closer inspection, we see that the noble arachnid is encumbered with offspring — dozens of baby spiders cling to her abdomen, and others form a pile on a pedestal beneath their progenitor. As envisioned by the artist, the magnificent sculpture is an homage to his own mother, a woman who “walked away from an entire family to make sure that my siblings and I have a better life than she had herself.”

In reflecting upon the tenacity of his mother’s love, Alvarez wanted to create something that symbolized “the ultimate action that I felt could show to what extent a mother is willing to go for her babies.” And it turns out that a spider is the perfect vehicle in which to embody this theme; in a process called matriphagy, the females of certain arachnid species will allow themselves to be devoured by their offspring. And while Alvarez admits “that people may find this morbid,” it is a visceral testament to the importance of family and sacrifice within the broader world.

“A Layered Presence” boasts many voices, and every person will hear them differently. Additional featured artists include Emily Alvarez, Maria Vasquez Boyd, Ruben Bryan Castillo, José Faus, Israel Alejandro García García, Cesar Lopez, Jessica Manco, Rodolfo Marrón III, Jenny Mendez, Sue Moreno, Juan G. Moya, Carlos Ortiz-Gallo, Socorro Rico, Miguel Rivera, Chico Salvador Sierra, Kiki Serna, Vania Soto, Isaac Tapia and Hugo Ximello-Salido.

Each layer of the exhibition is unique and thought-provoking, and the bravery of these artists in channeling part of themselves into the experience feels truly authentic. Visitors to “A Layered Presence” will do themselves a favor by allowing a generous amount of time to think and feel things here.

“A Layered Presence/Una presencia estratificada” continues at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St., through Sept. 8, 2024. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday through Monday, and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday. For more information, 816.751.1278 or www.nelson-atkins.org.

Matthew Thompson

Matthew Thompson is an educator, historian, and writer who has lived in Kansas since 2005. His research interests include Progressivism and the Socialist Party of America, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War. He enjoys studying visual arts to help make the world and its history accessible and exciting to others.

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