Artist Pages | Michael Converse: Taking the Language Out of it

Studio display of multiple works on paper (2022), 8 x 8’

For Kansas City artist Michael Converse, art has always been more about “creating culture versus creating a product.” And while most artists are apt to share this sentiment to varying degrees, Converse has spent decades devoted to the excellence of his craft, with commodification of the output never an imperative.

A graduate of Kansas State University, Converse earned a BFA in painting and printmaking, and he has exhibited extensively in Kansas City, with his work also appearing in locations as diverse as Austin, Texas; Art Omi, New York; Santa Monica, California; and Osaka, Japan.

Casting Converse’s work into a genre is fraught with peril, as he prides himself on respecting the fluidity and intuition of the creative process. In a style he refers to as “high graffiti,” many of his recent pieces take the form of grotesque abstractions, frequently involving caricatures engaged in some type of voyeurism or self-mutilation. And while Converse freely embraces the “degenerate” tone of his work, he is not merely peddling spectacles.

“Images begot language,” he explains. “I’m like an old caveman. I’m trying to relate (to people) at a non-linguistic level.” To Converse, verbal and written language is inherently limiting; there simply aren’t enough words with enough precision to capture the essence of every human emotion, every physical process, or every anxiety and wonder. And the visual magic of art is what fills these gaps with meaning. But Converse also cautions, “the viewer has to figure out what the work is saying and what it means.”

Likening his art to compost, he describes how he “starts a pile, works on a pile, ignores it, and turns it” to see what it has become. In practice, this might mean revisiting a piece after years of dormancy and coloring over some, or all, of the existing image to see what results. Given the heavily corporeal nature of Converse’s work, with walking hands covered in eyeballs and misshapen humanoids severing their own limbs, the artist’s penchant for organic metaphor feels appropriate.

Converse concedes that some of his creations aren’t always easy to look at. “I’ll cop to the fact I don’t mind being a little aggressive.” This same lack of restraint, however, is what gives the art its authenticity. Unencumbered by the dictates of anyone else, he is free to explore the hidden depths of pre-lingual communication and to create things “that need new words.”

Although Converse marches to the beat of his own drum, he has earned significant recognition in the artistic community. A 2004 Charlotte Street Fellow, he has held exhibitions at some of Kansas City’s most beloved and iconic venues, such as the Urban Culture Project Space and the H&R Block Artspace, where some of his work is currently featured in the “2023 Kansas City Flatfile + Digital File” through Sept. 23.

Looking to the future, Converse hopes to continue blurring the line between written language and abstraction, and he is always thinking about how to remove both physical and curatorial barriers between the art and the viewer. “I’d love to have a show where I just laid out (the work) in binders…where the label is just a smaller version of the image. Take the language out of it.”


“Untitled” (2000-2022), mixed media on wood panel, 12 x 12”
“Untitled” (2005-2022), mixed media on wood panel, 10 x 11”
“Untitled” (2003-2022), mixed media on wood panel, 12 x 12”
“Just between us” (2022), graphite, ink, cigarette butt and metallic marker on fluorescent board, 11 x 14”
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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