“Cary Esser: Second Surface” & “Marcus Cain: Alignments,” Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art

In “Second Surface” Cary Esser lines up dozens of small to medium fragmented, box-shaped ceramics on the walls of the Sherry Leedy Gallery like so many battered sentinels. They are ever alert, in earthy colors ranging from the purest white to muted gold, similar in type, but yet each distinct.

Esser calls them “parfleches,” named after the painted satchels made by Plains Indian women in the 18th and 19th centuries from tanned hides. The Native American parfleches, crafted in a variety of formats, were tough and portable. Esser’s versions are clearly stationary. And while her parfleches also have an outer skin, they invite us to peer inside as they simultaneously threaten to shatter at a mere glance. The rawhide vessels held an assortment of real materials; the contents of Esser’s pieces are invisible and symbolic.

Esser began her parfleche series several years ago. Her first pieces were larger than her current work and all white. They were difficult to construct — roughly akin to aesthetic brain surgery — and she wasn’t sure she wanted to make more. She persisted. “I made endless variations on the formula,” Esser says. She created a solid slip cast mold for the back panel of each piece, but also had to develop a method that allowed a modicum of control for the top panel while simultaneously permitting the fissures, tears and gaps that make these artworks so distinctive.

The earliest pieces “could be so fragile that sometimes they would just collapse. Finally,” Esser says, “I found a slip that worked the way I wanted it to. Working on a smaller scale also gave me more control.” The process still requires hours of spraying, brushing and fashioning multiple layers of glazes and textures containing materials such as pulp, sand, and paper. “I allow tears to happen,” Esser notes, “but my touch is minimal.”

Esser is the ceramics department chair at the Kansas City Art Institute. She also went to school there, and while a student remembers walking through the streets of Kansas City and admiring the terracotta architectural motifs on the city’s older buildings. Her art has always addressed architecture in one form or another. The parfleche series is her own take on the images of shields that she found on many of the city’s aged structures.

“Shields are meant as protection for the body. But they eventually fray. We also try to protect ourselves emotionally as well as bodily. But those kinds of defenses also deteriorate. And I’ve noticed as I’ve gotten older that maybe that’s a good thing.”


The eye-dazzling, geometrically patterned paintings in “Alignments” are some of Marcus Cain’s most ambitious works to date. They are the largest paintings he has ever made and fully confident. They are also some of the most intense, heartfelt artworks Cain has ever created.

The works in “Alignments” are abstract, with designs that evoke quilts or serapes. They recall aspects of his works on paper, from 20 years ago, which were inspired by hand-made textiles sewn by his relatives when he was growing up. Cain’s current palette is also reminiscent of those earlier pieces.

“These colors, for me, are a form of memory experience,” Cain explains. “I wanted to embrace all those early influences.”

Besides the major canvases, there is a group of six hypnotic small paintings —  double-hung, 3-D examples of what could be quilt blocks or tesserae bricks.

What stands out in these new works is Cain’s mark-making; each paint stroke is a dash that is closer to a gouge. Immediately prior to this Cain created artworks best described as “pointillist color-field” paintings, distinguished by layers of stippled paint dots. For “Alignments” Cain used a potter’s rib (a metal rib generally used when throwing pottery on a wheel) to create side-by-side linear slashes.

“I wanted to make marks without using a brush,” Cain says. “It was a form of active restraint, a way of using a tool and seeing how much variation I could get.”

There are layers upon layers of paint in the paintings, which accounts for the visual vibration and lenticular sensation experienced when looking at the canvases from a distance. This was a deliberate choice by Cain.

“I knew the dashes would create an optical experience that would affect the viewer. Part of my reason was to unfocus the eye, to slow things down, so people could go from looking in an outward way to looking inward.”

The strokes, and the buried layers, also suggest tears and wounding, adding an unexpected emotional subset to all the works.

When Cain was growing up, he remembers, “my grandmother sewed quilts by hand for each of her grandchildren. She called her stitching ‘love stitches.’ I think of my linear markings as being similarly devotional. I want to optically and emotionally transport people.”

“Cary Esser: Second Surface” and “Marcus Cain: Alignments” continue at Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art, 2004 Baltimore Ave. through March 24. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and by appointment. For more information, 816.221.2626 or www.sherryleedy.com.

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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