“Charlotte Street Foundation Fellows 2017,” Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art

Karen McCoy, Consuming Questions

The 21st iteration of the Charlotte Street Foundation Fellows exhibition, which always focuses on Kansas City artists, includes Stephen Proski, Samara Umbral and Karen McCoy.  The artists were selected by a national team of arts professionals, including Bruce Hartman, the Nerman Museum’s Executive Director and Chief Curator. Independent Curator Dan Cameron, who is organizing Kansas City’s Open Spaces biennial, wrote the brochure and wall text.

Stephen Proski, Boogie Brigade, 2017, Hand-sewn oil, thread, and canvas, 110 x 56″, Courtesy the Artist

Stephen Proski’s stitched-together canvas paintings suggest an affinity for musical improvisation. All these unstretched canvases, except one, are irregularly shaped and populated with Pop Art-ish attributes. “Noiding Out”’s jagged imagery and elongated forms, some of which are like a visual onomatopoeia, coalesce to suggest jazz riffs.  It’s hard not to think of American painter Stuart Davis, whose energetic colors and abstract shapes depended on his kinship with jazz.  While Proski originally worked with his own paintings that he cut into pieces, recent work reflects his shift to using intensely colored canvas shapes that he paints separately and pieces together.

By hand sewing the canvas, Proski taps a vital history of needlework, embroidery, and gender roles. Needlework, historically the realm of women, the domestic, and femininity, has also functioned as an apparatus of protest and resistance in early 20th century suffrage banners, 1970s feminist work by Judy Chicago, and embroidered denim that signified counter culture’s non-conformity. Proski’s richly visible stitches, while not the focus or overall gestalt of the paintings, still proclaim stitchery as an intrinsic part of each painting.

“Revenge of the Window Watcher” is a study in shades of pink, cartoonish characters, and the visual rhythm endemic to all his works.  Several animal/blobby hybrids move throughout the painting generating the action and creating an animated narrative of the imagination.  While the story here may feel up for grabs, the checkered flag patterns, wheels, flames, and smoke puffs in “Cruis’n USA” frames an American obsession with car culture and speed.

Kansas City Art Institute professor Karen McCoy’s large scale-installation “Consuming Questions” raises notions of permanence, change, materiality, consumerism and the political efficacy of site-specific art. Comprised of shoes, sweaters, a boom box, computer components, tiny baby shoes, and myriad other everyday items, everything is bound with Missouri red clay subsoil. Washed up against the gallery wall, this in-your-face detritus tsunami suggests the remnants of a flood or landslide.  This, McCoy’s third iteration of the work, is a nomadic re-framing of what she made for a 2016 exhibition at the Arabia Steamboat Museum, which she subsequently reworked at Kansas City’s Surplus Exchange.

As an artist who often focuses on site-specific sculptures made with natural, local materials, McCoy’s work often underscores a relation to the earth and the natural world, yet highlighting political and social issues that may serve to undermine the environment.

“Consuming Questions” shows us now-useless things left behind, perhaps questions why we have the things we have, and whether we truly need what we tend to accumulate. Installing a work that critically questions object ownership in collecting institutions may raise ideological questions about cultural/institutional collections/collecting, material culture, and about what gets saved and what does not, and through what mechanism.

Samara Umbral, S.U., 2017, Oil on canvas, 20 x 20″, Courtesy the Artist

Samara Umbral’s watercolor and mixed-media paintings are nothing short of transcendent. The tiny paintings, which compel us to intimacy as we bend close to see, comprise self-portraits and portraits of friends. “Reagan and Alice After School” shows girls hugging; the treatment of wet hair and wet fabric against skin is stunningly realistic. The angle in which the girls are partially cut off the composition suggests a photographic moment, as if they were snapped quickly in the middle of a group hug. The background’s muted greys and pinks anchor the quiet composition.

Watercolor’s translucency can feel vulnerable, perhaps making it the perfect medium for Umbral’s work in this series. As a transgender artist, her self-portraits may suggest her compassion toward herself as she was, and as she is now, as she was meant to be.

Self-portraits “Samara on vacation” and “Samara ready to go out,” in which she appears in typical teen-aged/young adult attire, are tender portrayals of a feminine young woman. And yet, as Cameron notes in his essay, these are images of Samara Umbral as she wished to have been as a young woman, not as the male she was. They are conjured memories of what never was, but what should have been. And is that not our right, and our obligation, to image ourselves as who we truly are?

Charlotte Street Foundation Fellows, 2017 continues through March 4 at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park, Kan. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. For more information 913.469.3000 or www.nermanmuseum.org

Dana Self

Dana Self is an arts writer who was a contemporary art curator for more than 13 years at museums in Kansas, Wisconsin, Tennessee and Missouri, including Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. She has organized roughly 100 exhibitions of emerging and midcareer artists. She is also marketing director for UMKC Conservatory.

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