Explorations of reality, nature and human sensuality challenge the senses and the mind

Installation view of wall works by Sean Nash and floor pieces by SunYoung Park in the 2023 Charlotte Street Fellows exhibition at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art (Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Johnson County Community College. photo by EG Schempf)

The 2023 Charlotte Street Visual Artist Fellows exhibition at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art

There is art that we see and feel and then move on. There is art that challenges our perceptions of the world around us. And there is art that changes how we view the very things that we have viewed our entire life.

Years ago, the family of the late artist and Kansas City Art Institute professor Lester Goldman displayed much of his work in a large warehouse in downtown KC. At that time, I was finding my way as an artist, selling art on eBay and in coffee shops, and seeing all this large, modernist work spread out and hanging was like walking into a different world. From large flowing abstracts with inviting intersections of color and shape to masterfully executed representational works, the entire space was transformed into a different reality. I spent a few hours there, talking to his gracious wife Kathrin and emerged inspired and energized.

Simply put, Goldman’s work transformed a mundane warehouse into a menagerie of color and creativity.

Nearly 20 years later, I see this same power to transform a space manifest in the 2023 Charlotte Street Visual Artist Fellows exhibition at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art. The convergence of ideas and explorations of materiality in the work of SunYoung Park, Ruben Castillo and Sean Nash challenge viewers’ perceptions of reality, nature, human sexuality and other realms.

Sean Nash’s dazzling “Scallop eyes watching Shell Global,” displayed with Park’s work in the museum’s Barton P. and Mary D. Cohen Galleries, is a sculptural work composed of composite resin, burlap, muslin and acrylic paint on panel. Shaped like a scallop and measuring an imposing 72” x 80” and more than 4” in depth, it drew my eyes down to a crimson and venetian reddish core that fans out into strips of lush pinks and yellows interspersed with aquatic colored, piercing, peering eyes.

Nash’s work explores connections to humanity, food, plants and ecosystems. The interacting textures used in this work animate it so that it resonates like a living creature. The 22 blue and green eyes peering out reminded me of 1950s science fiction films, flush with tales of lifeforms mutated through post-Hiroshima atomic residue. Nash, a 2005 Yale MFA graduate, has taken an often overlooked creature, the calico scallop, and recontextualized it into something even more beautiful and unforgettable.

While “Scallop eyes watching Shell Global” evokes the intersectionality of humanity and the natural world, the adjacent “Captured,” a surrealist ceramic and mixed-media artwork by SunYoung Park, recipient of MFA degrees from both Hong-Ik University Seoul and Southern Illinois University, explores a similar dynamic in the spaces between reality and imagination. Evoking notions of captivity versus freedom, and the synthetic versus the organic, “Captured” also takes commonly seen entities and transforms them into something new. A ceramic pillow folded over many times sits atop four slightly bowed legs. Bound at the knee with a long pink cord, the form evokes an embracing couple severed like a tree just above the waist, mingling the real and the imagined. A long green vine sprouts from the top layer, makes its way down, and is eventually constrained by the pink cord. “Captured” sits atop a white pillowed base, possibly alluding to notions of comfort and security.

There is an interplay, a sense of call and response, between the works of Nash and Park. Nash’s works are installed on the wall, expanding horizontally, while Park’s works are installed on the floor, expanding vertically. Nash’s works are flush with color while Park’s works are flush with form. Nash’s works allow the viewer to primarily stand still to take them in, while Park’s works invite the viewer to walk around to see them from different angles. Nash’s works dictate the viewer look outside the body, at nature, plants and ecosystems. Park’s works beckon the viewer to look inside the mind, at our conceptions of what is real, what is imagined and what happens when they converge.

View of Ruben Castillo’s wall installation encompassing decals installed throughout his gallery, and the framed work, “Gay Talk (Invert, In the Flowers),” 2023. (courtesy the artist and Gay & Lesbian Archive of Mid America, from the MCC – Spirit of Hope scrapbook / photo by EG Schempf)

An Intimate Approach

While Nash and Park’s works are striking for their shapes, colors and juxtapositions, Skidmore College assistant professor Ruben Castillo’s installation, located in the meditative McCaffree Gallery space, is effective for its intimate approach. It beckons the viewer to come in close.

In prints, drawings, sculpture/installation and video, Castillo investigates “themes of intimacy, queerness, archival history, and the body,” according to the Nerman’s website.

“Various,” constructed of PhotoTex decals, includes a set of six scans from the August 5, 1979, issue of the Kansas City Star Magazine with the title “Stepping Out: Gays in the Heartland.” These scans are provided by the Gay & Lesbian Archive of Mid America from the MCC – Spirit of Hope Scrapbook.

With article titles such as “The Gays Among Us,” “One Perception of the Gay Community” and “Homosexuality No Barrier,” the scans of these 40-plus-year-old clippings hearken to the past, present and future lived experience of those in the LGBTQ community.

A framed work, “Gay Talk (Invert, In the Flowers),” uses scans of ads for a now-defunct service with the tagline “Gays Helping Gays.” A deconstructed sketch of two lovers shares the frame. “Gay Talk” is simultaneously nostalgic and prophetic.

There is a tenderness to Castillo’s work, a gentleness that comes through his use of dated materials, the look of faded scotch tape mounting the newspaper clippings, his use of quiet, soft hues, and a presentation that is akin to inviting someone for a heartfelt chat on their human experience.

The exhibition has a well-rounded feel. Nash’s work is exciting to the senses, Park’s work evokes questions about what goes on in our heads, and Castillo’s work challenges us to consider each other’s lived experience.

“Charlotte Street Fellows · 2023: Ruben Castillo · Sean Nash · SunYoung Park” continues at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park, through April 14. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Friday, Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. For more information, 913.469.3000 or www.nermanmuseum.org.

Harold Smith

Harold Smith is an educator and multimedia artist who lives and works in the Kansas City area. Most of his work is focused on his experience within the American black experience.

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