“Fresh: KCAI Alumni,” The Epsten Gallery

Despite the optimistic title, this exhibit of works by 13 Kansas City Art Institute alumni evidences traces of anxiety, perhaps reflecting the violence and oppression people see or experience daily and our political, climatic, and civic instability.

Physical and psychological stress emerge in the exhibit’s three self-portraits. In Portrait of my Former Self, Stephen Proski stitches together variously painted canvases into an abstract, unstretched painting.  He writes, “I felt myself evaporating. …My clothes, my skin, my soul, tattered and torn into bits.”  In reconstructing this version of himself in which there is no skeleton to strengthen his canvas skin, Proski creates self-representation that holds together, despite his malaise.

Mike Lyon’s shadowy self-portrait — arms crossed, eyes averted, closed off — emerges from his well-documented practice of writing millions of lines of computer code that mechanically render an image.  Molly Garrett’s projected animation questions the traditional use of the patriarchal MMPI, Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, which has been in use since 1940 as a standardized personality test.

In these three works the body is reassembled through distancing practices of animation, computerized code that takes months to write and more than 400 hours to render, and fragments of canvas.

Two of the exhibit’s sculptural works suggest environmental apprehension and anxiety within the gay community in the face of extreme prejudice. Ariel Bowman’s stunning The Fossil Record is a ceramic and mixed media work depicting an extinct giant ground sloth contemplating a tiny metal toaster in his outstretched paw.  Bowman’s interest in extinct prehistoric animals is an evolutionary implication that some day humans — and the mechanized, manufactured world the toaster embodies — may be extinct.  The sloth’s uncannily knowing expression is beautiful and peculiarly unsettling.

Max Adrian’s Act II, Scene III: Repose, made of pleather, chainette fringe, and a chair, is inspired by theatre, history, and storytelling.  The large, totem-like figure, which poses rather daintily in its chair, is anthropomorphic, spiny, vulnerable, and even kind of cuddly.  Adrian writes that his sculptures “speak from one of the countless perspectives within the modern gay community —a community on the cusp of greater social acceptance while continuing to harbor both internal and external effects of decades of secrecy, fear, shame, and hate. These sculptures simultaneously conjure images of children’s playhouses and underground sex dungeons while posing questions about the ways in which humans discover, discuss, and engage in sexuality as well as other issues of social rights and cultural traditions.”

Chris Daharsh and Andy Maugh’s improvisational sculptures share similar motifs.  Daharsh’s Improv, constructed with a variety of materials, suggests the improvisation needed to manage anything, from a theatrical production to everyday life.  He culls the materials from other projects, suggesting that those discards can be reassembled for a hybridized and successful outcome.

Maugh constructs his deceptively simple sculptures from the discarded materials of home renovation projects.  Cedar Center, an upright plinth lit from within, is domestic and architectural.  He notes, “I enjoy making my work accessible, using everyday building materials and inviting people to live with and interact with my sculptures…” Maugh’s skillful composition guides us through the tower of perfectly stacked wood, punctuated by rectangles and squares of backlit translucent plastic.

Mary Ann Coonrod’s watercolors and color pencil drawings on paper are abstract studies of the basic elements of composition:  color, shape, line.  She animates her work with a vivid color palette and a loose relationship between geometric shapes and abstracted form. Her improvisational abstraction links the paintings to Daharsh’s sculpture. Patricia Stegman’s moody ocean painting, Amy Myers’s physics-inspired work on paper, and Ellen Carey’s color photograms round out two-dimensional abstraction.

Shenequa Brooks and Suzanne Klotz speak to the rich and discursive history of textiles, embroidery, and fiber work.  Brooks bases her triptych on traditional textile patterns she learned during her fellowship in Anloga, Ghana, West Africa.  She twists and alters her woven, striped pieces to resemble the landscape of Ghana.  Klotz treats her heavily beaded and embroidered pieces as graphic illustrations of domesticity, landscape, and nature scenes.  Her work is dense with multiple patterns and beautifully crafted needlework.

The exhibit spans alums who graduated between 1964 and 2015, with Klotz among the earliest and Brooks among the most recent. They and the other 11 artists in this show were selected by jurors Bruce Hartman, executive director of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art; Erin Dziedzic, director of curatorial affairs at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art; and James Martin, an independent art consultant, curator, educator and writer in Kansas City

“Fresh: KCAI Alumni” continues at The Epsten Gallery, 5500 W. 123rd St., Overland Park, through Oct. 23. Hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Closed Monday. For more information, 913.266.8414 or www.epstengallery.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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