(photo by Jim Barcus)

Tufting Gun in Hand, the 2016 Kansas City Art Institute Grad is Achieving High Visibility with his “Rug” Abstractions, Showing this Summer at Museo

So much can happen to an artist in four years. Since graduating from the Kansas City Art Institute in 2016 with an emphasis in painting, Bo Hubbard has been going with the flow while making key shifts in his art practice. “KC Studio” readers might recall the emerging artist’s recent role as co-founder of the queer art collective, Alter Art Space. Hubbard and co-founder Boi Boy enjoyed a hot minute back in 2018 when they made for one memorable March/April magazine cover.

Knowing their unsustainable Alter-coaster would come to an end, Hubbard started thinking about new directions for his artwork. He was accepted into the Charlotte Street Foundation Studio Residency in 2018, but Hubbard really hadn’t made his own work since graduation. Before that, “everything I made in school was ephemeral,” he recalls.

Hubbard became reacquainted with the idea of making visually interesting objects, beautiful even. He’d always been attracted to the languages of abstraction and has absorbed much of its history. In a recent interview, Hubbard mentioned canonical American Modernists like Arthur Dove and William Baziotes as inspirational sources. Both painters developed their own brands of biomorphic abstraction that he is exploring. He was further fascinated by their ability to render atmospheres full of mystery and emotion, tilting toward the surreal. Hubbard also cited highly versatile artists like Lucas Samaras and Bruce Nauman as influences — equally capable of shifting from surrealist, to conceptual, to participatory works.

Hubbard returned to a central question facing every visual artist: What is the best material to convey an idea? Enter an entirely new medium for the artist. Shortly after graduation, Hubbard attended the LeRoy Neiman Fellowship Program at the Ox-Box School of Art in Saugatuck, Michigan. There he made friends with two fellows starting a machine rug tufting supply business. At the start of his Charlotte Street Foundation Studio Residency he bought and experimented with the machine tufting gun and liked the complex organic shapes he discovered in the resulting rugs.

“Banana Palm: for Sara & Kaleb” (2020) reflects Hubbard’s attraction to complex organic shapes. (photo by Zane Scott Smith)

If you’ve never seen a tufting gun, it looks like a weaponized sewing machine with some serious stabbing capacity. When loaded with double threaded yarn and “fired” on the back of a taut industrial monk’s cloth, it lays down a clustered line of yarn fibers on the other side ending in a loop or cut strand.

Hubbard works from the back of the piece thinking primarily in negative space. It’s a very physical process, done while standing, that requires hearing protection. As he gained experience, he bought a second tufting gun that could make both loop and cut pile textures. Hubbard delved into the technical variables: using different color combinations of scrap yarns or over-tufting and then going back in to shave areas of yarn back down — with sheep shears no less.

“I’m really bad at painting. With paint, I’m too impatient.” Hubbard confessed. “This process (machine tufting) keeps me very actively thinking. It slows me down and keeps my colors whole. No mixing of colors. The yarn is the color and it’s so saturated.” With more than a dozen tufted rugs under his belt, Hubbard began showing and selling them in group exhibitions at Plug Projects and Charlotte Street Foundation’s La Esquina gallery. It didn’t occur to him that they shouldn’t be exhibited on the wall.

His rugs got him noticed by Bruce Hartman at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, who would host “queer abstraction,” a groundbreaking exhibition originated at the Des Moines Art Center from November 2019 to March 2020. Hubbard received a studio visit from the exhibition’s curator, Jared Ledesma, who commented that “they look like bathmats.” It wasn’t a dig.

Before long, Hubbard was remaking “Moonflower,” a monochromatic design incorporating more than 40 shades of white yarn in a large 7-by-5-foot size, expressly for the local iteration of “queer abstraction.” The award-winning museum exhibition was his first — one his family in Oklahoma City traveled to see and support.

Curiously, the most frequent question Hubbard fielded from his inclusion in “queer abstraction” was: Why wasn’t the piece exhibited on the floor? Apparently, there is among us a deep-seated rug bias toward functionality; surely, they must be on the floor. Instead, the curator cleverly placed “Moonflower” prominently on the wall in the company of large paintings, including an unstretched canvas lying in the middle of the gallery floor.

Hubbard relishes the tension of working against the expectations of the medium. He resists becoming too sculptural, too crafty, too functional, too “ruggy.” He likes being close to craft but ultimately lands on the side of fine art. “I think of this more as a picture than a rug. I’m still creating a 2D space inside a frame, managing shape and color as a play of positive and negative space,” he explains. “I’m more interested in the color and texture with some funkiness, some weirdness, in there.”

The recent pandemic hasn’t slowed his practice down much. He’s managed to produce five smaller rugs in a temporary studio space at a friend’s house. On the horizon is a summer solo show opening in July, part of Museo’s “Rethinking the Room” exhibition series, where his work will be shown with cutting-edge furnishings. Hubbard is excited about broadening his audience as well as making some sales. Until the last couple of years, Hubbard’s practice thrived exclusively in the ephemeral. Contrast tufting, where the results are tangible and sellable. Rugs are something to keep — on or off the wall.

In addition to Hubbard’s studio practice, he talks the walk as an admissions counselor at his alma mater and in 2019 became art director for Art in the Loop, where he curates a series of site-specific art installations and performances in the center of Downtown Kansas City. Exposure to a wide variety of artistic disciplines has always come naturally to the artist, helping round out his own practice to this day.

As easily as he picked up machine tufting, Hubbard doesn’t know how long he’ll be doing it. It takes its toll. He stands next to his nearly finished 21st rug, stretched out on its large frame like a tanner’s hide. He’s content, at the moment, to make visually engaging pieces that play a line between 2D and 3D abstraction while pushing interior design forms into conceptual making.

“Rethinking the Room: Bo Hubbard” runs July through September at Museo, 3021 Main St., with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. Aug. 7. Showroom hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information, 816.531.3537. 

Brian Hearn

Brian Hearn is an art advisor, appraiser, curator and writer interested in all things art, cave painting to contemporary.

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