“James Woodfill: Stereophonic / Semaphoric,” Haw Contemporary

Sound Installation view, custom loudspeakers, hi-fi equipment, turntable, lights and hardware (from the artist)

Artists of the last century have elaborated on the ubiquitous square with marvelous results: Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian, Josef Albers, Mark Rothko, Donald Judd, Frank Stella and the underappreciated innovator Vera Molnár. Closer to our near-post-pandemic moment, eminent Kansas City artist and educator Jim Woodfill busted out of his studio in a big square-tastic way with “Stereophonic / Semaphoric,” currently showing at Haw Contemporary through March 19. This animated body of peripatetic production marks a cohesive multi-faceted response to the extraordinary conditions we’ve endured these last two years. At his recent jam-packed artist talk, Woodfill wryly stated, “it’s gonna take a while to appreciate the sublime nature of this time,” later referring to it as “totally weird.” Indeed.

Installation view, False Flag Form #4 (with altered cymbal stand); Box Form #1; False Flag Form #3 (with altered cymbal stand) (from the artist)

Our first clue that we’re passing through the looking glass are two wall works, “Large Frame Sequence #1 and #2.” The reversed, canvas-less frames are collaged at the corners and along the rails with painted strips of wood, steel and chunks of hardware. Woodfill wants us to pay attention to the stuff that’s normally hidden, the structurally important bits that support what we usually expect to be the medium and the message. A painted canvas or panel is absent here, but something lingers on the other side of the picture plane — a sound, a signal that pulls us forward. We can imagine stepping through these frames like a portal into what Woodfill calls “the expanded field of painting.” Are we then the medium or the receiver itself?

A sexy painted speaker box, “Monophonic Unit,” resonates at the edge of the gallery. Dull throbbing tones of pandemic-induced disruption, uncertainty, isolation and anxiety permeate the space. Woodfill has unleashed his living “studio machine” in response. It achieves its fullest expression with the kinetic site-specific sound installation “Stereophonic” in Gallery 2. The artist must have had an exhilarating Dr. Frankenstein moment after tirelessly assembling and reassembling his kit of parts to finally realize that “It’s alive!!!” His resonating speaker constructions rotate, whirr, buzz and flicker to make an acoustically composed drawing which seeps into all the galleries. Despite its sleek presentation the installation has a non-threatening sentience to it. The machine wants only to signal. Our job is to slow down, tune in the messages, discern the shape of the sounds and make sense of the gestures.

Installation view, Semaphore#10; Semaphore #6; Semaphore #8; Semaphore #9 (from the artist)

Sound Installation view, rotating and stationary custom loudspeakers, sound and hi-fi equipment, lights and hardware (from the artist)

In the largest gallery Woodfill returns to the painted square as a found studio object and the primary building block of 17 modular assemblage works enhanced by elements of sculptural collage. The “Semaphore” series appears to lift, peel or even buck off the wall. The matte monochromatic panels actively resist hanging parallel, even when layered over, clipped and clamped by external hardware. Furthermore, the painted squares are hinged to other squares; they can bend, fold or reposition as conditions change. Their inherent restlessness can be perceived in the strange shadows cast by the polygonal forms.

Woodfill is interested in making things that do things. Once transferred from his studio machine to the gallery environment, the artist describes this body of work as being in a kind of “stasis,” just hanging out while still exerting energy against gravity if nothing else. The pause provides us a moment to consider the weird what’s and why’s of it. The exhibition is slippery; it consciously rejects pre-pandemic conventions. In the process of building sound structures, composing acoustic events and assembling paintings the artist reveals an enlightening ethos in response to the pandemic experience: commitment to process, agility and adaptability keep us moving forward through the most difficult times.

James Woodfill: Stereophonic / Semaphoric’ continues at Haw Contemporary, 1600 Liberty St., through March 19. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday. For more information, 816.842.5877 or www.hawcontemporary.com.

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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