“Michael Rees: Pneumatopia,” Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art

Installation view, “Michael Rees: Pneumatopia,” Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo by E.G. Schempf

Michael Rees is a modern romantic, his art lives in the spaces between science, philosophy, a kind of spatial mythology, visual and emotional pleasure (and sometimes frustration), and transitional relationships. In this sculptural, installation-based exhibition, we stand on a threshold, several in fact, of narratives and anti-narratives where time and space tend to open and close and through which we may fuse our imaginations with the artist’s and experience what he wishes for us, something, in his words, “akin to joy.” That’s a rather utopian trip I’m willing to take.

Rees, a Kansas City Art Institute alum who holds a Master of Fine Arts from Yale, is well known in Kansas City from the years he worked and exhibited here. He is currently a tenured Professor at William Paterson University in New Jersey.

In “Pneumatopia,” Rees creates giant inflatable cube-like sculptures that are acted upon by an augmented reality application — a small, mounted digital tablet that appears to project imagery onto the sculptures in real time, and, through which you may inadvertently, or not, view random gallery goers as they interact with the sculptures. Wall-mounted inkjet prints, whose colors echo those in the sculptures, complete each work.

Language, like matter, is inherently flexible. Rees’s stitched-together title,“Pneumatopia,” may suggest that we’ve entered into territory of a kind of energy or life force: pneuma, from the Greek meaning breath, which can be expanded to spirit, plus topia, generally signifying place.

Most of the inflated cubes have an image on one side, or they have neon or densely patterned interior tube-like chambers. They feel spiritually and physically buoyant. Container and contained, these sculptures harbor something chemical and metaphorical, and yet they are bound within the space of the gallery and at times viewed through/trapped within another space where butterflies, strolling pigs, roosters, and other seemingly nonsensical imagery may seem to animate them.

The sculptures become vessels that not only contain something, but that alter our perception of what’s on the other side. And by adding a layer of imagery when we view the sculpture through the tablet imagery — ants seem to emerge out of a clown’s head, butterflies dazzle before a grid, a rooster struts along a winding line — we either become closer to the object because we’ve entered into its distorted psychic space, or further metaphysically removed because we become focused on the small screen in front of us. Either way, Rees destabilizes the here and now within this constantly shifting, trippy environment.

Rees has collapsed the distance between physical objects and digital experience. Instead of the anxiety that overwhelming technology can produce, here it feels more like fantasy play. And because it’s a collaboration into which we’ve willingly entered, it’s a hybrid experience that may, in fact, animate in us something akin to joy.

“Michael Rees: Pneumatopia” continues at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park, through Oct. 21. 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 pm. Sunday. For more information, 913.469.8500 or www.nermanmuseum.org. The museum will hold a public reception for the artist from 6 to 8 p.m. Aug. 29, with a lecture by the artist from 7 to 8 p.m. in Hudson Auditorium.

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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