Nature, Home and Relationships Inspire ‘Sun Drinks White’ Exhibit at Nerman Museum

Installation view of Mark Cowardin’s “Drift,” a work inspired by the metal oil rigs he saw as a child in his hometown of Joplin, Missouri

Large-scale works in unexpected materials by Teresa Baker, Mark Cowardin, Rashawn Griffin and Marie Watt reflect their remarkable creative journeys

If the title “Sun Drinks White” sounds enigmatic, the artworks in this impressive exhibition at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art appear, at first, equally so. The museum’s executive director and chief curator, Joanne Northrup, with input from participating artists Teresa Baker, Mark Cowardin, Rashawn Griffin and Marie Watt, chose a section from the poem “Haiku Journey” by Kimberly Blaeser for the show’s title; it is meant to highlight the artists’ focus on the physical world, a subtext that courses throughout all the paintings, wall works, sculptures and installations in this exhibit.

Northrup’s goal was to curate a show that combined abstraction with a variety of materials. As the exhibit signage notes: “The artists’ deep awareness of materiality firmly grounds their work in the world.” The art may be abstract, but the works exemplify the meaning of cultural abstraction; although formally non-objective, each piece is steeped in the artists’ personal history and experience.

The text panels identify the artists’ backgrounds and how their use of specific materials functions as identity markers.

All four artists fabricated major, large-scale works for this show, using resources as varied as artificial turf, pebbles made from bread, steel girders and old blankets. Although wildly idiosyncratic, somehow these very personal artworks, produced under very different circumstances and in different parts of the country, feel subliminally connected. Each artist displays a deeply felt version of what home and relationships embody for them, whether in a literal, symbolic or ancestral sense. Baker, Cowardin, Griffin and Watt visually bare their souls in specific and remarkable creative journeys.

Roots, in more ways than one, are often featured in Mark Cowardin’s sculptures. In the past Cowardin, who lives in Lawrence and is an art professor at Johnson County Community College, carved wooden wall works resembling tree trunks with hands as roots, and he has investigated, in various formats and materials, the effects of environmental abuse on the midwestern landscape which he esteems. “Drift,” his most ambitious piece yet, also refers to his early roots, in this case the metal oil rigs he saw as a child in his hometown of Joplin, Missouri. This impressive piece is so enormous it had to be constructed in a barn. The steel and neon behemoth appears strangely friendly, with ladders on rollers that could be legs, curvilinear contours that are both spinelike and cloud-shaped, and a bed-like form in the interior space that one could lie on. Neon tubes of glowing pastel colors are attached throughout the structure.

Cowardin’s art reminds us that memories of home are not just black or white. The now abandoned oil rigs of his hometown were responsible for environmental damage, but they also nurtured the imagination of a young artist. And there are few things more memorable than a midwestern sunset, as this shimmering sculpture suggests.

Rashawn Griffin is recognized for his immersive installations, and here, his “The Changing Room” and “The Interior Fixation” reflect his signature baroque, poetic, occasionally surreal, and witty style. Griffin’s art was exhibited at the Nerman Museum in 2012, and just recently his drawings were shown at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. Born in Los Angeles and based in Olathe, where he was raised, he received an MFA from Yale and was an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Griffin’s work was in the 2008 Whitney Biennial and was shown at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin, among other venues.

Installation view of Marie Watt’s textile mural, “Companion Species: Gather to Sing” (rear) and totemic sculptures, “Skywalker/Skyscraper: Forest.” All the works reference her background as a member of the Seneca Nation.

Griffin had a broken leg when he made the works for this show, and he created “homes” that represent a version of what his mind was going through as he worked through his recovery. “I would say it’s strange doing work with a useless and fractured limb,” he wrote in his statement, “but I don’t remember much of putting it together — the deep and garish palette, the arrangement of elements, the secret moments — its meaning changed as I lost access to my body.”

While confined, Griffin broke up and tossed pieces of bread that he later turned into doormats, which are inside the little houses he constructed of beautiful textile strips, rainbow-colored art, and strange shiny grey blobby things that could be body parts. It’s as if he is showing us the ever-changing musings of his mind, including how strange his body felt while healing. Mirrors are placed inside and outside the houses, in order “that viewers will always see themselves reflected inside the work.”

Installation view of Marie Watt’s textile mural, “Companion Species: Gather to Sing” (rear) and totemic sculptures, “Skywalker/Skyscraper: Forest.” All the works reference her background as a member of the Seneca Nation.

Marie Watt’s textile mural and totemic sculptures all reference her background as a member of the Seneca Nation (one of the nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy on the East Coast), as well as aspects of Western modern art.

Watt holds an MFA from Yale and lives in Portland, Oregon. Her art is broadly collected, and she has received fellowships from the Joan Mitchell Foundation, The Ford Family Foundation and many others. Her “Companion Species: Gather to Sing” is a monumental, extraordinarily beautiful textile, which was stitched together from dozens of individual patches made by members of a sewing circle organized by Watt. Each fragment has words or statements embroidered on it with pink thread. Silver metal tinklers, or pow-wow jingles from dancers, are also sewn on parts of the piece. Words chosen for embroidery on “Companion Species” were collected from the participants by Watt with the question: “What do you want to sing a song for in this moment?”

Blankets are of great importance for many Indigenous peoples, and Watt uses them often in her art. She collects new and old ones, and people also give them to her. In “Skywalker/Skyscraper: Forest” a variety of blankets are rigorously and specifically folded and stacked on top of wooden blocks (a citation of Brancusi’s famous pedestals made from wood), and on top of them are heavy steel geometric forms with titles such as “Grandmother” and “Grandfather” etched onto them. “Skywalker/Skyscraper: Forest” honors the legendary Iroquois ironworkers known as “skywalkers,” who worked in Manhattan in the 1950s constructing skyscrapers at extreme personal risk. To say these works have presence is an understatement.

The Northern Plains landscape is the inspiration for Teresa Baker’s organically shaped, colorful wall works dazzlingly constructed from artificial turf and natural materials. Baker is from the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes of North Dakota, and her father was superintendent of the Little Bighorn Battlefield, the Chickasaw National Recreation Area and Mount Rushmore. He was the first American Indian superintendent of a National Park, and Baker grew up traveling throughout various parks in the Plains.

Installation view of Teresa Baker’s colorful wall works inspired by the Northern Plains landscape and the artist’s childhood as a member of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes of North Dakota.

“Spending my childhood not only in nature but also in sacred and historical sites . . .
listening to storytelling — this all had a major impact on my art and myself,” Baker said in a recent interview.

“Places stay with me for many years,” Baker says, and her art is “largely intuitive.”

Baker received her MFA from California College of the Arts, is a 2022 Joan Mitchell Fellow, and has been an artist-in-residence at various foundations in the United States. She is aware of Color Field and other abstract art movements, resulting in her resonant wall works of fantastical colors that can serve as metaphors for everything from Plains warrior shields to Helen Frankenthaler abstractions.

“My intention is to capture the feeling of being in land, and I think that, for me, it’s really important because the land speaks to culture . . . and I felt really compelled to try and encapsulate that feeling, to bring that feeling to an object.”

“Sun Drinks White” continues at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park through July 30. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. For more information, 913.469.3000 or www.nermanmuseum.org.

All images courtesy Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Johnson County Community College, Overland Park, Kansas / photos by EG Schempf

Elisabeth Kirsch

Elisabeth Kirsch is an art historian, curator and writer who has curated over 100 exhibitions of contemporary art, American Indian art and photography, locally and across the country. She writes frequently for national and local arts publications.

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