“That Used to be Us” at Haw Contemporary

Ancient nude men fill the walls of the front gallery space of Haw Contemporary’s exhibition,“That Used to be Us.” Images of iconic, art historical statues of ancient Greek warriors, European kings, Indian gods and Chinese soldiers mix with more contemporary figures like Michael Jackson or King Triton from Disney’s The Little Mermaid.

The installation, titled Hotties of Art History by Blanket Undercover, is made of hundreds of cheap inkjet prints on 8-1/2” x 11” paper, tiled and taped together to form the large images. Completing this installation was a second work of performance art, titled High and Dumb in which the two collaborators of Blanket Undercover got very drunk and very stoned during the opening night exhibition.

For Haw Contemporary, perhaps the premier commercial gallery of KC, known for big canvases with big price tags, this low-budget, non-archival, drug-fueled artwork is a pretty big risk.

Actually the entire exhibition is a pretty big risk. “That Used to be Us” is not curated by Haw Contemporary staff, but by Carrie Riehl, a local artist and magazine editor. “That Used to be Us” is the first show of what will become an annual exhibition series called “ENABLE,” in which, Haw says, “spaces in the gallery are turned over to outside curators, designers, and other creatives with the objective of generating fresh dialogue and reciprocation between our region and the world at large.”

A lofty goal, but Riehl has delivered. She has assembled a thought-provoking exhibition of women artists from around the globe, addressing issues of global politics, gender identity and sexual liberation.

Dionne (12,) by Dutch artist Sarah Wong, shows a young girl with curly hair, wearing a sweatshirt covered in images of butterflies, while an actual butterfly clings to the front of her shirt. Taken in Holland, the photograph is part of a seven-year project titled Transgender Children, in which the artist followed a number of young children as they went through gender reassignment.

New York City artist Alexandra Marzella’s Fixate is a photograph of computer screen which shows a close up of the artist’s open mouth, her lips stretched apart in an aggressive expression. Marzella, who also works as a traditional fashion model, uses selfies and photography to explore positive body images, reveling in supposed imperfections like pimples and areolar glands, more commonly called “nipple bumps.”

Zeal Enough Good Protector, a photograph by Afghan artist Hanifa Alizada, depicts the artist’s husband through the mesh veil of her hijab. A lecturer at the University of Kabul art department, Alizada teaches many other young women, in a country that once banned both art making and educating women.

Saudi artist Sarah Abu Abdallah’s Salad Zone is a truly bizarre film, featuring close ups of small insects scuttling across the screen, footage of the streets of Saudi Arabia, dead gold fish and women in burkas with hammers and shovels destroying a television while cryptic, poetic phrases appear as subtitles, saying things like “Three 16-year-old girls sat under the stairs in school. Crying because they wanted to go to Japan one day,” “People say I am lazy,” or “There is so little room for abstraction.”

An iPad plays Jillian Mayer’s YouTube video, Makeup Tutorial, in which the Florida-based artist subverts the usual expectations of beauty tip videos. Instead of showing how to ‘correctly’ apply makeup, Mayer demonstrates how to cover one’s face in thick geometric lines in order to hide from security cameras and facial-recognition software.

This is just a small sample of “That Used to be Us”—the exhibition features works by over 20 different artists and dozens of artworks. “That Used to be Us” is as much about who we used to be as it is about where our globalized culture is today and hopes for the future.

“That Used to be Us,” the exhibition, takes its name from the popular book That Used to be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum. It’s a non-fiction magnum opus analyzing America’s dwindling power in the face of globalism, the international debt crisis, runaway energy consumption and decentralized information technology.

The book and the exhibition don’t seem to have much in common. It’s easy to imagine that many of these international artists don’t have much at stake in American prestige or confidence. Also, it’s easy to imagine that many of these artists don’t share Friedman and Mandelbaum’s rosy assessment of the good old days and the world supposedly invented by America—i.e.,an oppressive patriarchal world before modern feminism.

Is it strange that the word “feminism” never appears in any of these artworks or in the exhibition’s text statements or press releases? If anything, it signals the victory of feminism, at least as an idea. Very few actively dispute the notion that men and women are equal, and so the project of feminism now turns to more specific battles: the burka and hijab, censorship of the naked female body, oppressive expectations of feminine beauty, positive body image or transgender equality, to name just a few unresolved conflicts.

But a victory has been won here in Kansas City. Haw Contemporary, and its predecessor, the Dolphin Gallery, have often been criticized as a good ol’ boys club. The vast majority of exhibitions over the past decade have been middle-aged, white, male, abstract painters and sculptors. The exhibitions have been mostly apolitical and inoffensive. “That Used to be Us” couldn’t be more different: it features only women artists, many of whom favor new formats like Instagram and YouTube over traditional galleries, with a bare minimum of abstraction and a high dose of political ideology.

While next month’s exhibition at Haw Contemporary will be a group show of the usual suspects—white male abstractionists with a few token women—in a few more months Haw will have a solo exhibition of paintings of teenage girls by New York City painter Samara Umbral, a transwoman who went by Chris Biddy when she lived in Kansas City a few years ago.

Regardless of how the future of Haw Contemporary plays out, “That Used to be Us” lives up to the mission statement of “generating fresh dialogue and reciprocation between our region and the world at large.” The exhibition offers us views both near and far away. It shows us people’s hopes and people’s fears. It is a truly revolutionary exhibition for Kansas City.

“That Used to be Us,” continues at Haw Contemporary, 1600 Liberty, through July 17. 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.

Neil Thrun

Neil Thrun is a writer and artist living in Kansas City, Missouri. He is a 2010 graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute and was a resident artist with the Charlotte Street Urban Culture Project in 2011 and 2012. He has written for publications including the Kansas City Star, Huffington Post and other local arts journals.

  1. Bill Haw says:

    Thank you for the thoughtful writing on the show. It’s one of the better pieces I have read on KC visual arts in a while. Welcome indeed after everything that happened at the Star…

    As Neil Thrun notes, Carrie did a fantastic job curating, and was also a pleasure to work with. We feel like “That Used to be Us” was a great kickoff for the ENABLE program, and we’re already looking forward to next year.

    I do want to comment, using facts, on a couple of points made in the article, because those points touch on a subject that is very important to us. Out of the 20 solo exhibitions we have held to date at Haw Contemporary,13 have been by men and 7 by women. Only 3 out of 20 have been by white, male abstract painters, and all 3 of the confirmed solo shows on our calendar for the rest of this year are by women. Barring any other changes, that would make the count 13 to 10.

    People can infer what they wish from that, but it doesn’t seem to merit being called a “good ol’ boys club”.

    Additionally, the article states that the upcoming exhibition is “a group show of the usual suspects—white male abstractionists with a few token women.” This is inaccurate. Roughly one-third of the artists in that show will be women, and none of them are remotely “token.” Regarding abstractionists, the show includes very few, regardless of gender.

    This information is freely available on our website under the “Exhibitions” section.

    I know the review is positive overall, and I appreciate that. I also understand that there are still some very troubling “norms” in relation to gender balance in the art world at large. But I’m comfortable saying that gender is immaterial in regard to whom we work with. It’s about the people, and about the work. We have been proud to operate from a consistently open, inclusive stance since we started doing this almost two years ago, and we look forward to building on that moving forward.

    Thanks again for the inclusion.

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