“Welcome to the Neighborhood,” La Esquina Gallery

Is it a sign of the times that so many of the artworks in “Welcome to the Neighborhood” involve protagonists who are, in one form or another, in deep hiding? Self-preservation is one of the main themes in this exhibit by 13 Kansas City artists, curated by the Charlotte Street Foundation.

The stated purpose of the show is to present “the lived expression of Midwesterners through the eyes of its artists,” and every participant has responded in a markedly personal fashion both weighty and visually compelling. Besides the rich diversity of media, there is also a numinous, synergistic energy to the overall exhibition that is rare in group shows and gives one pause for thought.

Large color photos of women whose heads are haplessly trapped in stoves, picnic baskets, and household paraphernalia surround Patty Carroll’s “Video House,” an actual structure camped in the middle of the gallery. Mike Sinclair’s photo of a parade watcher in “St. Patrick’s Day, Broadway Blvd.K.C.,” captures an unidentifiable onlooker in an innocent enough activity. But this viewer is   completely covered, in a blanket and hoodie, and evokes a funereal energy.

In “Truth and Reconciliation,” recent Charlotte Street Foundation studio resident Glyneisha Johnson, known for depicting interior spaces, depicts a couple whose forms virtually merge within their environment. While a man is depicted lost in silent reflection, another figure, presumably female, is virtually dissolved into the background, and the emotional chasm between them feels enormous.

In his video “Beautiful things/procession” Rashawn Griffin has created one of the more memorable figures to grace a Kansas City gallery. Once again we have an anonymous character, in this case totally encased in black plastic trash bags and seemingly ungendered, wobbling and thrashing around as it rambles through the landscape, presumably trying to make its way. This same character also appears in Griffin’s installation, “bed/landscape (Vol.2),” only now it is tethered to a permanent structure.

Other artists in “Welcome to the Neighborhood” are less ambiguous when dealing with these unnerving times. Artist and activist Nedra Bonds creates another of her memorable textile collages, “Welcome to Brownbackistan,” which is loaded with personal narratives along with astringent political overviews.

In his wall assemblaqge “Aqui Estamos – Estamos Aqui,” Rodolfo Marron III also deals with specific acts of violence, in his case ones that have affected “young brown men that have been murdered or died due to gang violence throughout the decades in the Westside.”

If the contemporary socio/politico environment inspires something akin to fear and distrust for the above artists, Yoonmi Nam, Deanna Dikeman, Lara Shipley and Ann Friedman have chosen to ground their experiences with references to their ancestry.

Old and new photographic portraits, along with audio interviews of immigrants and refugees based in Iowa, are compiled in Lara Shipley and Ann Friedman’s “The New Rural,” a documentary-like installation dealing with the subject of immigration in the Midwest. Yoonmi Nam, originally from South Korea, presents three celadon porcelain versions of the disposable, Styrofoam containers used in restaurants that serve Asian food to make a subtle, elegant connection to her multifaceted identity.

In one of the shows emotional highpoints, Deanna Dikeman installs 90 photographs of varying scale that cover a span of 27 years, in which her parents wave good-bye to her from their home in Sioux City, Iowa. In the last photo there is only the house.

Michael Krueger and Rena Detrixhe both turn to the natural environment as an ever-present source of sustenance. Krueger’s painting “All Along” focuses on a cosmic background that encompasses imagery from all the seasons. Detrixhe is known for her “Red Dirt Rug” series in which she sculpts entire rug patterns on the floor using Oklahoma soil. They are not permanent. In “Soil Samples: Red Dirt 1-20” she creates a more tangible record of the local soil by fabricating various patterns from shoes onto 25 pieces of unbleached muslin. Standing one’s ground takes on new meaning with Detrixhe’s art.

“Welcome to the Neighborhood” continues at La Esquina Gallery, 1000 W. 25th St., through Sept. 22. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday. For more information, 816.221.5115 or www.charlottestreetfoundation.org.

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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