Patrick Martinez, Word Play, Neon
Curated by Kansas City artist Cesar Lopez in collaboration with noted art collector Dwight Smith, Plug Gallery’s new exhibition, “Words and Silences,” offers viewers an intimate look at the relationship between text and images. The carefully curated show, drawn from the Elizabeth Oran Collection assembled and named for Smith (Dwight Oran Smith) and his wife, Beth (Elizabeth) Low Smith, speaks to issues of social justice and alienation, but the messages come with the deftness of a surgeon’s scalpel rather than blunt force. The ability of the nine featured artists to leverage nuance into their work and resist letting the words do all the heavy creative lifting elevates the exhibit and adds solemnity to their ideas.
For example, Hùng Lê’s “Dreams of a Gentle Land” expresses the sorrow of feeling estranged from one’s origins. The fiber work features a hazy, ochre background that evokes visions of fire, and across the center of the piece the artist laments, “. . . It is funny really / Ironic even / That I need a visa to come home.” Hùng Lê’, currently a resident at the Charlotte Street Foundation, moved from Đồng Nai, Vietnam to the United States with his family at the age of seven. And while the work is a manifestation of his own experiences and challenges, the feelings it arouses are universal. Who among us hasn’t questioned where we belong, how the rest of society views us, or why we must follow the edicts of a capricious and callous world?
Another standout entry, “Loaded,” by Saj Issa, will be instantly recognizable to most viewers by virtue of the Shell Oil Company logo that repetitively graces the background of the screen print. Centered across the fossil fuel mosaic is the Arabic text “Fill your pocket.” A native of St. Louis, Issa entwines her Palestinian heritage with visual symbols of Euro-American political, economic, and social imperialism. In this instance, the imagery and the text achieve a perfect harmony, whereby the absence of either component would dilute the impact of the piece. “Loaded” is a powerful reminder of the ubiquity of Western corporate exploitation and its far-reaching impacts around the world.
“Seen,” by Chicago artist Brandon Breaux, depicts a contemplative African American seated on a sofa amidst a forest of houseplants. The single word – “SEEN” – twists through the domestic landscape in brightly capitalized letters. The juxtaposition of the sparse text and the partially camouflaged figure sparks a provocative resonance about cultural and social invisibility. With such a seemingly simple, monosyllabic word, Breaux gracefully interjects a complex, sprawling conversation about human inequities directly into the piece.
Although “Words and Silences” is a small exhibition, both the quality of the art and the unique theme infuse a fresh perspective to Kansas City’s springtime fine arts environment. The show, which also features works by Patrick Martinez, William Plummer, Autumn Breon/Michelle Pred, Esteban Whiteside and Cleon Peterson, is challenging, albeit not inaccessible. The Collection Elizabeth Oran emphasizes artists from traditionally marginalized groups, including women and people of color, thus giving members of these communities a metaphorical platform from which to speak through their work and advancing the collection’s stated mission “to advance equity and harmony in the art world and in our community.”
“Words and Silences” continues at Plug Gallery, 1328 Agnes Ave., through June 3, 2023. Hours are 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and noon to 3 p.m. Sunday. On May 20 Plug will open “Remix,” part two of the exhibit. For more information, www.plug.gallery/others.