Friday, September 19, 2014

The Wealthy's Good Sense: A Review

I went to Kansas City this week and spent some time checking out the art scene. It is a great city to visit and I was very excited to see exhibitions and meet artists during the short time I was there.

I decided to go to the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, on the same block as the Nelson Atkins Museum and the Kansas City Art Institute (yes, you will see art school hipsters up close in their natural habitat!). The shows I saw at Kemper featured works from their permanent collection. 

I think that these kinds of shows are a 'make it or break it' moment for museums and their audiences. Museums almost always have a sole mission of developing and preserving a permanent collection. (Although I really relish the non-collecting museums.)

The question is what kind of a collection should an institution work towards? A collection reflects the interests and personalities of your curators, donors, artists, and region. And good shows can be built from seemingly sub par collections, even if the museum doesn’t have a Mona Lisa. So I went in with genuine curiosity and an open mind.

I’ll start with the positives of my review and try to stay there. First, I was impressed that a lot of the artists represented in the shows either lived in Kansas City or were from the region. The exhibitions did not attempt to produce a 'global' perspective, which is a very common approach for many contemporary institutions.

A few works in the first gallery’s exhibition, Conversations—Marking 20 Years, pleasantly surprised me. Side note: thank god I didn’t read the show description beforehand, which says something to the extent of sparking dialogue and conversations and such. Yes we got that from the title.

The curator(s) showed some restraint. Of course, you want to show your blockbuster pieces, the crowd pleasers, and there was only one Andy Warhol and one Georgia O’Keefe on display and both were fine. I’m glad they didn’t dwell too much on those. Actually, I’m really starting to appreciate O’Keefe’s brushwork as I find some similarities between her pieces and my rope drawings. But I digress.

In the same space there was a brilliant Wayne Thiebaud. The piece had such vivid and diverse colors. I was glad to see that piece in person, as I would have never had the same experience with a reproduction. I certainly would have missed all the underlying paint layers and sneaks and peaks of brilliant oranges.

By far my favorite in the show was David Bates’ The Storm 2006-2007, a triptych of three very large canvases packed with faces, faces of those affected most by the negligence of the federal and state governments after Hurricane Katrina. That showed some guts, I felt, for the museum to make a purchase of a political work, especially of that scale.
David Bate's "The Storm"

This show definitely espoused the idea that bigger is better. I tend to wonder when scale is so important and when it is just a trend, a thing a contemporary artist does to be taken seriously. Considering the minutiae of many craft-based art making techniques, I also tend to find the “bigger is better” ethos very masculine, egotistical, and misplaced rather than ambitious.
Installation shot

But, sometimes, larger helps rather than hurts. An example of this was a photograph by Richard Mosse, Men of Good Fortune. In that case, it was like the viewer was standing on the bluff looking down into a pastoral scene. The size of the work helped that feeling. But any pastoral quality was interrupted by the hot pink color seemingly painted onto the grass where we would typically find green. The color reversal left me uneasy, like I was really looking at a radiated, nuclear dump despite the bucolic scene. It was a piece I would certainly want to stay with for a while and talk about, the only piece by my estimation that inspired, god help me, a “conversation.”
Richard Mosse, "Men of Good Fortune." (This piece was not hung crooked, it's my photo of it that's off.)

One highlight in the Make Your Mark show was June Ahren’s Used and Worn, a soap and rock piece that revealed how water and contact with other elements like wind, earth, and even contact with our hands, can alter a surface. It reminded me a video by Nicole Geary where she rubs a rock on her face in the shower instead of a bar of soap.
Ahren's "Used and Worn" close up

My last nod, in the Depth and Meaning show (again with the titles!), goes to a drawing by Elizabeth Layton, I Am Loved. First off, this drawing is awesome and to find out she was a late bloomer so to speak, starting her art career later in life, is even more endearing. I love the contour lines and the button placed on the center of the older bride’s chest. It has a sense of humor in an otherwise too serious setting.
Elizabeth Layton's "I Am Loved"

Now onto the questions/criticisms: Why are on earth are you still collecting sooooooo many paintings by soooooo many men? By my count there were two videos in the entire place. And only a few not-that-great photographs, besides the Men of Good Fortune piece. New media and performance art is seriously lacking and there’s a wealth of affordable pieces to purchase, so what is this contemporary art collecting strategy about anyway? I walked away asking that question.

I always think giving viewers an entry via a topic or exhibition theme can help them explore your collection and make it memorable. Other than a few sub categories peppered throughout the shows, it seemed like aimless displays punctuated by a few interesting works.

Isn’t it fair to ask more of an institution, especially one that claims to be contemporary, to create shows that go beyond “it’s in our collection?” Especially if part of being a contemporary institution is that you are working with living artists? We know what “collections based” shows mean. The institution is saying, “these are the pieces our good donors had the good sense to purchase and give to us as the art market eventually attested these artworks superior monetary value.”

Instead of “Conversations” I would rather retitle the show, “Our Wealthy Donor’s Good Sense.” And then the exhibition might be onto something, creating a specific conversation besides the vague and all-inclusive “conversations,” as if museums were ever that universally accessible.

Maybe the students at the Kansas City Art Institute should get in there and build shows. I’m sure they do to some extent. But I do not know for sure. At the Kemper there is potential, but only if we leave explorations of contemporary art in the hands of those willing to engage in critical ideas about it.

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