J.C. Nichols purchased a tract of land used for pig farming in southern Kansas City in 1907 with grandiose plans. Faced with the bland repetition of local architectural styles, Nichols made the bold decision to render the whole place in Seville-style architecture, touting it as a “Spanish marketplace magically transported to Kansas City.” Before long, Country Club Plaza’s tile roofs and flowery mosaics had attracted thousands of visitors. Nichols’ fabulism and willingness to create new cultural realms remains an animating principle for current exhibits near Kansas City’s Plaza Area: when the status quo stinks, make your world anew.
Perhaps nobody channels this advice as directly as Spandita Malik, whose exhibit “Jali–Meshes of Resistance” is at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. At first glance, the exhibit appears to be a collection of masterfully embroidered portraits: curator Krista Alba says that first-time viewers are “enraptured by the beauty of the work without knowing what the content is.” The immense technical skill and stylistic bravura in these portraits is augmented when their context is revealed. Malik photographed Indian women forced to stay in abusive marriages by local divorce taboos and, determined to use her artistic practice as a tool for liberation, invited each woman to embroider their own photographed portrait.
In a particularly wonderful piece, a woman under the pseudonym “Shabeena Bhegam” has covered her utensils, dishes, and some of the bricks which make up her house in a layer of faux gold. She stares expressionless at the viewer, as if this Midasesque feat is as commonplace as the trash bag to her right. These portraits exist at the intersection between the everyday and the fantastical, where the world stops seeming like itself and dips into artifice.
Embroidery can enhance the quotidian (as in “Bhegam”’s contribution) but it can also obscure or reconstitute it. A woman using the pseudonym “Noshad Bee” has emblazoned a white floral pattern across the left half of her body, obscuring any clear view of her face. Another, anonymized as “Meena II,” goes a step further, replacing her entire reclining figure with a hand-stitched version of herself. These women show that even effacement can be the means of effective self-reclamation.
A different kind of artistic reconstitution takes place in the Kemper’s exploration of underrepresented abstract painters, “Beyond Ninth Street.” Hailed by curator Krista Alba as a “revisionist take on art history,” much of the show consists of the work of the so-called “Ninth Street Women” (enumerated in a namesake book by Mary Gabriel) who, as women, met great difficulty in having their art taken seriously.
First to catch the eye is Helen Frankenthaler’s “Coral Wedge,” in which a chevron of white, pink and gray lies against a muddy orange backdrop. Oscillating between recession into three-dimensional space and irreducible flatness, this painting is positively at war with itself, constantly attempting to transcend its painterly medium. (It’s the exact kind of painting that formalist critics should have adored—yet Clement Greenberg, progenitor of the formalists and Frankenthaler’s romantic partner, never wrote a word about her.)
Another gem is Joan Mitchell’s “Untitled,” a large canvas rife with her characteristic pessimistic undertones. Mitchell’s gestural brushstrokes create a structured chaos: the touch-and-go eclecticism of the canvas’ center is somehow controlled by the monolithic blues, reds and greens which surround it. I wish I could see it hanging at the Art Institute next to Mitchell’s “City Landscape,” created five years earlier, which appears more stout in its structural limitations. Mitchell’s growing freneticism during the fifties and sixties would then be palpable.
However, this show aims to go beyond the (now-renowned) Ninth Street Women, not to reiterate their painterly prowess: Alba expressed a desire to “move beyond the women that have already been established within the canon of abstract painters.” As such, contributors also include Gilda Snowden, a Detroit-based abstract painter who passed away in 2014. Her “Imaginary Landscape” opts for terse cohesiveness, crisscrossing dozens of rhythmic visual phenomena until small-scale patterns emerge. Its grainy marks and overall paunchiness belie a fondness for the rough-edge style of graffiti. Another lesser-known voice is Shinique Smith, whose “Granny Square” fuses the often obscurantist language of abstract painting with the tangible comfort of crochet.
By foregrounding the formal traits of canvases by Snowden and Smith—who both are African American—Alba has taken a step forward that hasn’t quite occurred in the mainstream art world. African American abstract painters are often relegated to the realm of “social art,” their paintings interpreted solely with regard to “identity” while formal characteristics are ignored. It’s beautiful to see less-myopic readings of their work in one of Kansas City’s largest cultural institutions.
Don’t be fooled, though. Missouri has no lack of local artists. An expansive Kemper show covering the work of Springfield, Missouri-based photographer Julie Blackmon (which closed on January 7) proves that even a seemingly uneventful rural life can hold all the pictorial excitement of the busiest Parisian nightclub.
Taking after the work of nineteenth-century French cartoonists like Constantin Guys, Blackmon’s photographs capture every figure—which, in her case, are children of differing ages—at their most exciting. A cursory look at “Metaverse” gives a sense of her subjects’ perpetual thrill: a poorly dressed boy with a look of consternation crawls up a set of stairs; an older boy, wearing only shorts and a black baseball cap, gazes longingly away from the camera; a toddler suited up in khakis and black shoes cranes his neck to view something in a VR headset; a girl in a black-and-white checkered dress plays the piano. Even the detritus littered around her photographs seems to be at the climax of its existence. Blackmon’s keen eye for bustling scenes in the quaintest of settings illuminates the manifold inner lives that each of us, unbeknownst to others, continually inhabit.
Admirers of Blackmon’s hybrid culture at the Kemper—halfway between cowtown and cabaret—will do themselves well to walk a few minutes east to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Unlike a traditionally curated exhibit, in which artworks are chosen to follow a predetermined theme, “A Layered Presence-Una Presencia Estratificada” allows the artists to take the helm. “We really developed a philosophy of making sure we’re foregrounding artists and their voices first and foremost,” says curator Stephanie Fox Knappe. Given such full rein over subject matter, the exhibit’s artists display conflicting sentiments toward immigration and cultural fusion between Latin America and the Midwest.
Juan G. Moya’s painting “C/S K.C–Con Safos Kansas City” channels the visual experience of a Latino immigrant growing up in the City of Fountains. Cyrus Dallin’s iconic equestrian sculpture “The Scout” rides alongside posters of Cesar Chavez. One Kansas City Place is backgrounded by a fierce Aztec bas-relief. Moya revels in the amalgamation of cultures far and wide which, despite the striking contrasts and seeming contradictions, has been a firm foundation for his life.
Emily M. Alvarez’s “Las nubes” illuminates the flipside of this cultural coalescence. The towering Statue of Liberty, a sleek Minnie Mouse headband, and yellow flowers in a plastic Warholian style stand in for American capitalism and her new life in Kansas City. Yet the bleak blue forest in the painting’s background, out of which two barely visible faces peer, seems to indicate a mostly forgotten ancestral past—which, for many Latinx populations, is full of the carnage of the Indigenous at the hands of colonizers.
Just as disparate as the artists’ sentiments toward immigration is the media they use to put forth these commentaries. Knappe recalls being surprised at many of the artists’ contributions: “I thought I knew what they might contribute to the exhibition, but then they took this as an opportunity to try something new.” Kiki Serna, who typically produces pensive graphite drawings, elected instead to contribute “Ghosts, Memories, and Imaginary Homelands,” a poignant short film which meditates on immigration’s inherent loss. Rodrigo S. Alvarez, known for his expansive figurative murals created in collaboration with Isaac Tapia (who is represented in the show by an outstanding double portrait), decided on “La muerte y la vida,” a congregation of steel arachnids meant to illustrate maternal sacrifice. The diverse points of view and media included in this exhibit, most of which can be attributed to Knappe’s curatorial outlook, create possibly the most earnest representation of Latinx life in Kansas City to date.
For an equally unabashed account of Kansas City’s cultural life, from its power elite to its cliff dwellers, check out the work of Thomas Hart Benton on the Nelson’s second floor. An esteemed chronicler of everyday midwestern life, Benton imbued his canvases with an ever-so-heightened sense of reality: his figures seem to melt into one another, his landscapes flow like vast rivers.
“Crapshooters,” painted at the start of the Great Depression, depicts a group of swirly-framed Black men gambling. Their countenances are ambivalent at best and grim at worst, a haunting reminder of the era’s economic hardship. The more humorous “Hollywood” of 1938 depicts a scantily clad woman photographed by lecherous producers while a fire rages in the surrounding metropolis. Making movies (or paintings, for that matter) must’ve seemed a trifling thing to do while Europe descended into fascism and war. Benton’s larger-than-life style is at once brazenly honest and implacably fantastical—the perfect mix for today’s world, where the status quo seems increasingly absurd.
Benton’s admirers should head a couple miles northeast of the Plaza Area to the Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio, which is replete with memorabilia from the artist’s life. The house is furnished with many of Benton’s smaller works (more intimate than the grandiose murals he’s known for), including his lesser-known floral still lifes and nonrepresentational drawings. Most curious of all is a bit of art history which lies in its foyer, where Benton’s “The Ballad of The Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley” is reproduced. See that fedora-wearing barfly on the right? That figure’s model was one of his students, Jackson Pollock, who went on to achieve his own immense success as the leading force behind abstract expressionism. Despite the fact that Benton’s influence in the art world is near-ubiquitous, he never strayed far from the husky farmers and corn-filled landscapes of the Midwest.
The Plaza Area’s attractions are just a fraction of Kansas City’s artistic scene. Monthly First Fridays in its Crossroads District draw gargantuan crowds. Even its quaint industrial West Bottoms has anchored the emergence of a few galleries. No matter where in the city you are, one thing’s for sure: in an area of America often accused of lacking culture, Kansas City is today the home of a fertile and ever-growing artistic community.