For my time in Kansas City, I have created for myself a program of full emersion. I am doing my best to live, learn, read, hear and see this city inside out. From my outsider-on-the-inside position, I am looking deep down inside of Kansas City for themes currently pulsing through its contemporary art and culture scenes.
My first day at work, my boss and Charlotte Street Foundation Co-Director Kate Hackman loaned me The King of Kings County, an extraordinary novel by local author Whitney Terrell. Teenager Jack Acheson, this book’s loveable narrator, takes the reader on a vivid journey that roars through mid-century downtown Kansas City, Missouri, into the development of its expansive Kansas suburbs. In the mid-1950s, Alton Acheson — part con man, part visionary, and Jack’s dad — begins developing Interstate 70 and building a suburban empire as the freeway exits the city amid the cornfields of Kings County, Kansas. As Alton bluffs his way into prosperity, Jack becomes an accomplice to his grand ambitions. But when greed, corruption, and organized crime combine to create an urban nightmare instead — abandoned buildings, ghettos, and slums — Jack is forced to reexamine not only his father’s legacy, but also that of his city and its community. Though fictional, this incredible story draws extensively from a sordid history of urban culture, as well as the race relations and class conflict that come with it, to examine the making of Kansas City’s so-called American Dream, one whose contradictions continue to surface in every American place to this day.
One reason I find The King of Kings County so fascinating is that the story and Jack Acheson could be based in any city. Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Houston, among others like Kansas City, have dreamed the big dreams of industrial Modernism to simultaneously magnificent and disastrous results. To me, a Midwesterner but non-native, Kansas City’s artists and cultural organizers seem eager to seriously investigate, to look deep down inside of their hometown in their efforts to explore it inside out. (Since this is my first Bad @ Sports blog post and because they are thematically relevant, please forgive me two bits—another to come in the next paragraphs—of shameless self-promotion:) With this observation in mind, I curated Have I been here before? this past November, my first exhibition for Charlotte Street Foundation’s la Esquina gallery. Through images, writing, and events, this show wondered whether Kansas City ‘places’—some strictly based in Kansas City, some less so—could be those that make up any town. Have I been here before? set up some interesting questions for me (and I hope for the audience): Even with rigorous study and years of analysis, can one truly know a place? And furthermore, does one’s knowledge of that place color their understanding of every place?
Jill Downen, an artist who recently migrated West along Alton Acheson’s I-70 from St. Louis to Kansas City, understands places by their insides. She looks deep down inside to see the architectural bones and tendons that make up a location’s structures. In many cases, those insides are sculpted, agile muscles trained to carry the weight of societies for years to come. In others, insides are aged and weak, crumbling under those same societies and the changes, like those led by Alton, they impose. For the most part, Downen recreates these insides full-scale, filling whole rooms in galleries and museums across the country with few giant sculptures. Opting for a bit more intimacy in Three-dimensional Sketchbook, the artist’s first solo show in her new hometown at PLUG Projects, Downen has set up a series of small-scale models that invite viewers to look deep down inside both structures and her studio practice. With each miniature architectural ligament or joint, this installation shows just how hard Downen studies, analyzes, and tries to know a place.
(Second and final shameless self-promotion you have to forgive me for:) Composite Structures, the second show I have organized for la Esquina, features contemporary artists who meditate on the designs and architectures of Bauhaus Modernism and the International Style. This exhibition consists of two parts: Mending Fences, curated by yours truly, which showcases Midwestern artists who apply multiple layers and manipulations—some conceptual, some formal—to the ideas of Modernist architects which feature prominently within the Midwestern urban landscape; and Low Accumulations, curated by Los Angeles-based curator and co-director of Actual Size L.A. Lee Foley, which includes Los Angeles-based artists who use assemblage and design to reflect a post-structural viewpoint and an urban sensibility unique to Southern California. In these paired presentations, we the curators show how artists and architects alike investigate places inside out in their efforts to know what of any given place works and what does not, what can be carried forward, and what must be left behind, cast out and/or obliterated for its failures. As the title of this show suggests, these artists rely on their own expert knowledge of the legacies of older places to create new and improved ones.
Much like Jack Acheson, Kansas City-based artist Anthony Baab reexamines the legacies of places that enjoy legendary status in art and architectural history. Baab looks inside out, on top of, from behind, and underneath the dense structures that make up any given place and its monumental systems—sculptures, buildings, cities, and so on. For his solo exhibition A Strenuous Nonbeing on view now at Grand Arts, Baab documented a number of places, extracted from them certain architectural elements which he then layers together to build/rebuild another place (a gesamtkunstwerk much like Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau) of his own volition. This presumably giant structure is as much like every place you have ever been as it is like no place you have ever been. However, the viewer never actually experiences this new structure firsthand because Baab presents it only through photographic and video documentation. With this process that only allows mediated looking, Baab illustrates that no matter how closely, critically, exhaustively one tries to look at a place, whether it be Kansas City, Los Angeles or Berlin, one can never truly know it because time, space, and humanity always render it new and unrecognizable.
Though perhaps in vein, I am willing to continue to search deep down inside Kansas City in my efforts to recognize the unrecognizable before time turns it into something else altogether.
-Jamilee Polson Lacy, Charlotte Street Curator-In-Residence