Rites of Passage in Kansas City: Through the Labyrinth

June 7, 2013 · Print This Article

"Jitterbug: Taking Over the City," by Gerry Trilling.

“Jitterbug: Taking Over the City,” by Gerry Trilling.

Guest Post by Jamilee Polson Lacy

I’m wrapping up my stint as Inaugural Curator-In-Residence for the Charlotte Street Foundation in Kansas City. My final project, rises Zora, a multi-venue visual and performing arts exhibition, explores Kansas City as an urban labyrinth. While the labyrinth as a thematic premise initially seems a little hippy-dippy, it’s one that actually encompasses and incorporates so much historically, philosophically, artistically, and more. Theories of the labyrinth—and there are many which span the ages of Greek and Roman mythology to early Christianity, Karl Marx to Umberto Eco, Cervantes to Borges and Calvino—demonstrate the thing as both concept and literal form that ultimately represents time. The labyrinth is an infinite series of choices to be made through time and space, and we get to decide whether to be conscious of those choices or not. I think the city, which quite obviously mimics a literal labyrinth, presents a plethora of choices—some exciting and dangerous, some banal and commonplace—so it’s nearly impossible not to think of it as a conceptual labyrinth as well.

Jeffersonian grid can't stop the labyrinth.

Jeffersonian grid can’t stop the labyrinth.

Kansas City has an interesting history that accommodates a show like rises Zora. It, like most cities inland west of the Eastern seaboard, was designed on a grid, which, according to its first known utilizer and urban planner Hippodamus of Miletus, is society’s attempt at ordering the labyrinth. So, in the simplest sense, Kansas City features lots of beautiful right angles that repeat from the street level Jeffersonian grid into the design of enormous buildings and neighborhood squares. But what is more interesting, are the random parts of the city—those which don’t conform to this guiding grid, this attempt to order the city and its users’ navigation and time within it. Places where the highways meet and tangle up or where the parks and the rivers and the construction disrupt the perfect patterns are great of examples of how the labyrinth can’t be controlled by a grid or a society. And in every case, there are multiple labyrinths that overlap and collide as neighborhoods, cultures, and ways of existing in the universe all configure as complex webs of time’s effect on everything. These systems’ inability to control the labyrinth’s physical manifestation correlate to humanity’s ultimate powerlessness to control or change the actual course of time. Only time changes us; we can never change it.

"Curtain Wall" by May Tveit.

“Curtain Wall” by May Tveit.

This idea of time as a series of labyrinths—also mazes, matrices, and networks, which are all versions of the labyrinth concept—emerges again and again in contemporary art. Artists, like Theseus navigating his way through Daedalus’s labyrinth to its center in his efforts to conquer the Knossos minotaur, traverse complex, even confusing problems of time and space to reach some sort of goal. At that point, the artist must pass through one labyrinth to another. In other words, the artist comes to a rite of passage.  Italo Calvino, my favorite labyrinth expert, metaphorically discusses this rite of passage in every novel. In Invisible Cities, from which the rises Zora project title is taken, we see Marco Polo artfully describe and navigate the mysteriously international labyrinth that is Venice to the great Kublai Khan. In If on a winter’s night a traveler, the reader, which may or may not be you or me, must navigate the labyrinths of literature, language, and lust. And in the under-appreciated Mr. Palomar, we experience alongside a man, Mr. Palomar, the many rites of passage that come with middle age and the realization that death is a real thing just like every other life event/labyrinthine transition.

The rite of passage has a long history in tandem with the labyrinth. Though we think of the labyrinth as inherently Greek in its roots (which isn’t incorrect as the first reference to the labyrinth is the oral tradition that tells of Daedalus’s architectures), it too is found throughout time and across geographies as part of pagan and tribal culture. Indeed, labyrinths as mystical symbols and ritualistic structures marked communal and individual life transitions including harvest, friendship, protection, love fertility, adulthood, death, and the list goes on and on. In Central and South America the Aztecs and smaller lesser-known tribes constructed the most elaborate hedges and mountain wall labyrinths, while in Scandinavia the Middle Age citizens built Troy towns to protect their maidens. In many cultures there is the walk about, for which the labyrinth is materialized as a vast geographical expanse of the unknown, within which one must learn to make choices outside their cultural context. I mention the walk about specifically because in two weeks a few of Charlotte Street’s Urban Culture Project (UCP) Studio Residency participants will open a thoughtful group show at their designated gallery space called WALKABOUT.  The UCP Studio Residency program is unique in that it provides an important opportunity for Kansas City’s young and emerging artists to have the space in the form of a free downtown KCMO studio and exhibition venue to develop their work and the professional practice. The program operates on an academic yearly cycle, and is therefore winding down for this year’s residents. Featuring five artists who will leave the residency transformed in one way or another, this WALKABOUT exhibition strikes me as the perfect metaphor for the rite of passage they will soon experience.

"Dust Pile" by Madeline Gallucci of the UCP Studio Residency "WALKABOUT" exhibition.

“Dust Pile” by Madeline Gallucci of the UCP Studio Residency “WALKABOUT” exhibition.

"Tile Bundles" by Maegan Stracy of the UCP Studio Residency "WALKABOUT" exhibition.

“Tile Bundles” by Maegan Stracy of the UCP Studio Residency “WALKABOUT” exhibition.

Another exhibition in town, Barry Anderson’s The Janus Restraint: The Ascension at The Studios, Inc. directly considers rites of passage as Anderson himself as an artist, a father, and a citizen of the great big universe experiences them. The Studios, Inc. is another residency program in town that provides free space to artists. Unlike the UCP Studio Residency, this one is for mid-career artists who have developed studio practices in Kansas City over a considerable period of time. Artists are given a huge space for three years, with the possibility of renewing for a second three-year term. The space and the artists tenure at The Studios, Inc. is subsidized both by The Studios, Inc. board/organization and a local patron, who both in exchange for their generosity receive an artwork from the artist for their respective organizational and personal collections. Perhaps the most exciting organization in town because it nearly bursts with possibility to be something more, The Studios, Inc. operates on the most interesting model and really does support some of the city’s most interesting artists with space. Unfortunately though, the organization lacks vision in that their collection is rarely shown and, other than providing free workspace and an exhibition (in an on-site gallery space that could be really remarkable if its exhibitions were professionally curated and also sprinkled with some out-of-town flavor to contextualize/expand the production of Studios, Inc./Kansas City artists), they do little to promote their residents on a national or international scale. Anderson’s exhibition, though it consists of entirely new work, feels like a retrospective precisely because it seems like it should be so pivotal to the artist’s career. In some capacity, each artwork—photography, video, sculpture, and installation—takes on Anderson’s personal, professional, and existential transitions. The show even has an urgency as it practically screams, “What am I going to do next?!” A serious question considering that this glorious exhibition isn’t likely to be reviewed outside of Kansas City. There is no national/international coverage here, no critics with freelance relationships with Artforum, Art in America, Frieze, or the likes, and it seems to me like no one in town is working to do anything about this serious problem. (I actually hope that when I leave KC, I’ll be able to create a rite of passage for another to provide KC-specific commentary on Bad at Sports.) After this year in Kansas City, I can very confidently say that amazingly prolific artists like Barry Anderson are plentiful here, but who will ever know, and more importantly, who will ever care if no one writes about them for the rest of the world to see? Though Anderson’s solo show beautifully mines a variety of rites of passage on many fronts, there seems to be none in sight for him in this respect.

Installation view of "The Janus Restraint: The Ascension" by Barry Anderson.

Installation view of “The Janus Restraint: The Ascension” by Barry Anderson.

"Finnean" by Barry Anderson.

“Finnean” by Barry Anderson.

A viewer enjoying Barry Anderson's "The Janus Restraint: The Ascension" at The Studios, Inc.

A viewer enjoying Barry Anderson’s “The Janus Restraint: The Ascension” at The Studios, Inc.

There do finally seem to be pathways opened up for new blood at Kansas City’s art museums, which, though I hate to say it, present some of the most inconsequential contemporary art programming in the country (with the exception of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, an incredibly smart contemporary art museum and private collection that lives miles away outside Kansas City in Johnson County, and KU’s Spencer Museum, which lives 30 minutes far away in Lawrence, is pretty good, too). The Nelson-Atkins Museum is the biggest game in town. Much of the community’s patronage goes into this institution, though it reflects very little interest in that same community that supports it. There is no regular local contemporary art feature or commission, and there are very few quality or comprehensive contemporary art exhibitions to expose the city’s prestigious art school—the Kansas City Art Institute—population. The Nelson-Atkins has appointed a new Curatorial Director, Antonia Bostrom, who I hope comes to the museum with at least a little interest, respect, and enthusiasm for art being made today. Also, the Kemper Museum, a private collection and exhibition program of contemporary art run by one of the city’s wealthiest families, finally hired a curator after last year’s layoff scandal calmed down. Given the banal sensibilities and rigor-lacking qualities of the exhibitions chosen and organized by the museum’s current senior-level administration, I doubt (but really hope) that this curator, Erin Dziedzic, will bring with her the clout needed to integrate local and cutting edge art and issues into the programming plans and change the museum. But, I’m holding my breath that this rite of passage will include local artists because I’m an optimist!

Maybe it’s because I’ve reached my own transition point in that I’m finishing my own residency and leaving this city—and thus passing through a formative stage of my life—in mere weeks, but I feel like there are identifiable rites of passages happening all over Kansas City right now. In recent months, three of the city’s arguably biggest contemporary art players have announced that they will transition out of their longtime roles in the contemporary art world.

1)   John O’Brien, owner and director of the Dolphin Gallery, one of the city’s few commercial galleries, has decided to get out of the business. This is a huge blow to many artists who already feel the suffocating grip of an almost non-existent art market in Kansas City. But poetically and poignantly, O’Brien’s daughter Caitlin mounted the last show at her dad’s gallery, showing that a family tradition for contemporary art will likely bare fruit in Kansas City some day. One hopes that O’Brien’s labyrinth which holds numerous Kansas City artists of all stripes could spill into the realm of Bill Brady KC, a gallery run by the New Yorker, but given Brady’s lack of interest in the local folks, I don’t see that passageway being paved anytime ever. I do hope, however, to see a young townie open her gallery doors with a roster that promotes a collection of Kansas City’s emerging and longstanding artists alongside the international talent with which they are equal stock.

Dolphin Gallery in KCMO.

Dolphin Gallery in KCMO.

Del Harrow's "Fluid Geometry, Material Topology, and Shades of Grey," a recent show at the Dolphin.

Del Harrow’s “Fluid Geometry, Material Topology, and Shades of Grey,” a recent show at the Dolphin.

Kaitlin O'Brien curates and installs the Dolphin's final exhibition.

Kaitlin O’Brien curates and installs the Dolphin’s final exhibition.

2)  Margaret Silva, the Hallmark heiress, has announced that she will close the city’s most nationally relevant venue, Grand Arts, a kunsthaus-type space that she funds mostly on her own dime. To me, this news brings the most despair. In a city that is home to some incredibly experimental cultural production, there must be a place where artists can see the work of other leading conceptual artists—their international contemporaries. Grand Arts brings in some of the best artists in the world to present challenging, provocative exhibitions and social practice programs. Unfortunately, the organization is much too quiet—they hardly market a thing—and their programming schedule is inconsistent not to mention thin. I’ve been here nearly 11 months, and though they have a number of part-time and full-time employees, I’ve seen two shows there (with many months-long gaps in between them).  But man, when Artistic Director Stacy Switzer finally gets a show up and going, it’s darn good. I’ll be sad to see this place close its doors in 2015.

Grand Arts in KCMO.

Grand Arts in KCMO.

"IOU/USA," a project by John Salvest commissioned by Grand Arts.

“IOU/USA,” a project by John Salvest commissioned by Grand Arts.

3)   And finally, Charlotte Street Founding Director David Hughes, Jr. (full disclosure: Hughes is one of my bosses, for lack of a better term) will step back from the organizational helm over the coming months. Hughes, in collaboration with the organization’s diverse board and savvy Charlotte Street Co-Director Kate Hackman, has been instrumental to the success of the city’s most experimental and ambitious artists through the facilitation of Charlotte Street’s Visual and Performing Art Awards (aka thousands of dollars unrestricted CASH for artist winners), in addition to numerous exhibition and professional development opportunities for artists and others (like me!). Hughes will stay on with Charlotte Street in an advisory role, but he will pass the reins to a new executive director yet-to-be named.

Charlotte Street Founding Director David Hughes, Jr.

Charlotte Street Founding Director David Hughes, Jr.

"Ras," by Paul Anthony Smith, one of this year's Charlotte Street Visual Art Award winners of $10,000.

“Ras,” by Paul Anthony Smith, one of this year’s Charlotte Street Visual Art Award winners of $10,000.

Hopefully, these folks will expand the matrices that currently exist in Kansas City to accommodate new paths for contemporary art. While I know that many in town are worried, and they should be, I’m sure that the rites of passage between these folks and venues will pass on to someone ready for the challenge. And me, I have accumulated Kansas City artists into my own labyrinth, which I can’t help but take with me everywhere I go. And the new Charlotte Street Curator-In-Resident, whoever s/he may be, will likely do the same because Kansas City artists and their work are magnificent and relevant. After all, the labyrinth is just time. And again, because I’m an optimist, I’m sure that time will keep moving along and shifting to open one passageway after another for Kansas City contemporary artists.

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ContentImage-5232-281190-Headshot_BW_webJamilee Polson Lacy is an artist, curator and writer based in Chicago. Currently, Lacy is the Inaugural Curator-In-Residence for Charlotte Street Foundation in Kansas City, where she organizes exhibitions, educational programming and publications for Charlotte Street’s Crossroads District gallery, la Esquina. In Chicago, Lacy additionally operates as the founding director of Twelve Galleries Project, a transitory, collaborative exhibition experiment. She has engaged in solo and collaborative projects with many creatives and institutions, including A+D Gallery at Columbia College Chicago, The Black Visual Archive, Chicago Artists’ Coalition & Hatch Projects, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Hyde Park Art Center, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Western Exhibitions and Quite Strong, among others. In addition to numerous catalogue essays, interviews and articles, Lacy has published Color: Fully Engaged, a book of interviews and essays, and written series for Flash Art’s Umelec Magazine, Art 21 and now, Bad at Sports. Lacy holds two undergraduate degrees in studio arts and art history and a Masters of Comparative Literature and Arts from Northwestern University.