Over the coming months, the Bad at Sports blog is featuring quick glimpses of the art world as it exists in smaller cities across the country and around the world. Each glimpse is byway of some of the said city’s local characters, which include but are not limited to artists, curators, creative writers, and critics. This week, we take you to Kansas City, the state-stradding city that produced the likes of Robert Altman, Amelia Earhart, Robert Morris, and Charlie Parker, to name a few.
Every City’s Second City
Guest Post by Garry Noland
When I was asked by Bad at Sports to write this article, the request focused on what it has been like to be an artist in Kansas City for “however many years it has been.”
I’ve been making things since I was a boy but started thinking about the context of my work in 1980. I knew going in that artists didn’t make any money. That’s why I thought art history would be a good career move in 1976; it seemed like doing research on Frederick Law Olmsted, for example, would be an easier job. I’ve had factory work slagging welds and jackhammering frozen coal piles. That didn’t work out either. Along with a series of day jobs I’ve thrown together a studio career that’s gone from the kitchen table to a 3,000 sq. ft. studio and back again. I feel successful if I don’t factor in money. I’m grateful for the support of my family and artist colleagues here and around the country.
In 1977 I was a student assistant for Hollister Sturges, who was in Chicago curating for a show at the University of Missouri – Kansas City (UMKC). The show, titled Chicago Abstractionists: Romanticized Structures, allowed me into the studios of John Henry, Paul Slepak, Dan Ramirez, Miyoko Ito and others. Ted Argeropolos had passed by then, but his work was unforgettable. We had dinner at Vera Klement’s place and a few too many drinks at a Greek restaurant with Jane Allan, founder of New Art Examiner and Derek Guthrie, a painter and NAE’s publisher.
Flash forward to 1993. I hailed a taxi at Midway. I was in town for a show at Deson-Saunders Gallery. Mark Saunders had seen my work at the NIU Chicago Gallery and then included a few of my pieces in a group show. I was amazed by the activity in the Chicago galleries and knew there was nothing back home like this.
The driver asked me where I was from. “Kansas City,” I said. Eyes up in the rearview driver says, “you know they call KC ‘Little Chicago’.” It had something to do with the mob, he said, and if it got too hot in Chicago, “the boys hightailed it to KC.” Nice to know. It doesn’t happen that way, probably, anymore.
So this was the SECOND City? Driving back to KC with a load of paintings and sculpture I wondered….if Chicago’s the Second City, how good was the First City? And like Dorothy’s Emerald City, what happened when the curtain was pulled aside? Where did KC rank in all this?
The truth is every city’s the second city. Being an artist carries with it a cruel joke. We pursue beauty, achieve it sometimes, but nothing’s ever enough. At least it shouldn’t be; it’s how we move forward. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence or in another gallery.
There’s a lot more activity in KC these days compared to 1977, or even 1993. About the only chance for a Kansas City artist in 1977 to gain a little traction was to be chosen for the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s “Thirty Miles of Art” or to teach at the Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI) or UMKC. “Thirty Miles of Art” (for which my work was rejected twice) was a local, less vigorous version of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s “Chicago Works” series. Another alternative was to get involved with the Kansas City Artist’s Coalition (KCAC), an artist-run space that formed coincidentally with Chicago’s N.A.M.E. and ARC.
What’s better now in 2014 stems from one thing:
Millenials are coming to town and sticking around. The Charlotte Street Foundation’s (CSF) sustained programming, supporting the work of Kansas City artists, has not gone unnoticed by recent classes of art school and university art department graduates. Kansas City is a viable alternative to more expensive locations—such as Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, to name a few—in which to set up a studio, develop and show new work.
The result is young people working in the studio—even if it’s a kitchen table, opening exhibition venues, writing poetry and scripts, publishing blogs and creating choreography.
In artspeak, these people are called emerging artists. Truth is, if you’re not emerging, you’re not an artist. The inherent problem is: if an artist’s always emerging (code for not producing commodity), how can the collecting class count on a stable, value-enhancing product? For the commodity art you’ll have to go to New York and that’s exactly what the collecting class of places like Kansas City does. That will always be the problem in Kansas City. Artists in Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Williamsburg and Red Hook are likely to tell the same story.
CSF is not the only institution that’s supporting and motivating this new, broader generation:
- The H & R Block Artspace at the Kansas City Art Institute sponsors a biennial of works on paper called KC Flatfile, a project that archives into several large flat files scores of area artists’ drawings, collages, prints and more. The Artspace, led by director and chief curator Raechelle Smith, makes a point of involving local and visiting curators to create short-run installations featuring works culled from these flat files. Furthermore, Smith and her Artspace team actively support experimental presentations by local curatorial and studio projects.
- The Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College regularly hosts artist talks for the student population. Director Bruce Hartman is a booster of KC artists by making sure that the museum’s collection represents KC diversely. Dylan Mortimer, a local artist, is currently having a solo exhibition at the Nerman.
- The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art’s newish curator and educator (she’s been on the job for a little more than a year) Erin Dziedzic is becoming known for making studio visits and is planning a series of group exhibitions focusing on artists in the metropolitan area.
- PLUG Projects is an artist-operated storefront gallery. PLUG focuses on exhibitions by local and national artists. Its exhibitions are supplemented by a film series, critique night, and 8 ½ x 11, a printed venue for art writing in KC.
- UMKC’s Fine Arts Gallery has been remodeled and, under artist Davin Watne’s guidance, is kicking up the energy several notches with multi-disciplinary programming and projects by emerging artists.
- Artist Inc., in conjunction with UMKC, CSF and ArtsKC, a city arts council, provides networking resources and entrepreneurial workshops for artists, writers and actors in an effort to help them build a sustained professional career in KC.
- There are others, too: KCAC, Rockhurst University’s Greenlease Gallery, Fishtank Theater, The Living Room, Cupcakes in Regalia, Blue Room’s Jazz Poetry Series, The Writer’s Place, Garcia Squared and Studios Inc.
How have all these millenials affected me, someone who just turned 60? I am amazed at their work ethic and dedication to studio practice. It makes me work harder. Conversations about work and ideas are exchanged in organized critiques, and sometimes one on one. They’ve raised the temperature and sophistication of the dialogue. They seem interested in the older generation and the history of KC, thus the paybacks seem reciprocal.
There’s pressure too: to perform… to attain or retain some semblance of relevance locally and nationally. It’s common to hear fellow artists comparing and contrasting colleagues’ work. A context is established and all boats rise. Artists want to do “8 for 8.” They want fair value for their work. It sounds middle class and that’s a good thing. We all want to work and we all do work. There’s ample trade in doing what artists do: (cliché alert) asking and answering questions, questioning the status quo and blurring jobs and job descriptions. Maybe the country’s new creative class is the country’s new emergent middle class.
That’s my city. I know though, in the larger picture, if there are 50 artists here working their asses off, there are 100 in St. Louis, 500 in Chicago, 5000 in New York and who knows how many in Dehli or Shanghai.
Turns out, every city’s the second city.
Garry Noland graduated from UMKC in 1978 with a BA-History of Art. He contributed regularly to New Art Examiner, Forum (the monthly of Kansas City Artists Coalition) and Art Extra, a publication from Wichita, KS. He won a NEA Fellowship in Paintings and Works on Paper in 1994 and was awarded a Studios Inc Artist Residency in 2011. Noland’s work has been exhibited recently at Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Indianapolis Art Center, Hardesty Art Center and la Esquina. Upcoming exhibits include The Center is a Moving Target at Kemper Crossroads (Kansas City) and exhibitions at Zarrow Gallery (University of Tulsa) and Beverly (St. Louis) with his daughter, Peggy Noland.
Ever heard of the The Second City ? Of course you have. This is a Chicago based arts and culture website, and Second City is “The” comedy theatre in Chicago, right? The Second City Chicago has turned out such comedy greats as Alan Arkin, Fred Willard, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Steven Colbert to name as small group. The Second City opened its doors in Chicago in December of 1959 as a small cabaret theatre. As the success of the Chicago company grew, it gave birth to off shoot companies and comedy schools in Toronto (John Candy, Dave Thomas, Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short are all alumni as well), Los Angeles, and touring cast and a TV show called SCTV.
But I don’t live in Chicago, I live in Los Angeles, and I am not a part of the comedy world. I watch Saturday Night Live (full of Second City alumnus), and I watch Arrested Development and 30 Rock on loop with my Appletv, but I have never been well versed in the art of sketch, stand-up and improvisational comedy. I work in film. Dark, gritty, independent film where people drink, cry and fight and have irresponsible sex with inappropriate partners…(I’m talking about the characters in my films, not the people in my real life…I swear.) However, recently I’ve had several friends who have very real interests and talents in comedy and so I’ve found myself at the Second City Hollywood theatre quite a few times in the last couple of years. This past month I saw two shows by which I was extremely impressed. And not just because the performers are my friends, but also because comedy is HARD and they are working HARD at it and their work pays off for the audience in a big way.
The Second City offers classes for performers from everything to beginners improvisation comedy, to sketch comedy, to comedy tv writing at various stages. I’ve attended several comedy tv pilot readings and, as a writer myself, am always impressed that people sat down and wrote a show. A whole episode of a show that they invented. They thought of characters, and jokes and silly scenarios that are sometimes totally relatable and sometimes absolutely ridiculous, but hopefully funny enough to make the audience laugh. Sometimes the pilots work, and sometimes they don’t. As I mentioned, comedy is hard. At least, it seems hard to me. I’ve also watched a lot of improv comedy groups. I’ve learned that there are rules to improv comedy. Always say “Yes” to your improv teammate. Meaning, if your teammate says “hey, you’re a cow” then you must say “yes, I’m a cow” and then play the part of a cow for the rest of the sketch. That is the best way to create a cohesive, smooth and funny scene. I’ve seen this work, and I’ve seen this implode (usually when the teammate says “I’m not a cow, I’m Matt Damon.”) It seems to me that comedy is about commitment to a moment and a character, even if it is isn’t the character that you would have wished to have to commit to.
Recently, I’ve sat in the audience for more sketch comedy. In the last couple of weeks I’ve seen two very different sketch shows that were all about commitment to character. The first was from a group called The Virgina Slims. They are a duo of performers who, in this show, played the roles of a duo of performers. Ha! The show is called Ronnie and Lorraine’s Last Reunion Show IV. A high quality mock TV preview that played as the shows opening told the audience that Ronnie and Lorraine were once the America’s Sweethearts of comedy couples (Think Lucy and Dessie or Donnie and Marie (but married)) In their heyday they had comedy specials and musical albums and toured around the world. But drugs, scandal, and divorce drove them apart, but now they are back for a reunion show! Then for the next 50 minutes or so the Virgina Slims (Laura Eichhorn and Pepper Berry) performed comic sketches and songs as Ronnie and Lorraine playing their old characters. It was very Shakespearean…the play within the play and all that. The sketches were swift and funny. Clever and physical. In between the sketches the characters of Ronnie and Lorraine talked directly to the audience about themselves, their struggling careers and occasionally their obviously strained relationship. The actors (Berry and Eichhorn) stayed very committed to their characters both in and out of the sketches, and that’s why the show worked so well. These characters were silly and unglamorous but highly relatable. They wore gaudy 1970′s outfits and wigs but so naturally that we as the audience were never distracted by them. At one point Eichhorn’s Lorraine sang a dark, serious power ballad about hitting a deer with her car (if I remember correctly) while Berry’s Ronnie popped up over and over behind her with different rhythm instruments. Because the performers took the moment so seriously, no winking at the audience, no acknowledgment of the silliness of their wigs and the subject matter of the song, the audience cheered. On the whole, the show was not only a great showcase of the Virgina Slims comedic performance talents, but also of their writing talents, and musical abilities.
The following week I saw a totally different kind of sketch show. Entitled, Ithamar has Nothing to Say, the comedian, Ithamar Enriquez, performed a series of non-verbal sketches to music. It was a mixture of pantomime, scene structure, and interpretive dance all in a one-man show (but that description doesn’t do the performance justice.) The show opened by Enriquez (really in his 30′s) as a crotchety old man with a cane shuffling on stage, taking out his teeth (pantomime, of course) and turning on a scratchy old record. Then as the old man fell asleep, Enriquez acted out the characters from the old man’s dreams, depending on what song played from the record player (this is my interpretation.) Over the course of the next 30 minutes Enriquez silently became a sexy, elegant female prostitute and several of her drunk Johns, a trio of jazz lovers who can’t help but dance when they listen to music, a Mexican wrestler who enthusiastically wrestles (and pins) a soft red blanket, and a hapless magician who you can’t help but route for. In one sketch, he used a very weird half monkey/half man puppet to create an uncomfortable run in at a bus stop (we’ve all had those, if not with a half monkey man puppet) which showcased that this performer has puppetry skills as well. The show was light-hearted and hilarious and even sentimental at times. In the final sketch of his show, the Old Man returns and plays out the entire meeting, courtship, and marriage of he and his wife (the wife being played by the cane,) ending with the two, now old with grown children, relaxing together listening to the scratchy record player. It brought tears to my eyes, both of laughter and of emotion. The show was charming, and hilarious and (other than the creepy masturbating monkey man) completely family friendly. I think my parents would have loved it! I think Enriquez’s parents would love it! I do know Ithamar Enriquez personally, and I always knew he was a talented comedian. He works a lot in the industry, in commercials, and TV including Arrested Development, Key and Peele, and The League to name a few recent appearances, and he is high enough in the company at The Second City that he is one of their staff members and teachers as well as a performer, but I thought this silent show showcased talents I hadn’t really considered. It harkened back to the brilliance of Charlie Chapman and the silent clowns at the circus (minus the pies in the face and the creepy make-up.) It was his commitment to each character that made you watch, believe, enjoy and most importantly…laugh!
So, The Second City Hollywood may not have the same long standing reputation for great comedy as its forefather The Second City Chicago, but it is in fact churning out great new comics all the time. So, I’ve had to accept that L.A. is not just a film town where people like me are churning out gritty independent drug movies and big budget space films, but there are also tons of people making thoughtful committed comedy shows as well. This is probably not a surprise to anyone else, I mean, Andy Dick came out of The Second City Hollywood so… But for me, I feel lucky to have found some comedy to balance out the darkness of my Breaking Bad addiction.
For more info on the Virgina Slims check out their Facebook page and follow them on twitter at @VSimprov and follow Ithamar Enriquez at @IthamarEnriquez and check out his website at www.Ithamarenriquez.com.