Recently, the Charlotte Street Fund was recognized by Kansas City Star art critic, Alice Thorson, as one of the most significant initiatives of the decade. Each year, the Fund provides a rare cash grant for Kansas City artists selected by a panel of local arts professionals. Like Perspectives: Kansas City, a biennial exhibition of local artists hosted by Johnson County Community College Gallery of Art, the Charlotte Street Fund creates an extraordinary opportunity to recognize and celebrate the current vitality of the visual arts in our community. In fact, Kansas City plays host to a dynamic art and culture community that gives back to the larger community supporting it in many ways – ways that encourage vibrancy and confidence. There is no true tool for measuring these contributions, however, reciprocity does abound. As museums, arts organizations, and self-starting individuals continue to funnel energy and expertise into the visual arts, audiences grow in numbers and appreciation, and new levels of support and encouragement emerge. It is the artist that benefits. There are numerous and varied venues for the presentation of work, from established museums and galleries to artist-established alternative and other non-traditional spaces. There is an unprecedented level of dialogue about the arts growing out of a commitment on behalf of new and established media sources. There is a renewed interest in enlivening the community through the placement of public art via civic, corporate, and individual sponsorships. And, there is flourishing patronage, on many levels, through active audiences that seek out and often participate in exhibitions, events, fundraisers, and partnerships. Ultimately, there is a rising belief in the quality of art produced locally and resources, like the Charlotte Street Fund, provide important impetus for artists to establish or renew their commitment to living and working in Kansas City - a place where such contributions are valued and can truly make a difference.
Since its inception in 1997, The Charlotte Street Fund has recognized and bestowed awards to a total of 16 artists and presented exhibitions of their work throughout Kansas City. This exhibition presents the work of five recipients as well as the first Lifetime Achievement Award, presented in the spring of 1999. As stated in the mission of the Charlotte Street Fund, the selection of outstanding visual artists is based solely upon the merits of their work. As in past years, this selection of artists represents a wide scope of talent, a cross-section of the individuals that make up this community: from emerging artists beginning to exhibit their work to more seasoned individuals who have established reputations beyond Kansas City, exhibiting and gaining national and international recognition. The work presented also ranges from the traditional to the experimental in media that includes painting, drawing, photography, and sculpture. Brought together as an exhibition, it is yet another example of innovation and commitment – an opportunity to see anew what is familiar to some and new to others – in order to recognize and celebrate the quality and diversity of the visual arts to be found in Kansas City.
The word reinvention comes to mind when considering the transformation in Nate Fors’s work since he participated in a one-person exhibition at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in 1991. As an artist, Fors has challenged himself, alongside many artists in the last half of the twentieth century, to explore new materials in search of alternatives to the paint brush and, once again, to move beyond those discoveries. His painterly collages, characterized by wordsmithing wit and verbal puns, have grown into colorful three-dimensional visual puns in the form of sculptures fashioned from fanciful and unexpected found and sought objects: vintage fabrics, vinyl records, inflated innertubes, feather boas, and industrially produced rubber sheeting and corrugated plastics. Emerging from this experimental reduction and simplification of forms and a new approach to materials and even scale and color, Fors’ sometimes geometric, sometimes organic, compositions bear savvy witness to abstraction’s evolution. There is also a resonant awareness in Fors’s work of the experimentation and reinvention seen in contemporary abstract art’s conscious attempt to refute and play havoc with the boundaries of discipline-based categorizations such as painting and sculpture. Throughout these fruitful meanderings, Fors has retained the importance of play and the resulting excitement continues to be an integral and compelling component in his work. Once beyond the Crayola-like lure of the bright, vibrant palette, there is discovery of another kind to be found in both the artist’s formal ingenuity with mundane materials and his sly, ambiguous references to discovery, childhood and sexuality.
Ke-Sook Lee’s work also benefits from an open-minded exploration of media and sources of influence. Early minimalist-inspired paintings and drawings soon gave way to an autobiographical mining of the artist’s own voice. In part, a realization that formal education had provided little exposure to examples of the feminine voice in art and literature, Lee’s shift away from pure abstraction occurred as she realized she had much to voice about the female experience. Just as, earlier this century, Alberto Giacometti abandoned abstraction in favor of a representational, figurative art, so too has Lee sought and found a more personal means of expression to address thoughts about human potential, individuality, and personal identity. Out of her writing come journal-like entries in the form of delicate drawings where calligraphic marks and ambiguous shapes become symbols. Each of the symbols has meaning and can be read within the context of the story Lee tells; like the circular image to be read as a seed, a self-portrait perhaps, that appears lifeless and, yet, has the potential to establish roots, grow, and transform into something else, something beautiful. These visual vignettes, pieced together and joined like a quilt or, in the case of a recent series of drawings, stitched directly onto starched and embroidered cotton pillowcase, are stories charged with the personal and universal struggles of an artist, a woman, trying to transcend the tradition of roles we assume and carry throughout our lives. The surfaces of Lee’s drawings are built up with layers of, among other things, ink, gesso, and clay extracted with care from her garden. Throughout her work, there are references to female experience, aspects of which were stressed upon Lee, in her native Korea and in the United States where she emigrated and settled to raise a family, and upon women of many cultures: domesticity, needlework, gardening, and family. As in the highly personal work of Louise Bourgeois, there is much of the artist’s experience and journey of personal growth and realization to be found in Lee’s work.
After many years of living, working, and exhibiting in New York City, where he was featured in the prestigious Whitney Biennial in 1995, Michael Rees returned to his native Kansas City to continue his career. It was a reasonable move in a time when advanced technology meant global communication and the beginning breakdown of geographic boundaries. Consider, for example, that featured artists in the upcoming 2000 Whitney Biennial were selected by a curatorial committee with representatives from regions throughout the United States, not just New York. The realization that one must no longer be in New York to seriously pursue art is beginning, once again, to shift and split the center of the art world into unexpected regions – Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, even Kansas City. For Rees, the geographical shift coincided with an intense period of experimentation with new media and technology. Since the mid-1990s, Rees has been hard at work, growing a new breed of sculpture, pushing and expanding the relationship between art, science, and technology. Conceptualization, building, and fabrication of Rees’ work are achieved through computer-aided design (CAD) and the additive process of rapid prototyping that creates three-dimensional forms from drawings that are spatially-conceived and output directly from a computer. The objects that result, referred to by Rees as new media sculpture, are truly hybrid forms. They are fantastical creatures with literal and imaginary body parts and odd trunks concocted of recipes with seemingly paradoxical ingredients – part spiritual, part metaphysical, part medical, part scientific, part metaphoric, part sensual. Rees says that his work has always had an intuitive and vaguely surrealist edge. It is not surprising then, when Rees reveals the motivation behind his endeavors as an attempt to entertain a sense of ecstasy about life and understand things that confuse him. A mentor of mine once suggested that it was much more interesting to talk about what we don’t know rather than to focus only on what we do know. In his work, Rees seems to push beyond the elusive boundaries of imagination and knowledge and this, of course, is the stuff art is made of.
As an architectural photographer, Michael Sinclair has been making and publishing pictures of public spaces since 1984. Only recently, however, has Sinclair begun to exhibit the photographs that document his forays into the curious realms of leisure populated by mainstream American society. Much like the Impressionist paintings of Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir that depict the middle-class at rest and play at the end of the nineteenth century, Sinclair’s images freeze scenes from life at the end of the twentieth century, stealthily capturing the inhabitants of each unique environment in the full-out pursuit of amusement. Using a straightforward photographic approach and, often, long exposures, Sinclair creates images that are compelling in their stillness and truly evocative in their sense of light, color, and atmosphere. The varied psychological flavors of each scene are achieved via the positioning and perspective of the photographer’s eye and the gaze of the lens. As isolated witness and objective observer, Sinclair captures the backside of a crowd focused intensely on a singular event. Alternately, the artist enters into the frame, at once exposing and bringing himself and the viewer directly into the scene, inviting the return gaze of his subjects. There is careful control exerted by the artist over each composition. This, in combination with the familiarity of events experienced and places known – fairgrounds, city parks, and 4th of July celebrations – make these photographs seem virtually inhabitable, as if you could walk right into the absolute midst of the moment. This feeling is underscored, too, by Sinclair’s recent shift in scale to large-format prints, funded initially by the grant money he received from the Charlotte Street Fund.
Bridget Stewart has been an exhibiting artist, educator, and arts professional in Kansas City for many years. However, the fact that she is settled in the mid-west is not immediately apparent when looking at work whose chief imagery is like a chronicle of the devastating self-destruction occurring throughout the world. The horrific and bloody reality of ethnic cleansing and the evils of twentieth-century warfare – whether in Rwanda, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, or Bosnia – become the subjects of Stewart’s multi-media prints. Exploring multiple materials and techniques, Stewart layers the imagery containing fragments of original information, aestheticizing her subjects under a veil of beauty. Stewart seems to be tugging at our collective psyche, questioning why we aren’t still talking about Rwanda where thousands of people were literally hacked to death. We certainly cannot claim ignorance of these world events for news of such atrocities reaches quietly into our consciousness everyday as we watch televised wars unfold in our living room or listen to worldwide reports on National Public Radio. In our minds, we begin to tally off the staggering numbers of people whose lives have been wasted and then, well, its understandable why so many stress management experts are recommending 2 and 3-day “news fasts.” Stewart dives directly and wholeheartedly into the cacophony of these events and recycles those fragments of imagery and places them, once again, before our eyes. She does this because, as an artist, she believes in the power of an image to convey meaning and takes the risk that art can indeed be a vehicle for social change. Political and social imagery and content in art is certainly nothing new. In Goya’s Disasters of War, Picasso’s Guernica, and, more recently, Christian Boltanski’s evocative installations, art history provides us with a host of very powerful and truth-filled images that, even today, are emotionally compelling and often make us stop to think.
The selection of the first artist to receive the Charlotte Street Fund’s Lifetime Achievement Award is fitting as there is perhaps no other artist as well-known or as well- loved in Kansas City as Wilbur Niewald. His cityscapes and landscapes, familiar to many, are beautiful, painterly depictions of the well-known hills and urban vistas of Kansas City. Others still know Niewald as a presence, the painter who spends his summers working outdoors at his favorite locations. Over the past 50 years living and working in Kansas City, Niewald has produced a prolific body of work; paintings that are as inextricably linked to the tradition of painting and modernism as they are to Kansas City. Painting and drawing directly from what he sees, the cityscapes and landscapes evoke a place. But, even as Niewald pays homage to the modern masters he most admires, he honors his longtime connection to Kansas City. For it was in Kansas City where he first discovered Cezanne’s Mont St. Victoire at the Nelson-Atkins Museum and, also, the work of Mondrian, which traveled to the Kansas City Art Institute as part of an exhibition organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Since the 1970s, Niewald has painted directly from observation: landscapes, portraits, and still-lifes. He says that being in front of something becomes the reason for painting, allowing him to get closer and see a thing more clearly. Whether his observation is focused on looking for the universal in, say, the vastness of a landscape rather than specificity of the Grand Canyon, or focused on one thing, not Kansas City but a rock formation hugging a hill or a nondescript building in contrast to the surrounding deep, green foliage, Niewald is guided by truth and imbues his paintings with passion and emotion. It is precisely this act of looking, the patience of perception and his careful, faithful observation of the things around him that distinguishes his art. Now, it is Kansas City’s turn to honor Wilbur Niewald.