2003 Charlotte Street Foundation Visual Artist Awards Essay

11/15/2003 - 12/19/2003

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The 2003 Charlotte Street Foundation Awards
Heather Lustfeldt

2003 marks the seventh year of the Charlotte Street Foundation Awards, established in 1997 to recognize outstanding work by visual artists in Kansas City.  In 2003, a diverse group of seven committed individuals join the ranks of 41 Kansas City artists who have received recognition through this annual, unrestricted cash award initiative which has bestowed $183,000 of direct support to artists since its inception. To receive the award is an honor that also provides artists with an opportunity to show new work in a professionally organized exhibition, thus garnering recognition and feedback from a large public audience. And most importantly, the award is an opportunity for artists to challenge themselves in new ways, to take risks, and to create extraordinary work that exceeds their own expectations, engaging a growing community of supporters who anticipate this annual celebration of the visual arts in Kansas City.

The 2003 Charlotte Street Foundation Awards exhibition at the H&R Block Artspace at the Kansas City Art Institute features the artists: Leo Esquivel, Jennifer Field, Gear, Art Miller, Dean Mitchell, Donald Ross “Scribe”, and Jim Leedy, who is honored with the 2003 Lifetime Achievement Award.  A range of creative approaches – from the visual musings of a seasoned formalist, to the graphically inspired imagery of an emerging artist – envisage experiences of life, thought and perception with fresh, varied perspectives.

Ideas of space – public, private, social, psychological, physical – are evident and at play in the art.  For example, Gear’s site-specific wall painting delivers an emblazoned public message by way of brash political critique.  In contrast, Art Miller deliberately constructs ethically challenging situations in his new series of photographs, eliciting a study in the understanding, expectation and politics of personal privacy.  Through subtle social commentary, Dean Mitchell depicts isolation and disconnection in contemporary urban society in a range of quietly provocative paintings and watercolors. And delving more deeply into the space of imagination and dreams are the works of Donald Ross “Scribe” and Leo Esquivel.  Ross commingles metaphor, scriptural reference and animation within personally grounded expressions intended to be both self-revelatory and publicly accessible, while Esquivel constructs a liminal psychological space via intentionally ambiguous works largely inspired by dreams, memory and identity.  Earth and the cosmos are key subjects for both Jennifer Field and Jim Leedy, who blend their unique philosophies into compositions referencing nature. In her collages of metal and tin, Field creates derivations of idealized, harmonic landscapes that also evoke industry. And through an expansive, enveloping series of visceral, mixed media paintings, Jim Leedy images the cosmos with luminous color and flickering light on extraordinarily rich surfaces.

Gear

Gear is recognized in Kansas City and beyond for his public murals, many of which have been commissioned over the past eight years.  He began making graffiti in 1985, learning about graffiti culture and style by watching and working with more experienced writers, eventually developing his style through years of practice.  His concept has matured from an angry, destructive mentality, to an informed and refined practice veering into so-called “conventional” art.
Despite a brief period at the Kansas City Art Institute, from 1993-1994, Gear regards his continuing process of artistic growth, awareness and education to be an exercise in questioning himself and his intentions as an artist, writer and message maker.  Among his influences, he notes legendary graffiti writer/artist Dondi White (1961-1998), one of the first graffiti writers to segue into gallery exhibition.  Ambitions for public recognition, ambivalence toward societal institutions and suspicion and disdain for mainstream media, public advertising and political propaganda inform Gear’s art.   His current artistic practice is a transitional, uncomfortable hybrid between his roots in graffiti traditions and his emergence into an established art world.

For the 2003 Charlotte Street Foundation Awards exhibition, Gear executed a site-specific wall piece with spray paint, fusing his fluid, organic style with an expository critique of U.S. foreign policy related to the current situation in the Middle East.  Blending iconography including melting gas masks, oozing toxic sludge, a fractured American flag, and phallus, Gear expresses his outrage and distrust of political rhetoric, policy and swagger, particularly aimed at the “war on terror.” An antagonistic, sarcastic overtone pervading the work signifies a defiance of authority, and an unwillingness to accept so-called truths without question.

Art Miller
As an independent art photographer since 1984, Art Miller approaches his work within a social realist context, documenting aspects of contemporary culture and society that have included disquieting images of historical urban architecture, and most recently, aspects of gay culture.

Miller’s well-known photographic series of Bears, a sub-culture of gay men characterized by their “masculine” physicality – hirsute and burly – has evolved from sharply focused depictions of groups and individuals within public contexts, to softly focused portraits within private interiors.  This latter series signifies a shift from an objective, documentary strategy of image-making, to a more subjective, provocative approach. They bridge into Miller’s most recent work – the Habana Series – a curious amalgamation of concepts that evince a radical break into new, risky territory.  Within the seven black and white images comprising the series are blurry figures of men publicly “cruising” along the open corridors of the Habana Inn – a posh gay resort in Oklahoma City – in search of casual sex.  Acting as a regular guest and provocateur, Miller rented a room at the resort several times over a four month period and surveyed the cruisers’ activities, baiting various responses from inside his room.  Hidden cameras capture subtle and blatant voyeurism within ambiguous, eerie images of unidentifiable men, like film noir stills.

The effect of these images is mysterious and unsettling, underlying an important though fine distinction between covert surveillance and overt documentation.  Miller has conveyed his concern to “bring awareness to social and cultural problems” in all of his work, including issues of cultural and gender stereotyping, and economic disparity.  In this case, an eradication of ethics and respect towards personal privacy is of concern, as evinced by recent federal policies encroaching upon rights of privacy, and the increasingly prevalent social phenomenon of recreational surveillance/voyeurism within club contexts. Miller’s subversive actions address the ease at which personal information and one’s image can be gathered and distributed without knowledge or consent, by both official and private citizens.

Dean Mitchell

Dean Mitchell has exhibited his paintings for thirty years both locally and nationally.  His realist style often centers on figures within urban, social contexts, or private settings.  Reflecting his perspective as a black artist, Mitchell’s subject matter has focused on scenes of African- American contemporary life, themes of urban landscape and social psychology.  To support the expansion of realistic representations of African-American life within fine-art institutions is one of Mitchell’s primary goals as an artist.

Although Mitchell received a BFA in graphic design from Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, Ohio, he considers himself, in large part, to be a self-taught artist.  As a youth, he followed his passion to draw and paint despite discouragement from many in the community of Quincy, Florida, where he was raised.  He honed his style through depictions of family members, including his beloved Grandmother, who introduced him to painting with a paint-by-number kit when he was five years old.  Mitchell captures beauty, grace and tension within renditions of land, city, object and figure. He sites the genre paintings of renowned black artist, Henry Tanner (1859-1937), as inspirational to his work, which also shares affinities with the evocative, urban-based paintings by Edward Hopper.  Included in the exhibition, Black Romantic, at the Studio Museum of Harlem in 2001, Mitchell’s work – which has gained wide public appeal – incorporates a range of affirming and troubling emotions and ideas.

Mitchell’s recent work further investigates urban space and social psychology, as epitomized in his unusual loosely painted composition, Shallow Search.  Occupying an elemental urban space, three anonymous figures are immersed in private thought and activity, completely disengaged from one another. A tension and coldness pervade the work, indicative of urban isolation and anonymity.  Another work, No Way Out, depicts the head of a black man rendered behind bars, intended as a metaphorical suggestion of emotional entrapment, frustration and limited opportunity.

D.Ross “Scribe”

The animated, public murals by artist D.Ross, known also as Scribe, are readily recognizable in midtown Kansas City.  Within his recent work, Ross incorporates a menagerie of animal characters developed over the past five years, each as a human surrogate representing a particular, self-referential trait that he inserts in various scenarios.

Influenced by the teachings of his father, a non-denominational minister, Ross intersperses personal iconography, biblical reference, animation and metaphor in works intended as contemporary parables for public audiences, hence the use of his artist name and persona, Scribe.  Through accessible idiom and image, Ross incorporates humor and play in the conveyance of serious messages regarding personal integrity, attainment of knowledge, and adventure.

Philippians 2:2-4 is a site-specific installation incorporating a wall painting, a majestic sculpture of Ross’s primary character, the Rhino as an aviator-hero landing from a parachute flight, and a new series of character drawings.  Investigating his own emotions and preparing for his role as a new father, Ross cross-referenced key themes of flight, landing and ground in specific biblical passages, which inform the installation’s essential themes of growth, transformation, and imagination.  Attributes and vices – strength, fear, ego, loyalty, and boastfulness – underlie Ross’s colorful characters, including the Rhino, Elephant, Beaver, Lion and Rooster, which are depicted upon vintage Vanity Fair fashion illustrations of dandies.  This mischievous appropriation creates an important juxtaposition, balancing an advocacy for morality against an inclination to challenge conventional artistic methodology and propriety – also an integral aspect of Ross’s creative process.

Jennifer Field

Since the mid-1990’s, Jennifer Field has constructed collaged landscapes from collected scraps of metals and tin, including sheet metal, house siding, roofing metal, and sign backing.  These are the predominant materials used in as the crow flies, newly created for this exhibition.  This work is accompanied by a series of small metal collages, collectively representing variations of idealized landscape.

Field envisions and enlivens her landscapes with energy and dynamism, building up layers of a composition through intuitive improvisations that result in a fluid, overall continuity and a balanced reconciliation of varied shape and color.  She describes her process as “crazy-quilting”– piecing together unplanned compositions as an alchemist, transforming the sharp-edged metal cuttings into gold.  By joining the metal cuttings with pop rivets, or affixing them onto panels with nails, the pieces announce an industrial component, complementing a mythical, harmonious space.

as the crow flies is a confluence of core motifs and elements – land, vegetation, and sky – epitomizing Field’s consistent method of conceiving and inventing landscape. Influenced and inspired by world religion, philosophy, art and culture, Field’s eclectic study is based in a non-academic, intuitive sensibility that echoes in her art practice.  Conceptions of iconic beauty and spiritual connection within nature are at constant play, recalling the panoramic, unspoiled visions of nature by Hudson River School painters.  Her stylized ideal pivots the work into a more industrial, contemporary realm – a push and pull of seemingly contradictory sensibilities that none-the-less achieve symbiosis, as in this case, where Field effects a mergence of earth and sky.

Leo Esquivel

Since graduating with a B.F.A. in Printmaking from the Kansas City Art Institute in 1995, Esquivel’s art has taken various forms, including painting, sculpture and installation.  His work has evolved from ironic depictions of familial dysfunction rendered in a style mimicking Norman Rockwell, to poetic, dichotomous narratives based in dreams, memory and technology, with subtexts of desire and fear.

A fusion of material and illusion characterize Esquivel’s pristinely crafted simulations of pillows and beds, with surfaces simultaneously suggesting cold marble and soft down.  Meticulous paintings done by hand on the surfaces of these objects invoke technological process and mass production.  To achieve this, Esquivel relies on the precise, graphic images that he finds, digitally manipulates, then projects and traces directly onto the surfaces.  Like dreams or nightmares, these objects, in the form of pillows and beds, also signify portals into an ephemeral subconscious space fraught with conflict. His most recent pillows – My HeartTu Madre Guerro; and Jack Pot – evoke emotional cynicism, fear, and material desire within depictions of anatomy, bodily injury, and slot-machine fantasy. My Heart, for example, supplants ideas of passion with an illusionistic anatomical heart, eradicating sentiment and emotion in favor of cold, precisionist realism. His identity as a first generation Mexican-American also slips into his art, indirectly referenced in the work titled, Tu Madre Guerro, though specific cultural associations remain ambiguous in Esquivel’s developing style.

Twin Diptych, pendant wall works simulating twin mattresses, depicts highly stylized, manipulated mirror images of centralized floral motifs, one of sumptuous red, the other of sandy camouflage.  The mechanized floral arrangements are suggestively organic, as well, evoking blood and flesh through their rich, dripping color.  The flowers exemplify Esquivel’s tendency to create double entendres by way of introducing the idea of an image or object as differing significantly from what its actual physical form implies.

Jim Leedy

Jim Leedy’s immense impact in Kansas City – by virtue of his prolificacy as an artist, educator, supporter of artists, and key initiator of the Crossroads Art District – is an inspiration for many who continue to benefit from his unequivocal presence.  In appreciation for his years of dedication, love and work in Kansas City, the Charlotte Street Foundation honors Jim Leedy with the 2003 Lifetime Achievement Award.

Leedy’s career as a Professor at the Kansas City Art Institute began in 1966, and continues at present.  Passionate and knowledgeable in far-ranging areas of art and art history, Leedy’s art and teaching are informed by diverse formal, aesthetic and historical references, while remaining open to new ideas and technologies.  Leedy founded the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center in 1985, where he continues to serve as Co-Director, providing opportunities for emerging and established artists alike.

Associated with the Montana clay revolution and like-minded adventurers, Peter Voulkos and Rudy Autio in the 1960’s, Leedy became known internationally for his technical and aesthetic innovations in clay.  Known above all for his highly expressionistic plates and vessels, Leedy’s signature style is embodied in all of his work, including his ceramics, paintings and sculpture.

While inspired by the history of art, including early cave paintings, non-western sculpture, ancient Chinese pottery, Méret Oppenheim, and Abstract Expressionism – Leedy asserts that his best teacher is nature.  His totemic, visceral clay works and assemblages reveal his reverence for nature and the creative spirit within.  Scroll through the Cosmos – a new continuum of enveloping, luminous paintings, spanning 27 feet – image earth and sky through swirling color, light and texture.  Commingling paint and clay within this vast pondering of surface, depth and space, Leedy invents a dynamic, formal scroll conjuring the sublimity of the Universe. Whereas War, exhibited in 2000 at Grand Arts, Kansas City, culminated his horrific experience as a photographer during the Korean War, Scroll through the Cosmos is an affirmation of life, hope, and possibility – indicating yet another new chapter in the expansive oeuvre of Jim Leedy.