2009 Charlotte Street Foundation Visual Artist Awards Essay

11/14/2009 - 03/27/2010

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2009 Charlotte Street Foundation Visual Artist Awards

Raechell Smith

During the past year, the art world has encountered significant shifts in response to the global economy’s jagged rifts, but 2009 has been a good year for at least 3 of the more than 6,000 local artists, this number according to the commissioned report “The Status of Artists in Kansas City.”

Dylan Mortimer, Jaimie Warren, and Andrzej Zielinski, all 30ish give or take a few years, spent some or all of their formative years as artists in Kansas City and they all emit a certain and increasingly recognizable generational attitude. They are more confident than a previous decade’s generation ever was about the viability of launching and sustaining a credible art career in Kansas City.

It’s likely that each of these artists has benefited from the pioneering, DIY spirit that Kansas City has become known for, taking full advantage of the opportunities that exist and creating others along the way. Their savvy exploitation of technology and all that the information age has to offer is a posture of comfort given that they’ve only really known artmaking in the digital age. And, they’ve simultaneously come of age as artists as Kansas City has come of age as a vibrant art community. In their regard of Kansas City, there is both ease of arrival, as in the increasingly frequent visits from curators, collectors, museum visitors, and other artists, and ease of departure, as in the growing number of opportunities for artists to travel and exhibit work nationally and internationally.

It’s a remarkable and uncertain time in the art world at large. The opportunity to keep pace with the emerging careers of these three artists over the past several months as they created new work for the exhibition has convinced me that the enthusiasm and ambition of this next generation of artists offers much to behold in the coming years.

Monday 10:30 a.m.

Dylan Mortimer and I are sitting in his studio. I appreciate it as a moment when context and content are in complete alignment. Like his father before him, Dylan is a full-time minister and his artist studio is tucked away on the top floor of the Rivercity Community Church, one of a handful of artist studios allocated space in the church where both his professional practices take shape. Since 2002, Mortimer’s work has explored expressions of Christian faith that test the viewer’s range of beliefs and their acceptance of or resistance to faith-based messages. He has cleverly mined systems of public signage, from stained-glass windows and kiosks to telephone booths, to style his own unique brand of messaging.

In 2008, Mortimer created quite a stir by inserting a shortened telephone call booth, newly retro-fitted as a prayer booth for public use, into an empty space on a New York city sidewalk. Reactions to this intervention, from the Christian Science Monitor, NPR, and individuals alike, still linger on the web, bearing witness to the wide range of human emotions it stirred – curiosity, reflection, intolerance, outrage.

Mortimer understands these responses, he anticipates them, provokes them even. In more recent works, he turns from the public arena to face an indoor audience well-versed in contemporary visual art and popular culture but no less discomforted by expressions of faith than the general public. This is no surprise as there is very little space for religion in contemporary visual art. As we sit in the studio, we try to come up with a few examples but the artists that come to mind, like Bill Viola, are much more interested in spirituality than religion.

The more open, compelling expressions of faith, Mortimer quickly points out, are not those of visual artists but of musicians. I can almost see the artist before me training his focus and zooming in more closely. He has found another source to mine for his art in the attitudes and culture of the Hip Hop music he’s listened to since his teens, where harsh daily realities sometimes go head to head with fervent hopes for grace, God, and gratitude.

One part craft aisle glitter and lit-from-within Christmas lights and one part Psalm 23, the one that goes “The Lord is my Shepherd, I Shall Not Want,” God Hooks My Ass Up! translates a common prayer into crude street vernacular. In Mortimer’s blend of cultures and values, there is sly navigation between sincerity and sarcasm. There is also honest recognition that contemporary seekers might want comforts of materialism, read “cash,” over spiritualism. Add in one part logo for Hip Hop’s No Limit Records label, with its bling-adorned, relief-style military tank, Fuck You Satan! is a baroque, cardboard call out which is aimed directly at the human conditions associated with embattled street life, the wars fought within each of us, or the larger-than-life ones fought on the soils of foreign lands, or perhaps all three. There is no slick artifice here, just the results of what one man can accomplish with his words, his deeds, his hands, and a great deal of glitter.

Thursday 4:30 p.m.

When art writers who don’t know Jaimie Warren describe her work, they often talk about the different personas or identities assumed by the artist making photographs and orchestrating the multi-disciplinary, high-camp, no-age-limits variety/talent show known as Whoop Dee Doo, drawing comparisons to a lineage of female photographers like Nikki S. Lee and Cindy Sherman. But if you know Warren, you understand that it’s not a matter of costume but one of intensity and one of entertainment value. Cindy Sherman is to Meryl Streep as Jaimie Warren is to Roseanne Barr on Halloween night! It’s intensified, see what I mean? And, more importantly, it’s amusing.

In terms of art production and creative hi-jinx, Warren has been making it, exhibiting it, participating with it, encouraging it, and collaborating on it with the same waxing and waning group of artist friends since her early 20s. Rarely do sensitive questions of authorship and artistic contribution create ruffles it seems, it all just blends together in a way that has individual and collective benefits that are shared as much as possible. As Warren is fond of saying “when you hang out with the same people for long enough, you know how to make them laugh and you build up a shared sense of humor.” There may even be the cultivation of a certain collective aesthetic at play as well, but I’ll come back to that in a moment.

On this day, the studio has come to me. It happens more frequently these days, even if an artist is working in a medium other than digital photography, as Warren does. Everything they need to show you or reference is on their laptop, including their archive of images, their resume and critical reviews, video clips of performances or exhibitions, their website, their calendar, the email they just got with the dates of their upcoming deadlines for projects in Malmo, Sweden or Chicago or New York. This is Jaimie Warren’s studio, remember. If one works it right, these are also the exact strategies and tools that help artists like Warren catapult their careers outside of Kansas City. Geographic coordinates just don’t have the same border-like meaning they once did.

We are doing like 4 or 5 things at once, Warren style, while laughing: we’re reviewing her growing resume which wants for some editorial revision, discussing dates, looking at recent work, thinking out loud about framing and installation details, and projecting ideas about the opening reception. We’re also talking about the photographs and about the ever-evolving performance troupe Whoop Dee Doo, as we’ve been doing for years. It’s still tricky to figure out exactly where the dividing line is or if there really is one at all.

Warren is provocateur of sorts in both arenas of production, whether she’s egging others on, as she does in the photograph Untitled (Tete is Scared) or hamming it up for the camera, like she does in Untitled (Self Portrait, Dinosaur Mouth). Her larger-scale forays into organizing for art sake, for entertainment sake began years ago with Review magazine parties, continued with the hard-to-describe Your Face collaborations with fellow artist Seth Johnson, and gained momentum with herself cast into a fictionalized, frenzied groupie scene which played out among the audience of a Chicago performance by SSION, an art band with a cult following led by artist friend Cody Critcheloe. This is where and when Warren discovered Chic-A-Go-Go, a public access kids television show, that inspired Warren’s fun-loving, weirdo world of Whoop Dee Doo.

And that collective aesthetic I mentioned earlier might just be that go all out, paint your face, crafty camper, anything goes style you see in many of Warren’s photographs, at a Whoop Dee Doo show, in a SSION music video, through the window of Peggy Noland’s design shop on 18th Street, or in Ari Fish’s runway ensemble on episode one of this year’s Project Runway competition. The red carpet that the young cognoscenti are walking here is Kansas City Style. So, maybe Project Runway’s Nina Garcia and her cohorts just don’t get it…yet.

Wednesday 1:00 p.m.

I’m not exactly sure what I had in mind, but this isn’t what I expected for a couple of reasons. Andrzej Zielinski’s studio is not centrally located. I needed a map, detailed directions, and patience. Zielinski’s studio needs are simple and it’s a good thing because he’ll be maintaining two of them for the coming year. The one in Kansas City and another in Brooklyn, New York where he will paint, prepare for a one-person exhibition in New York, and have studio visits with as many people as he can get through the door.

Since before 2004, when he graduated from Yale University with an M.F.A. degree, Zielinski has created still-life paintings of singular, fairly non-aesthetic objects. The more or less to scale depictions of the machines we touch on a daily basis – laptop computers, ATM machines, paper shredders – set up a direct relationship with the viewer. Each machine had its own unique and quirky personality suggested by what some writers have referred to as the language of caricature.

Clearly, Zielinski is interested in the human relationship to machines associated with communication exchange and the wide-open possibilities of the computer-generated digital age. And he has a solid footing with his confidant, playful and energetic painterly investigations into abstraction and realism, even if it’s an implausible kind of realism. When Zielinski talks about his artistic interest in machines, he describes his early abstract paintings based on binary code, says something I don’t quite catch about information theory, and then he says he found the paintings boring, they needed justification. He’s certainly come a long way since then.

Zielinski’s new paintings are a shift times three. The palette has shifted, once again, this one combining the earlier bright confetti hues with the somber shades of gray and black. The scale has really shifted. Now, the paintings are comprised of multiple panels fitted together and instead of the viewer looking straight on at the painting, they look up into them. And, here’s where the next shift gets interesting. The machines he is painting now are no longer human scale, known through touch and familiar by use. They are the enormous but invisible and imminently pervasive satellites that, on a daily basis, predict our weather, track and guide our location, connect our calls, transmit our broadcasts, and a few other things we probably don’t want to know about.

The only way to see a satellite is to look up and through an ocular lens. As Zielinski points out, looking to the heavens is an ancient human endeavor. While these satellites may represent the pinnacle of contemporary technology and serve as conduits of information, they also slide nicely into a tradition of artists grappling with the looming and/or seemingly benign presence of machines, industries, and possibilities ushered in through human discovery and progress.

As Zielinski has been occupied with painting these satellites, he’s also been thinking about them and absorbing their facts and anecdotes: how much they cost, who pays for them, who owns them, how they’re used, how they’re fueled, how they function, the outcomes when they don’t function, what happens to them when they’re no longer useful. The answers are all very interesting. He has me really thinking about them.