Critic’s Picks: Kansas City

by neil thrun

“Glitter, Glisten, Gloss, Floss,” 2016, Dylan Mortimer painted aluminum, glitter suspended in resin. 50″ x 48″ x 6″ Photo: Haw Contemporary

As both an artist and an active pastor, Dylan Mortimer’s artwork is an unusual hybrid of contemporary religious art, blending Pop Art coolness with sincere faith. This tactic has often proved controversial, sometimes offending both conservative religious audiences and the largely secular art world, but Mortimer has always managed to avoid both pandering evangelism and the ironic distance that plagues Pop as a genre. “Regeneration” continues exploring a personal theme that Mortimer only recently began focusing on, his lifelong battle with cystic fibrosis-a disease which at age 37, statistically speaking, should have already killed him. Reflecting on his own mortality, Mortimer’s sculptures use images of lungs alongside Nike Air Jordans, exploring air as a metaphor for life and spirit. Known for his elaborate cardboard and glitter sculptures, “Regeneration” will debut a series of sculptures made from fabricated metal and glitter. While Pop Art and glitter might seem like an odd language to explore themes as personal as faith and illness, Mortimer uses his art like a billboard, forcing viewers to consider ideas that are seldom discussed in public. “Regeneration” is on view at Haw Contemporary from November 11 – December 31, 2016.

“Chinese Imposter #5,” 2012, Roger Shimomura, Acyrilic on canvas, 54″ x 54″ Photo: courtesy the artist and Belger Arts Center

For over 40 years, Roger Shimomura has been recording history through his poignant, satirical Pop Art paintings. Juxtaposing imagery from American cartoons and traditional Japanese prints with memories of internment camps, Shimomura invented a form of Pop that is brutally honest and sometimes heartbreaking while still keeping some of Pop’s banal, absurdist humor. In his paintings, Pikachu, Superman and Sailor Moon stand alongside samurai and George Washington, but often Shimomura puts his own face on these iconic characters. Despite being a third generation Japanese American, as a child Shimomura spent much of WWII at Minidoka, an internment camp in the remote desert of Idaho, an experience that has shaped much of his painting career. Shimomura has spent most of his artistic career living in Lawrence, Kansas, where he taught at the University of Kansas Lawrence for over 35 years. He is surely one of the region’s most famous living artists and, having taught so many students, has become something of a local hero, but “Roger Shimomura: An American Knock-Off” will be one of the artist’s first major solo exhibitions in Kansas City. The exhibition runs at the Belger Arts Center through January 21, 2017.

“Staten Island,” 1996, Siah Armajani, Balsa wood, plastic, paint
34½” x 54¾” x 15 5⁄8″
Photo: courtesy of the artist and Alexander Gray Associates, New York ©2016 Siah Armajani / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Larry Marcus

Internationally renowned architect and sculptor Siah Armajani is perhaps best known for his large architectural works like the 1996 Atlanta Olympics torch cauldron and tower, but “Siah Armajani: Bridge Builder” at the Kemper Museum, instead shows off over 50 years of sculptures, maquettes and drawings solely on the theme of bridges. Born in Tehran, Iran in 1939 during a tumultuous period of war, occupations and revolutions, Armajani immigrated to the United States at the age of 21 to study architecture. It was during his time at Manchester College that Armajani started using the bridge as a symbol of human connection and democracy. “Bridge Builder” contains over 30 artworks documenting Armajani’s 50-year conceptual fascination and evolution with the bridge form, including a maquette for the absurdist sculpture Bridge over Tree from 1970, alongside contemporary work like 2016’s Kansas City Bridge No.2. Armajani’s bridge sculptures are whimsical, even anti-architectural, preferring to explore symbolic meanings rather than serve as blueprints for real constructions. More philosophical than political, they are idealized sculptures seeking eternal, universal meanings. “Siah Armajani: Bridge Builder” at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art runs through January 22, 2017.

“Cell Tower, Immanuel Baptist Church KC,” 2015, Art Miller, Archival Pigment Prints, 20″ x 30″ Photo: courtesy Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art

Art Miller has been photographing the urban decay of the Kansas City region since 1985, having been drawn to photography after many of his favorite buildings were demolished. In “Transformed,” he narrows his view to focus on a common but rarely noticed phenomenon, the conversion of abandoned retail spaces into churches. Miller documents a unique colloquial architecture, showing us empty parking lots and crumbling Walmarts adorned with makeshift crucifixes. These blighted strip malls and big box stores are the perfect location for small evangelical churches, who preach against materialism and often believe that the end times have already begun. To many of these congregations, poverty and urban decay are a sign of the imminent coming of the Kingdom of Heaven; ashes to ashes and dust to dust, an apocalypse in slow motion. “Transformed” explores the picturesque, an 18th-century European aesthetic of finding beauty in decay, a romantic and tragic notion that all things must come to an end. But instead of admiring crumbling castles and cliffs, Miller’s photos look to crumbling pavement and Kmarts, and the very American beliefs of apocalyptic Christianity. Art Miller’s “Transformed” can be seen at Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art from November 4 – December 17, 2016.

“No. 1,” c. 1990 – 2013, Don Antonio Ramirez Sosof
Photo: Garcia Squared Contemporary

Don Antonio Ramirez Sosof’s embroidery depicts local myths, histories and Bible stories in a traditional Tz’utujil Maya style. Born in Guatemala in 1927, Ramirez Sosof worked as a lumberjack for over 30 years. But when the civil war broke out, being in the jungle was dangerous, and he took up a career as a woodcarver. Reportedly, he had a dream in which he saw an embroidery of a beautiful woman, wearing a beautiful embroidered garment. This dream inspired him to learn embroidery and weaving, even though he knew nothing about embroidery and textile work was traditionally a woman’s craft in Mayan culture. Over the course of Ramirez Sosof’s long career, Guatemalan and Mayan textiles changed considerably; traditional Mayan dress became increasingly associated with guerilla factions, and more and more people began wearing imported Western-style clothing. The traditional crafts of embroidery and backstrap weaving shifted their focus to foreign tourism, art and fashion markets. Ramirez Sosof taught his art to his grandson and continued embroidering through blindness until his death in 2014. Dedicated to his life, the exhibition “Don Antonio Ramirez Sosof” features dozens of brightly colored, expressive embroideries by the artist, showing scenes of local life, work, wildlife, history and myth. The show remains on view at Garcia Squared Contemporary through December 29, 2016.

“Untitled,” from the series “Sheets,” Diane Henk, Thread, straight pins, watercolor paint, acid-free tissue on rice paper, 42″x 28″x 5″
Photo: E.G. Schempf

Diane Henk’s artwork has a silent beauty. For her first retrospective, the best of 25 years worth collages and sculptures show off Henk’s delicate, post-minimalist aesthetics. A graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute, Henk has lived across the country, from Anchorage, Alaska to Rochester, New York, volunteering for AmeriCorps VISTA. Inspired by her years living in Gallup, New Mexico within the Navajo Nation, Henk’s sculptures and collages often channel the emptiness of desert landscapes. Henk’s collages, often using little more than blank paper and bookbinding thread, are folded and crumpled becoming more of a sculpture than a picture. Through these minimalist compositions, Henk investigates her religious upbringing, playing with metaphors of whiteness as purity. Other collages take the form of visual poetry, stenciled graphite letters form words, written backwards, forwards, up, down or in circles, forming visual puns and metaphors. The partially legible poems are not linear, but invite the viewer to decipher potential meanings. Curated by Elisabeth Kirsch, the exhibition will also include Henk’s larger sculptures, including The Group, a series of canvas wrapped chairs. “Diane Henk: a Survey from the last 25 years” is on view at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center from December 2, 2016 – January 28, 2017.

—Neil Thrun