Fast: Five Years at Grand Arts

Fast marks Grand Arts' five-year anniversary. The little word resounds with the collision of "future" and "past"; it acknowledges that the last half-decade of art history has been characterized by exceptionally rapid change; and, finally, as an extreme contraction of the word "forecast," it promises a sneak peak at what's next. Given Grand Arts' unique role in introducing a wide range of the most contemporary of contemporary art to Kansas City audiences, it makes sense that the title of this exhibition should be a bit of postmodernist word-play.

Six years ago, 1819 Grand Boulevard was the street address of an abandoned auto shop. Although the prospect of converting the site into co-directors Margaret Silva and Sean Kelley's dream of a non-profit exhibition-and-studio space drove Kelley to the verge of an aesthetic breakdown, Silva's cooler head prevailed. She saw past the rabbit warren of administrative cubicles lined with fake wood paneling. She overlooked the moldy shag carpet and the cratered linoleum. She puzzled only briefly over the inexplicable abundance of cracked and stained plumbing fixtures. (The latter ironically anticipated the harrowingly institutional sculpture Walter Zimmerman would exhibit in the same space five-and-a-half years later.) Silva noted that the building's square footage was evenly divided between garage and office space, that its foundation was solid, that the available electrical service was enough to power a full shop, and that the property included a parking lot.

These issues were critical. As urban planner Lewis Mumford pointed out in Art and Technics, "A building . . . by its very presence cannot help saying something. Even in the plainest esthetic choices of materials, or of proportions, the builder reveals what manner of man he is and what sort of community he is serving." From the outset, one of Grand Arts' primary aims has been to blur the line between making and exhibiting art. In addition to helping artists pursue otherwise unrealizable ambitions, Silva and Kelley wanted to allow the public as much access to the processes of art-making as to the completed artworks themselves. Today a first-time visitor can read immediately what sort of space Grand Arts is and what sort of community it hopes to serve; the roll-up industrial doors opening onto the fabrication studio are only steps away from the elegant glassed entry into the exhibition space.

In After the End of Art (1997), critic Arthur Danto refers to the current artistic era as one of "radical pluralism." With its lack of a central focus, the art world finds itself, according to Danto, in a "period of information disorder" that he also describes as "a period of quite perfect freedom." If anything defines the last twenty-five years, he concludes, it is that it has been a time of "tremendous experimental productiveness."

A review of the last five years at Grand Arts reveals a virtual roll call of radical pluralists. Through the strategy of developing an exhibition schedule in response to artists' proposals, the agenda at Grand Arts has essentially been set by the artists themselves, with each new exhibition representing a wholly individual pursuit.

The fine arts, like the sciences, cannot evolve without experimentation, and experimentation cannot take place without resources. The projects Grand Arts has exhibited could not have been envisioned by the artists, let alone carried out, without significant financial, technical and logistical support. Most of the physical construction of the artwork has taken place in the 5,000-square-foot fabrication studio, under the guidance of sculptor Larry Buechel, with additional services contracted from the Kansas City business community or beyond. Because Grand Arts is a non-profit institution, the commercial viability, that is, the sales value, of the resulting work has not been an issue. Grand Arts' funding of this crucial experimental phase of art-making has helped fill the gap, the chasm, really left by the demise of support agencies like the National Endowment for the Arts.

Though Grand Arts' audience is for the most part regional, the artists are national and even international. From New York City, painter Glenn Goldberg came to Kansas City to see if his dazzling pattern-making would effectively transfer to blown glass, and filmmaker Beth B made her first foray into monumental sculpture. Alice Aycock fabricated a new body of major-scale machines metaphorically inhabited by magic and myth. Tim Rollins & the K.O.S. introduced Kansas City youth-at-risk to a unique process of uncovering and graphically interpreting contemporary truths in classical literature. Via glass, light, and illusionistic, sci-fi architecture, the B-Team created an environment that had to be entered and traversed to be experienced. Kirsten Mosher's models, video, and sculpture explored the non-stop, though often unconscious, information exchange that takes place between people and their urban or otherwise communal surroundings.

San Francisco photographic artist Kimberly Austin constructed giant alphabet blocks surfaced with images elemental to gender identification. Japanese sculptor Hirokazu Fukawa utilized the latest gravestone technology to etch fragments of an autistic man's thoughts onto marble. Just before his death from AIDS, Los Angeles video artist Bradley Braverman completed the most powerful work of his career: a four-vignette exploration of "deviant" sexual practices.

Fiber artist Jane Lackey came from Michigan to expand her interest in thread into a sculptural study of chromosomes. Chicago clothing designer and performance artist Nick Cave created multiple museum-like displays of objects relevant to human physical identity and adornment. Minneapolis sculptor Chris Larson built a massive wooden machine, reminiscent of a Middle Ages construction, that occupied the gallery volumetrically as well as aromatically. Philadelphia's Stuart Netsky knitted a mile-long scarf as commentary on, and tribute to, the famous earthwork by Walter de Maria. Texas artist James Drake broke from his previous focus on male interaction and documented the complex alphabet of body and hand gestures utilized by women outside an El Paso prison to communicate with the men inside. Britain's Isaac Julien had the heady experience of seeing a feature-length film project come to fruition in three months instead of three years. Grand Arts provided substantial backing for The GALA Committee project (born from Mel Chin's In the Name of the Place), which inserted site-specific artworks into sets of the prime-time television program "Melrose Place." This project marked the first instance of thorough-going collaboration between the fine arts and commercial television, and, in the words of critic Joshua Decter, "a truly new type of cultural fusion had been inaugurated."

Exhibitions by Kansas City-based artists included Lester Goldman's completion of the third and final phase of his decade-long multimedia-and-performance project, The Latest Blow to Mirth; Jeff Aeling's six-part sculpture-and-painting installation addressing The Passage of the Millennium; Michael Rees' imaginary anatomies executed via computerized stereolithography; Jim Leedy's epic three-dimensional meditation on War, and Larry Buechel's assembly of high-tech sculpture related to vision and optics.

Grand Arts used occasions when the shop was tied up with a future exhibition (e.g., the year-long Leedy project), to present existing work by artists who hadn't been shown in Kansas City: Rex Yuasa's neo-color-field paintings, Mel Kendrick's wooden sculptures and their resin "clones," China Marks' operatic visual narratives, and Seton Smith's dreamy, near-hallucinogenic photographs of ordinary objects in Paris hotels.

As this extraordinary range of pursuits demonstrates, the visual arts have never had a more fertile present and future than now. In all the debates over the last century about what art is and isn't, and about which art movements should or shouldn't predominate, it is often forgotten that the essential component of artistic vision is just that: vision. Artists excel at what is referred to in the jargon of corporate creativity as "thinking outside the box." They are good at looking at what really is: into the darkness, over the horizon, beyond what is taken for granted, past what is assumed to be. And then reporting back. Right now it's hard to imagine a more valuable service.

With upcoming exhibitions by artists as diverse as Dennis Oppenheim, Schatz & Chan, John Newman, Roxy Paine, the de la Torre brothers, and Vito Acconci, Grand Arts continues to maintain according to its "non-manifesto" manifesto, its "anti-style" house style an environment in which, to return again to Danto: "artists, liberated from the burden of history [and from stifling real-world constraints], are free to make art in whatever way they wish . . ."

Roberta Lord
May, 2000
New York, NY

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