The Charlotte Street Foundation
Awards Exhibition 2004

This year, six artists: Michael Converse, Rachel Hayes, Seth Johnson, Jay Norton, and the team of Rie Egawa and Burgess Zbryk, have been selected to receive the Charlotte Street Foundation Award. Working in diverse practices and frameworks, these artists have all made substantial and important contributions to the creative vibrancy and cultural life of Kansas City. The Charlotte Street Foundation Award and exhibition is an opportunity to honor these contributions, and to bring wide attention to these outstanding artists’ work.

Now in its eighth year, the Charlotte Street Foundation has awarded $225,000 in unrestricted cash grants to 46 artists. For the artists who receive them, these awards are more than just grants. Often, the award provides a gift of time for artists to focus on their work. For artists who are able to utilize their awards in this way, there may be no greater gift. In addition to receiving a cash grant, honorees are invited to participate in the annual Charlotte Street Foundation Award exhibition. Over time, the community interest, prestige and critical dialogue surrounding this exhibition have swelled, so that it has become an increasingly valuable resource for artists seeking to develop their work both creatively and professionally.

The artists chosen for awards this year represent a wide range of aesthetic sensibilities, and as a result, there are many ways of thinking about this exhibition. If, for example, one approaches it thematically, two distinct camps of artists are likely to emerge: in one would be those utilizing a generally bright palette, abstract vocabulary, and formal approach to design; and in the other, artists with a more gothic sensibility and overtly psychological content. It is worth emphasizing, though, that themes and styles are not what brought the artists in this exhibition together—and what makes this year’s Charlotte Street exhibition remarkable is the strength with which each artist’s work stands and speaks on its own. The visual arts community in Kansas City is at a coming of age moment—new galleries, grants, and cultural programs have contributed to an expanding arts infrastructure—and the artists are electric! This year’s Charlotte Street Foundation Award exhibition truly highlights some of the most exciting work Kansas City has to offer—to our own community in local venues, and on the national stage. For the artists, patrons, curators, administrators, teachers and cultural workers who make up Kansas City’s growing visual arts community, here is an occasion to celebrate.

Rachel Hayes

You know Rachel Hayes’ work already if you saw the giant splash of brightly colored fabric and vinyl cascading over Bartle Hall’s skywalk this summer as part of Kansas City’s 2004 Avenue of the Arts. This work, which, in the spirit of Christo and Jean Claude, required some 2000 yards of fabric carefully sewn and painstakingly installed, represented Hayes’ first monumental-scale public art project. For Hayes, it also served as a test of evolving ideas about color, scale, and structure, which she plans to further develop as an entering graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University this fall.

Hayes’ artistic practice is a blend of painterly, sculptural, and environmental concerns. In the mode of a painter whose medium is fabric, Hayes’ process involves endless experimentation with the formal qualities of color and line. To create a piece entitled Palate Expansion (2003), for example, Hayes stitched together 40 rainbow-striped vinyl placemats from a discount store, and then overlaid them with her own color palette of translucent vinyls and fabrics in order to achieve dynamic visual effects. As she works more frequently with the medium of installation, however, Hayes is increasingly energized by the potential of her work to intervene in a space and suggest physical pathways for the viewer. For her work at Grand Arts, Hayes has created a site-specific installation based on a piece from 2003 entitled Billow Wall. As its title suggests, Billow Wall is a fabric and vinyl curtain of architectural proportion. Viewers encountering the mammoth curtain in a gallery space may initially experience some befuddlement; what is one supposed to do in front of this wall? Hayes hopes that viewers will seize the opportunity to rethink the space that they themselves occupy as bodies. In this way, Hayes’ work evokes the minimalist gestalt of sculptors like Robert Morris and Richard Serra; a key difference being that when Hayes works are brushed up against or pushed, they move.

Conceptually, Hayes is keenly aware of the loaded history of her medium—that is, the role of fabric as a signifier of gender, fashion, decoration and so much else. For Hayes, though, this rich and often-revised history brings as much opportunity as challenge—to sort through, for example, descriptions of her work as ‘feminine’ and ‘seductive’—labels about which the artist, and more generally, the art world, remain ambivalent.

For her part, Hayes is drawn to fabric as a medium of infinite mutability. Whether her work speaks more as abstract painting or as minimalist-inspired sculpture is, at any given moment, up to Hayes. But Hayes, in turn, prefers to leave much to the individual experience of the viewer. “I revel in the different interpretations of my art,” says Hayes — and so do her viewers.

Egawa + Zbryk

The design team of Rie Egawa and Burgess Zbryk has received international honors for their playful objects and elegant furniture designs. Inspired by the work of modernist visionaries such as Alexander Calder, Buckminster Fuller and Eero Saarinen, Egawa + Zbyrk create original pieces in a signature style that is one part homage and two parts invention.

Among Egawa + Zbyrk’s most visible and memorable designs is the Puzzle Screen, an interlocking set of twin-oblong shapes that can be stacked and re-arranged in variable dimensions. While functional as a room-divider, The Puzzle Screen is most striking for its ability to evoke optical effects: even prolonged looking does not deaden the sense that one has just happened upon a spontaneous fluttering of wings.

More recently, Egawa + Zbryk debuted the Sweater Lamp—a set of fluorescent tube lights “clothed” in a soft and brightly-colored hand-knitted cover. For the Charlotte St. exhibition, Egawa + Zbryk further developed the Sweater Lamp concept to create an eye-catching site-specific light installation for the window of Grand Arts. Like a fanciful circuitry for some unknown machine, the installation evokes both logic and sensuality through a sheathing of technology in the organic. Visitors beaconed to the installation by its warm glow and tactile quality may be surprised at the artists’ invitation to go ahead and touch it—however, in this case it is precisely Egawa and Zbryk’s aim to subvert the air of cool reserve we’ve come to expect from objects of “good design.”

Egawa + Zbryk like to stress that although they are influenced by the clean lines and direct approach of modernism, their personal strategy reverses the modernist maxim that form ought to follow function. The artists’ installation for the Charlotte St. exhibition exemplifies this thinking. Egawa describes the tubular forms of the piece as looking like “glowing alien worms or giant colorful intestines.” The ability of these delightful tubes to light up a room or a dark city block comes second, according to Egawa: “We are always more interested in aesthetics than functions.”

Jay Norton

Jay Norton creates iconic images of the American dream gone horribly wrong. Cautionary and elegiac in the same breath, Norton’s paintings confront social ills such as racial inequality and abuse of power head-on, through images that are often as arresting as they are sly in their oblique treatment of familiar subjects.

Norton is a self-taught artist who began painting in 1996. It is also worth noting that Norton’s daytime profession is as a criminal defense attorney. How or even if this figures into Norton’s artwork is open to speculation. When asked, he laughs it off and says that his job just makes him more cynical. Nevertheless, even a cursory look at Norton’s oeuvre clearly shows the broad concerns of one occupation bleeding into another.

Thus, the subjects of Norton’s paintings are almost always the blunted, the caught, the outlawed and the disempowered. In Believe, from 2003, a beefy, gas-masked man clenches non-existent fists: his arms have been severed at the wrist in a brutal and perhaps self-inflicted act of either punishment or resistance. Behind him, hand-written truisms suggest imminent psychic meltdown: It’s too late. It’s too late. It’s too late….They hate you….Seriously, your ass looks good in those jeans.

Like the man in the gas mask, Norton’s protagonists exist in environments too toxic to ingest. Breakdown, 2004, portrays a bloated (and again, masked) Adamic figure despairing in a lush garden reminiscent of Rousseau or Rockman. The garden may be green, but so is the placid sky above—a thick death ether bound to choke off anything that dares hover there too long.

In Jay Norton’s paintings, hope is an elusive thing. When it surfaces, it appears like a vision—like that metaphorical cherry pie which tempts us lowly earth-goers from its spot in a too-blue sky. In La Carga (2003) a man on the ground takes aim at this pie with a gun, begging the Seussian question: What would it mean to shoot this pie, and shoot it right out of the sky? A thought in response: Maybe then, at least, everyone could get a piece.

Michael Converse

To view the drawings, paintings, and found object sculptures of Michael Converse is to be initiated into an exploration of the dark parts of the human psyche. With decay as an overarching theme that binds the artist’s materials (found objects, paints, glitter, markers and things otherwise close at hand) to his subjects (sexual torture, impotence, power, atrocity, perversion) Converse’s works set the scene for their own demise. Thus, despite their apparent status as static objects, Converse’s two and three-dimensional works have as much in common with the performance props of Joseph Beuys and Mike Kelley as they do with the inspired drawings of R. Crumb or David Shrigley.

Converse’s installation for the Charlotte Street exhibition is a site-specific adaptation of a large-scale work that began in his studio as just a few sheets of notebook-sized paper taped to a wall. Over time, these few sheets propagated and spread to cover every vertical surface of Converse’s studio, including the windows. The resulting work is a sprawling galaxy of dense, churling forms that threaten to overtake any space in the manner of a mold or bacteria left unchecked. Close looking at this work invites a endless stream of associations with other contemporary artists: bloated, amputated forms and used-up bubblegum colors recall the paintings of Philip Guston, while tenuous, organic structures and the spill of forms across surface bring to mind the intricate cosmologies of Matthew Ritchie. With or without these comparisons, though, Converse’s visual language is all his own. Where else have you seen, for example, the puckered and sagging flesh of a bright-eyed woman in a tri-cornered hat, unapologetically naked, with a candle in one hand and a knowing-looking parrot hovering nearby?

Intimate, daring, and emotionally charged, Converse’s works map a landscape of abject trauma and transformation that speaks to both individual and collective experiences. Converse describes his approach as one of “cordial pathos” mixed with “aesthetic malignancy.” In spite or perhaps because of this approach, Converse’s works can also be read as potent affirmations of lived experience, and of the power of the creative impulse. From mold, we are reminded, comes penicillin.

Seth Johnson

A personal and scholarly investigation of mortality and the role of violence in culture is at the center of Seth Johnson’s artistic practice. Culling from the languages and soundscapes of popular media, punk, heavy metal, eastern religion, and countless other sources, Johnson’s work examines the ritual, symbolic, and social codings of violence as a defining force within groups.

Since graduating from the Kansas City Art Institute in 2001, Johnson has cultivated a graphic style in his work that is easily recognizable. Smooth, curvilinear, and deceptively ‘easy to digest,’ this style is used by Johnson to create impressively detailed hand-drawn images depicting scenes of over-the-top gore and violence. In these works, the abject image (such as a pair of corpses entwined) is purposely made to compete with a heavily stylized surface. For Johnson, this tension references dominant but opposing ideas concerning, on the one hand, the denial of the body and its viscera, and on the other, the packaging of violence for mass consumption in our culture.

For the Charlotte Street exhibition, Johnson has created a multimedia installation which locates the conceptual and aesthetic concerns of previous works within an increasingly involved philosophical framework. The installation, entitled Wrathful Offering, is an invocation of the power of language, sound and symbol to describe what Johnson refers to as “the unspeakable.” Drawing from two distant points—death metal music in the west and Vajrayana Buddhist symbols of wrath and weaponry in the east—Johnson observes a connection between the sub-lingual utterances and visceral imagery invoked in both. In Buddhist symbology, images of destruction and sacrifice are meant to serve an inoculating function against evil. By contrast, in American media and popular culture, the case is frequently made that violence only begets more violence; which is to say that a disturbing song lyric can be blamed for inciting a heinous crime, and further, the fear of such a lyric can (in 2004!) cause top-selling albums to be censored from public library shelves.

With Wrathful Offering, Johnson ponders what could be gained from a more nuanced understanding of violence as a socially and culturally constructed phenomenon. Why, for example, are we inclined to accept violence in certain aspects of culture but reject it in others? And could the representations of violence which are so prolific in this culture be reclaimed or reinterpreted to a more meaningful end?

Stacy Switzer
Grand Arts Artistic Director
October 2004



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