Charlotte Street Foundation
Awards Show 2007

When I was invited to visit the studios of this year’s Charlotte Street Foundation Award winners, I had no expectations of what I would see. To my knowledge, Kansas City does not evoke a specific style or way of making art. In hindsight, this was a good thing because I found few commonalities among the work of the four artists—Cody Critcheloe, Jessica Kincaid, Emily Sall and James Trotter—except that they have chosen to live and work in Kansas City, forgoing the bright lights, hustle bustle, and high rents of other cities such as New York or Los Angeles; they all attended the Kansas City Art Institute; two were born in Kentucky (Jessica Kincaid and Cody Critcheloe) and started making work in high school; and three of them have studios in downtown Kansas City. Beyond this, it is difficult to find anything meaningful that connects these artists, and why should there be? Unless artists are collaborating or are part of a collective, one shouldn’t expect their work to bear similarities, nor can regional sensibilities ever characterize all of the artists in a particular city. But if I had to find a point of connection, which as a curator I am trained to do, I suppose I find these artists linked through a process of drawing. They all incorporate the act of drawing, whether leading up to something else or as the final product itself. Although this observation may seem trite or insignificant, I actually found it refreshing to encounter a group of artists who remain faithful to the artist’s hand as a source of creation. Even though drawing is the first thing you learn to do in art school, it is increasingly rare these days. Not surprisingly, their forms vary immensely: from Emily Sall’s linear geometric abstractions to Jessica Kincaid’s colored pencil drawings in preparation for her pictorial beadworks, to Cody Critcheloe’s pencil drawings that become liner notes and scenes for his album and music videos, to James Trotter’s universe of vintage toys, cartoon characters and doodles.

Jessica Kincaid is a paradox. Out of all of the artists included in this group, she is the only with an MFA, yet her small beaded pictures are distinctly un-academic, more closely resembling “outsider art.” Her work, in fact, stems from a childhood hobby and doesn’t appear “outsiderish” simply because she is using beads. Several other contemporary artists, including Liza Lou or Kori Newkirk, for example, use beads as their primary medium. Rather, Kincaid’s subjects eschew any sort of contemporary trends, conventions or irony. This in combination with their small scale, the historical significance of beads in ancient civilizations (especially African and Native American cultures) and the traditions of women’s decorative craftwork in this country, lend her work a peculiarity that positions it slightly outside of the mainstream. With a grandmother who quilted, Kincaid is familiar with a humble and laborious craft tradition, and has immense patience and manual dexterity to weave such tiny beads and thread into glorious pictures that seem to emanate light. It was the book How to do Beadwork by Mary White (1972) that first inspired Kincaid to collect beads and make beadwork as a child. Her interest in fiber, weaving, textiles, and more generally “interlacement processes” persisted through art school where she made three-dimensional beaded objects. In 1994, she made her first two-dimensional pictorial beadwork, which continues to be her preferred format to date, with subjects that derive from personal sources, such as the body and religion, yet with unspecific meanings attached to them.

Kincaid was diagnosed with epilepsy in the early 1990s—a moment that figures greatly into her work—although she incorporated bodily imagery before this event. In her abstract works such as the MRI scans against monochrome backgrounds, Kincaid posits an unusual question about the relationship between pattern, decoration and scientific imaging. Beads are generally used as embellishment and décor, while scientific imagery has a very specific function to provide information about the body, so to combine them creates an odd tension. Her work could be characterized as being generally “of the mind” including both the fantasies of memory or imagination and the physiological source of such thoughts and reverie. One of Kincaid’s most striking and mysterious works, Heaven and Earth, which she started while in high school, was inspired by an image she found of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet (the former residence of the Dalai Lama) and a Bible story about how one can’t imagine heaven. Its mirror image suggests what Heaven and Earth might look like. Another work, Sleepwalking in the Garden, started out as a scene of the Garden of Eden and then transformed into a dreamlike landscape of the artist’s memory. The piece is an allusion to the artist’s preference for wearing long dresses when she was seven years old, in a setting inspired by a location near a family home. With open-ended narratives, past and present are conflated in these intimate works, which begin as drawings to map out colors and compositions and ultimately retain this personal and small scale.

Emily Sall’s paintings, drawings, and wall projects comprise straight lines to make compositions that evoke unstable architectural spaces while approaching complete abstraction. Although her paintings made in school were quite gestural, the work that followed pared down the action of painting in drawings that still resembled the brush stroke, yet with each individual bristle delineated. The direct relationship to the act of painting has become even more distant in Sall’s work. The individual line became more prevalent with subsequently more emphasis placed on spatial relationships, as she began to make drawings with pen and gouache, a plotter and adhesive vinyl. Sall creates an effect of pulsating rhythms and vibrations with lines of varying thicknesses and colors. Her paintings on wood panel are carefully taped out, and then the lines are meticulously painted in, while some panels are later cut into smaller works that change the composition. Another large panel with only black lines is divided into a grid of 42 squares, each section with its own distinct composition that resembles a deconstructed version of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1920), the twisted Russian Constructivist utopian design that was never built.

Sall is interested in architecture and has been influenced specifically by architect and theorist Rem Koolhaas’s writings about the urban environment in the age of globalization. Like his ideas of the “Generic City,” which perhaps inspired Sall’s drawing Generica, or his essay “Junk-space,” Sall’s work does not aim to depict specific cityscapes or architectural icons. Rather, it suggests an urban sense of vertical instability and teetering spaces that are neither interior nor exterior, but somewhere in between. Spatial planes recede and expand; different colored lines overlap and intersect as if seeking, yet perpetually eluding order. In some ways her work recalls early twentieth-century modernist painting, with linear compositions on a solid background of negative space, but she works on wood panel instead of canvas and has more recently made works directly on the wall. In 2006, she created a wall piece with blue chalk-line, imbuing the work with an ephemeral and site-specific quality. More recently she has been playing with vinyl applied directly to the wall. Her works are made without a plan, and the process of building or composing is simultaneous with its making—in many ways like the process of building cities today.

Cody Critcheloe is the lead singer and mastermind of the band SSION (pronounced “shun” as in passion, confusion, illusion) which he began in Kentucky at age 16 when he wrote, performed, recorded and made videos for the songs on his first album Fucked into Oblivion. Leading an ever-changing punk/dance/HI-NRG band that sounds a little 1970s, with a bit of 1980s á la Cindy Lauper, Debbie Harry, and Madonna, he has since recorded four additional albums. Critcheloe produced I Don’t Want New Wave, I Don’t Want the Truth, Opportunity Bless my Soul, Glory Wound and Fools Gold with a rotating roster of members and performers.

SSION’s hybrid performance art/pop music crossover falls into a loose genre that might include other bands/artists such as Scissor Sisters, Dirty Sanchez, Fischerspooner, Los Super Elegantes, Forcefield (now disbanded) and My Barbarian. These groups, who often dissociate the individuals in favor of the group, create theatrical costumes for their performances as a visual and conceptual strategy. Many of the young artists in this genre, including Critcheloe, also identify on some level with a punk ethic. For such artists, who weren’t even born during the original punk movement, and instead are part of the MTV generation, punk has become an attitude more than a particular sound or aesthetic; an attitude that is very DIY (do it yourself) and involves artists writing their own lyrics and music, making costumes, recording and editing. With limited resources, Critcheloe has been amazingly productive. He started his current project, an album and musical film Fools Gold, earlier this year with many of his friends as actors.

Critcheloe describes his work as “generally about a Queer utopia and the rise and fall of the American dream.” His videos are hilariously cheeky, peppered with characters in drag, elaborate costumes, and hand-drawn background scenes. His work has a sketch comedy element like Saturday Night Live, where, for example, the lyrics of his songs are enacted literally and humorously. The liner notes for the CD cover are reproductions of Critcheloe’s pencil drawings that are quite amazing in person and demonstrate his skill as a draftsman.

Critcheloe cites a great admiration for women in rock, including Courtney Love, L7, and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth. In an interview with he said, “Sonic Youth were primarily responsible for exposing me to 'fine art' as a teenager. I had no resources growing up in Kentucky, so their albums became a key to discovering really great artists, writers, filmmakers, etc. I can't imagine where I'd be today if I hadn't heard of Lisa Suckdog! Maybe a successful lawyer?" Strong women are prominent in his work as a quasi-feminist subtext. In Fools Gold, the lead character (played by Critcheloe) and his friend, the WOMAN, join the church of Satan as a joke. His friend gets kicked out of the house, and then he looks for her on a rebellious journey of platonic love. For this exhibition, in addition to a mockumentary, Critcheloe will include an element of performance rumored to involve the WOMAN eating four boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts “in an act of defiance and devotion to womankind everywhere.”

When looking at James Trotter‘s drawings it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that his artistic pursuits began as a child drawing Star Wars characters and writing graffiti while visiting his grandmother in Brooklyn. His interest in popular culture—music, comics, toys, garage sales, flea markets, and e-bay—find their way into his burgeoning toy collection and prolific drawing practice; he has made more than 500 drawings so far this year.

Originally from Miami, Trotter briefly attended KCAI and has stayed in Kansas City, making a career as DJ Superwolf, playing 1960s and 70s soul and funk records and dealing rare 45s overseas in the U.K. and Japan. Trotter maintains a three-pronged engagement to popular culture through drawings, toy installations, and music. His drawings range from quick line sketches to more elaborate constellations of cartoon characters in the vein of R. Crumb, along with food, corporate logos, body parts and records overlapping and interacting and fighting to make sense. Trotter is peculiarly un-precious about his work, which is strewn all over his studio and pinned to the wall. Trotter’s insistence that there are no “corrections” in his drawings demonstrates the conviction of his mark-making using only ink or gouache. He does not use pencil or erasers, although he has developed a recent fondness for white-out as an additional layer to the work. Concerns of conviction and correctness translate into the subject of Trotter’s work as well. He frequently voices his frustration with the United States, not in terms of politics, but more social frustration with political correctness and being afraid to say what one really thinks. While his views may seem brusque, he appears to be trying to get at the daily struggles that beset everyone as part of the human condition. Perhaps this angst is what turns him to music and toys, the safe-havens of childhood fantasy and escape. He collects vintage toys and records from the 1970s and 1980s: seeking out specific toys he couldn’t afford as a child, while others recall the abundance of free candy and toys symbolized by Halloween and Christmas. A tree-house overflowing with his toys, lights and a miniature train embodies the notion of a child’s (and perhaps adult’s) utopia of innocence. At first, I thought Trotter’s work must be a critique of consumption, but it is not. It is about value and resuscitating value into objects, ideas, and memories that are so quickly discarded.

Julie Rodrigues Widholm
Pamela Alper Associate Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
September 2007

Charlotte Street


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