Gorgeous and outrageous?
By DANA SELF
Special to The Star
Trippy and intuitive may be more apt descriptions for the work of former Kansas City artist and 1974 Kansas City Art Institute alum Tony Naponic.
Either way, an exhibit of his work at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center is an excellent posthumous entree into understanding Naponic, who lived and showed in Kansas City for a decade before moving to New York, where he died of congestive heart failure at 49.
The most important things to know about Tony personally were his ever-present wit, abundant energy coupled with an amazing physical prowess, his willingness to love unconditionally and a work ethic Ive never seen before or since, said KCAI alum Mark Drefs, a close friend of Naponic.
The exhibition illustrates Naponics wide-ranging interests in the human condition, coupled with his examination of formal qualities of paint, line and spatial relations.
The care with which the show was organized reveals the devotion of Naponics friends, including Drefs, Sherry Cromwell-Lacy, Elisabeth Kirsch, Rebecca Ofiesh, Ray Starzman, Doug Drake and E.G. Schempf.
Despite their team approach to arranging the exhibit, which included lending work they own, the production is wide-ranging and beautifully installed. It gives a well-rounded view of Naponics primary artistic impulses, which include dreamlike narratives, expressionistic abstraction and figuration, and revelatory self-portraits.
In a 1980 statement he wrote, The characters are set within a tactile environment drawn from my experiences, the origins of which I may not totally understand.
While the exhibition comprises many large-scale paintings, Naponics narrative drawings are his strongest works.
In these he combines active gesture with the acute storytelling that is at the heart of his oeuvre. Like theater scenes, they underline the illusory human quest for connection. Figures reach out to one another or turn their backs. They rarely connect; instead, Naponic tells stories of yearning, isolation and disconnection.
And yet the drawings are never depressing; rather, they seem to suggest that there is always possibility. Perhaps he has captured his figures in the moments before that elusive connection.
In The Hidden Beach, two figures walk away from each other, tentatively linked by their hands, yet they are separate, and one figure is barely on the paper. Who Knows What Youre Asking For finds three figures assembled in another ambiguous stage, grounded only by a lamp and a couch. Once again, the figures are not connected by eye contact or anything that might suggest a viable relationship.
Through gesture, figural positioning and his keen sense of placement, Naponic conveys ambiance, mood and the uncanny sense that we intuitively understand the scene, perhaps because weve lived it ourselves.
In Dying to Wait, created with colored inks, graphite and oil pastel on paper, a uniformed bartender stands behind a bar at which two figures sit, backs toward us. The entire scene conjures Edouard Manets impressionist masterwork A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, for its ambiguity and the barkeeps impassive demeanor. And yet, we sense an entire story unfolding here.
A large grouping of unframed and hasty-looking sketches from the mid-1970s into 1980, mostly black marker on paper, feels hallucinogenic. Figures are often unpleasant and undefined, rendered with the harsh lines of the unforgiving marker.
An untitled 1980 work in charcoal and pencil on paper shows a strange, full-breasted figure that turns away from a car from which a leering, wolfish head emerges. The raked perspective, dark road and eerie figures suggest a nightmarish state.
In an untitled oil pastel on paper, another ambiguous and curious scene unfolds in a nondescript interior space. Two figures play an odd hoops game, while a monochrome figure crouches in the background, doubled over as if in pain and unnoticed or ignored by the two main figures. Askew angles and an agitated surface contribute to the dreamlike aspect of the scene and its slightly alarming sensation.
Drefs aligns Naponics paintings with the work of William Hogarth, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Emil Nolde and James Ensor.
Tony truly captured the tragic-comic theatre of the absurd found not only in the grand parts of life, but in the sharp daily parts we all live through, he related in a recent email. Many, if not all, of his figurative works were based entirely on personal experience, happening literally at the time of their creation.
In the acrylic and mixed-media painting Eh, Baloney (1982), Naponic, who supported himself by working in restaurants, depicts a restaurant scene from a deep, angled perspective. The picture is dominated by blue tables and chairs overturned and pushed back from the tables. Only three figures, two women and a lurking male, populate the painting. People inhabit the same space but do not relate to one another through conversation or touch.
In Milk (1977), a female figure faces us, while in the background a man holding a large yellow present approaches her. Here again, the figures are separate from each other, and the paintings jarring acid greens underline the discomfiture.
Ask Her, a large 1974 abstraction, is charged with sweeping gestures, while the frenetic gestures are countered with delicate trails of dripped paint. The large white passage in the center draws the eye in, balancing and centering the painting.
Naponics works from the late 1980s to the 1990s feature complete abstraction, often with acrylic paint on sandpaper and wood. In the diptych Distant Pass, a fantastical scene is fraught with active passages of shimmering metallic paint. Divided horizontally, the two panels suggest an underwater sensation, as if we are submerged in lights and colors. Trippy and solid, it is believable and accomplished.
Naponics work is always introspective, including a number of his self-portraits. A series of six self-portraits from 1975 to 1993 are wildly different from one another, demonstrating his fluidity. Two are realistic drawings, while the others are quite dark and foreboding, as if his view of himself were clouded by disintegration.
Other watercolor self-portraits are gentle and less fraught.
Despite Naponics clear tenderness toward human nature, his figures seem to inhabit a no-mans-land. Conflicts are perpetually unresolved yet kept active and on the surface of paper and canvas, perhaps in an optimists hope for reconciliation.
Gorgeous & Outrageous: The Art of Tony Naponic continues at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, 2012 Baltimore Ave., through March 1. Hours are 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. For more information, call 816-474-1919 or go to Leedy-Voulkos.com.