Sometimes unexpected connections emerge in group shows. The 2015 Charlotte Street Foundation Visual Artist Awards exhibition, through Dec. 16 at the H&R Block Artspace at Kansas City Art Institute, achieves such alignment.
The new works by three Kansas City artists — who each received unrestricted $10,000 grants — converge to provide a rich, immersive experience for the viewer.
Director Raechell Smith says Jill Downen, Misha Kligman and Rashawn Griffin are all interested in “the human body and its relationship to space.”
Indeed, the installations and large-scale paintings evoke a physiological as well as an intellectual response, though each in different ways.
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Architectural forms and ornamentation mingle harmoniously in Jill Downen’s “Threshold” installation. The work comprises three distinct elements and is also defined by what cannot be seen: Downen, who teaches sculpture at KCAI, covered over a set of double doors and masked electrical outlets to eliminate distractions and create a clean canvas for her art.
“Membrane” is a hypnotic lapis lazuli-hued, multi-panel painting hung a few inches above the floor, allowing a ribbon of natural light to stream in across the bottom. The color and intensity of the light stripe change throughout the day.
The center of the room is activated by “Rejoinder,” a 16-foot-tall floating panel of gold metal leaf on a thin sheet of acetate. The shimmering, undulating curtain reflects the movement of viewers around it. In places, the gold leaf has flaked off, creating tiny opaque windows to the other side.
In contrast to the geometry and lush color of “Membrane” and “Rejoinder,” the third component of the installation, “Inscribe,” is a wavy white-on-white eruption of plaster down the middle of a blank wall. Downen painstakingly molded, mudded and painted the vertical ruffle to blend it seamlessly in its surroundings.
Inspired by a childhood memory of lightning striking the artist’s home, the sculpture conjures a ragged edge of surf, a ridge of sand dunes, an Easter lily petal, a scar. The ridgeline casts an ombré shadow that raises the dualities of darkness and light, of being and memory.
The room that holds four 6-by-7-foot works by Misha Kligman seems dimly lit, and so do his paintings. Kligman’s subdued hues and low-contrast palette conjure the diaphanous nature of memory and dreams.
“Misha is interested in capturing images that move through the mind in subconscious time and space, not in a way that spells out a narrative,” Smith said.
Kligman, whose family emigrated from Russia when he was 17, has previously explored somber themes of loss and the Holocaust. These new paintings are more intimate and ambiguous.
They read as dreamscapes with exotic plant imagery juxtaposed with human figures or body parts.
“Goodnight Nobody” is the most enigmatic, depicting a pair of arms — one nearly ghosted out — floating, reaching, but holding nothing.
The human figures are all slightly larger than life size and rendered above the natural horizon for the viewer, creating a sense of floating and pleasant disorientation.
The central idea of Rashawn Griffin’s untitled installation, Smith says, is the frame. How do we frame a thought, a painting, a doorway, a room, an experience?
Griffin plays with frame of reference in the first work you encounter upon entering his carnival-like space. A small ink and graphite work with bits of fur and grass inside a wooden frame reads, “I can’t do this, who knows what will happen? People depend on me.”
Do what? Which people? It’s a small existential cry that lingers as one continues on to the more showstopping works: a huge fabric wall painting and a free-standing mirrored cube you enter like a fun house.
Elsewhere, a framed doorway in a wall of green pool table felt opens into a space dominated by a tangerine wall. Recessed into the wall are four small, framed artworks. One is a shadowbox with hats painted on an outer pane of glass that roughly line up with human and animal heads painted on a second pane behind the first one.
Griffin has created a space that makes the viewer, like Alice in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” feeling alternately very large and very small.