In mid-April, Kansas City artist Robert Bingaman showed slides and talked about his work as part of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art’s Third Thursday visiting artists presentations.
The next thing Bingaman knew, the museum’s executive director, Bruce Hartman, invited him to do a show — right away.
Hartman was captivated by Bingaman’s new swimming pool paintings — presented as luminous blue geometric shapes surrounded by inky darkness — when they flashed on the screen roughly midway through Bingaman’s artist talk.
“Bingaman’s pool paintings are provocative, simultaneously evoking an aura of sensuality and intrigue. In their spare beauty, they are at once abstract and referential,” Hartman said in a recent email.
In the same week that Hartman offered him a show, Bingaman was invited to join Haw Contemporary gallery. Earlier, Kemper curator Erin Dziedzic chose a pool painting for inclusion in her “The Center Is a Moving Target” group show, now on view at Kemper at the Crossroads.
Why the tremendous response? Maybe it’s that spark of pre-recognition that the paintings set in play.
The pools in Bingaman’s paintings are not fitness center pools, with lane ropes and nearby stacks of paddleboards and racks of waterweights.
Bingaman’s empty pools play to deep-seated longings to escape and relax in buoyant solitude. Like “giant night lights,” as he calls them, these glowing beacons in the darkness carry a promise of safety.
For the artist, the pared-back pools also function as a symbol “of what we want in life.”
“Growing up, my parents always talked about digging a pool,” he said. “It was a status symbol to me. As I grew older it mixed in with the notion that I’m probably never going to have a pool.”
When his parents did dig a pool during Bingaman’s freshman year in college, “I realized, ‘We’re getting a pool.’ Then I thought, ‘No. This is their pool.’
Bingaman started painting pools when he was in grad school at Washington University in St. Louis. These early efforts were “very loose,” he said.
By contrast, the current pool paintings combine an Ellsworth Kelly crispness with the painterly atmospherics of Color Field. The conversation with modernist abstraction functions endows their quotidian subject with mythic status. Bingaman relates the paintings to “the elemental struggle of light and dark.”
Bingaman finds his pool images online and then pares them down “so they become something else,” a symbol rather than a description of a pool that exists.
The addition of details — a black handrail leading down into the water in one image, the rectangular skimmer near the water’s surface in another — is carefully considered. The skimmer opening “was a nice little spot of abstraction,” Bingaman said, and “I made it light.”
To begin, he traces the pool shape with masking tape and applies a layer of vibrant color to the background.
“It’s important where they are in space,” Bingaman said. “I’m seeking a specific perspective. It needs to be close, but not in your possession.”
After sanding down the colored underlayer, he uses black acrylic to get the dark background and oil to achieve that luminous blue water. Finally, he adds a layer of oil glaze over the whole.
“I love painting subject matter that’s still,” he said. “I like the vibration between the movement of (making the) depiction, and the stillness of what is depicted.”
Bingaman is well aware that he has a formidable predecessor because pools have long been a signature subject of British artist David Hockney.
“Hockney’s pools are about swimming,” he said. “Mine are about standing by the pool.”
He opened his talk at the Nerman by explaining, “I make paintings of things I care about.”
Pools are one of them, rooted in childhood memories, but overlaid with an adult appreciation of their emotional and symbolic power and an artist’s eye for their formal possibilities.
Bingaman is unapologetic about the romanticism of his pools.
“They’re atmospheric landscape paintings, attached to a sense of space and place,” he said.
Although their inspiration is personal, Bingaman’s pool paintings appeal to one and all. They invite us to summon our memories, project our longings and lose ourselves in their alluring polygons of blue.
“Night Pools — Robert Bingaman” opens June 27 and continues through Aug. 31 at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday. Free. For more information, call913-469-3000 or NermanMuseum.org
Here’s what else is going on this summer:Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
“Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” through July 6
The Nelson’s summer blockbuster features more than 200 recently excavated objects from Saudi Arabia. Ranging from expressive funerary stelae in the form of human figures to gigantic sculptures of ancient kings, the exhibit rewrites the region’s history, from desert outpost to dynamic crossroads of cultural exchange. Videos, a smelling station and plenty of opportunities for hands-on interaction make this ancient material come alive.
Tickets cost $12 for adults, $10 for seniors over 55 and $6 for students with ID. Free to members and children under 12. For tickets, call816-751-1278 or go to Nelson-Atkins.org
“Across the Indian Country: Photographs by Alexander Gardner, 1867-1868,” July 25-Jan. 11
Mounted in anticipation of the museum’s big Plains Indians exhibition, which opens Sept. 20, this exhibit of photographs by the Scottish-born Gardner includes selections from the more than 200 images of Northern Plains Indians he made as the official photographer of the Fort Laramie Treaty. Also featured are his photographs documenting the route of the proposed extension of what would become the Kansas Pacific Railroad.
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday and Friday. Free. For more information, call816-751-1278 or Nelson-Atkins.org
.Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art
“Conversations — Marking 20 Years,” May 16-Sept. 21
The museum celebrates its 20th anniversary with an exhibit of works from the permanent collection, curated by the museum’s director, Barbara O’Brien. The show will present familiar works and some recent acquisitions in pairings and clusters designed to “spark dialogue.”
Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 4420 Warwick Blvd. Hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday. Closed Mondays. Free. For more information, call 816-753-5784 or go to KemperArt.org Kemper at the Crossroads “The Center Is a Moving Target,” through Aug. 1 Dziedzic explores new directions in regionalism in this exhibit of works by 12 area artists whose work taps global issues and art trends. Kemper at the Crossroads, 33 W. 19th St. Hours are 5-10 p.m. Friday; noon-5 p.m. Saturday. Free. For more information, call 816-753-5784 or go to KemperArt.org Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art “Jason Lazarus: Don’t Close These Doors ” June 27-Aug. 31 This exhibit of Chicago-based KC native Jason Lazarus will feature selected works from the past decade, including “T.H.T.K.,” an installation of photos he has collected from people all over the country. “They’re images of loved ones or people who have died, images that, for whatever reason, people have found problematic to keep and live with,” Hartman said. The photographs “will wrap the walls of the museum’s second floor McCaffree gallery,” he added, and will be installed “with no explanation as to why or who.” “Contemporary American Indian Art: The Nerman Museum Collection,” through Sept. 21 At the Nelson’s request, Hartman has extended the run of this exhibit of contemporary works, originally set to close in mid-May, into September, so that visitors to the big Plains Indians exhibit will have an opportunity to see it. Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday. Free. For more information, call 913-469-3000 or go to NermanMuseum.org. Grand Arts “Stanya Kahn: Don’t Go Back to Sleep,” through July 3 This powerful 75-minute video, created in Kansas City by 2012 Guggenheim fellow Stanya Kahn, takes its title from a line in a poem by Rumi and includes original musical compositions and a cast of mostly nonactors. Kahn explores contemporary issues in scenarios that “revolve around groups of medical professionals stationed in newly built, vacant homes as they prepare for impending emergencies,” the gallery’s release says. Grand Arts, 1819 Grand Blvd. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and by appointment. Free. For more information, call 816-421-6887 or GrandArts.com.