Visual Arts

Curator Danny Orendorff bids KC an impressive goodbye with his final show for Charlotte Street

Ramekon O’Arwisters’ “Where We Are” (2013) incorporates vintage family photographs, an African mask and a framed picture of James Baldwin.
Ramekon O’Arwisters’ “Where We Are” (2013) incorporates vintage family photographs, an African mask and a framed picture of James Baldwin. Charlotte Street Foundation

“Loving After Lifetimes of All This,” the final show of Danny Orendorff’s 2013-14 tenure as Charlotte Street Foundation curator-in-residence, is a crowning achievement.

Installed at La Esquina gallery, the exhibit showcases Orendorff’s signature themes and interests — including social activism, gay history and craft — through strong works by national and Kansas City talents.

The artists and objects here probe little-known corners of history and culture, offering moving meditations on topics ranging from the toll of AIDS/HIV to the legacy of the Indian wars.

A prime impetus to this exhibit is Orendorff’s desire to present what he calls “marginalized cultural histories.”

Two visually arresting mixed-media works by Oregon-based Natalie Ball look to the history of the Modoc tribe of Klamath Indians, from whom Ball is descended.

Through her work, Ball seeks “a healthier and a more critical way to understand Native America.” Her large painted textile artworks, centered on big patchwork stars flanked by panels of lively drawing, encompass references to both the Modoc Ghost Dance ceremonies of the 1860s and her family’s introduction to quilting at a Sioux-Modoc intertribal exchange a century later.

One feels rather than deduces the message in these works, which exude an air both celebratory and militant. Supported by tall vertical poles on each side, the paintings claim a kinship with craftsy homemade banners seen at demonstrations, but their sophisticated handling of color, texture and pattern rivals the best of contemporary abstraction.

What is remarkable about Ball’s work and so much of the art in this show is its total lack of contrivance. We’ll be seeing more of Ball early next year at the Nerman Museum, which will also present a show of Lawrence-based Gina Adams, adjunct instructor at Haskell Indian Nations University.

Inspired by the native side of her heritage, Adams’ four works in “Loving” explore the losses incurred by assimilation and the role of sport in affording opportunities for Indian youth. Her two-dimensional pieces incorporate historic photographs of unidentified Indians, including a poignant shot of a 1946 girls basketball team. She is also showing ceramic basketball forms painted with designs inspired by native beadwork from her “Honoring Modern” series.

With its outpouring of works made tactile and immediate through the inventive use of found and craft materials, “Loving” is by far the most visually rewarding of Orendorff’s shows.

Sonya Clark’s display includes “Barbershop Pole,” composed of black pocket combs, and a $5 bill in which the artist endowed Abraham Lincoln with an afro. Ramekon O’Arwisters’ serpentine rag-rug relief studded with family photos incorporates an African mask.

There is an aspect of ceremonial regalia to San-Francisco-based Josh Faught’s “Triage” (2009). The format of this gorgeous woven wall piece, which addresses the AIDS crisis, evokes Northwest coast Chilkat blankets.

L.A.-based Tanya Aguiniga enjoys a growing reputation on the West Coast as both a furniture designer and social activist. Orendorff’s exhibit features a video of a recent “Community Felt-In” that Aguiniga organized, in which participants stomped wool yarn with their feet in the traditional manner to yield colorful felted expanses of eye-catching organic patchwork.

In a performance video and a series of sculptural objects, San Francisco-based Tina Takemoto imagines what life was like for Jiro Onuma, a gay Japanese-American who was sent to an internment camp in central Utah during World War II. Some facts are known: Onuma worked in the camp’s mess hall and collected muscle man magazines.

Takemoto’s display includes a wallet and cigarette holder fabricated from tar paper, a rubber exerciser used to keep in shape and other items reflecting how Onuma might have passed his time. Her video dramatizes his activities, with the artist in the role of Onuma making bread and exercising. Scenes from her performance are interspersed with excerpts from official U.S. propaganda footage of the camps.

Kansas City and Lawrence artists claim almost half of this show, which reprises Judith Levy’s riveting 2011 videos, “The Last Descendants,” and introduces a series of previously unseen works from the 1990s by Christopher Leitch.

Executed in the artist’s familiar, crabbed, dream-drawing style, Leitch’s “Pages From the Book of the Dead” (1993) pays tribute to friends lost to AIDS. Like so much of the work in “Loving,” it is highly moving — personal, but at the same time political, imploring us to pay attention to people and events downplayed or neglected by standard histories.

“Loving” is Orendorff’s fourth group show for Charlotte Street. Thanks to a grant from the Center for Craft, Creativity & Design in Asheville, N.C., where the exhibit heads next, the show will be accompanied by a color catalog. When he leaves KC in January, Orendorff is headed to New York to prepare for a performance adaptation of “In Watermelon Sugar” at the Kitchen with choreographer/dancer/musician Steven Reker.

The KC art community will be sorry to lose him. “Loving After Lifetimes” demonstrates many of the reasons why, including Orendorff’s role as a pipeline for new work into Kansas City, his passion for social causes and his engagement with the local community.

“He is clever without being condescending, and he references political literature and art history with a reverent sense of inclusion,” says Peregrine Honig, who introduced her new “selfie” paintings in Orendorff’s “The Stench of Rotting Flowers” exhibit earlier this year. “Danny … allows his shows and the artists within them to project quiet and crusty intuitive visions.”

The combination of curiosity and generosity of spirit Orendorff has evidenced with artists extends to an openness toward the kinds of materials an art exhibition can encompass. “Loving” includes objects and texts drawn from two local archives.

One of the show’s most stunning finds, a wallpaper book turned scrapbook compiled by the mother of local gay activist Drew Robert Shafer, came from the Gay & Lesbian Archives of Mid-America at UMKC.

For nearly six decades, Phyllis Fay Shafer (1908-1993) clipped and saved gay-related newspaper and magazine articles, including numerous advice columns, homophobic letters to the editor and instances of gay readers pushing back. The result is a sobering catalog of fears, misconceptions, discrimination and changing attitudes; it’s also an amazing expression of a mother’s love.

Orendorff also explored the holdings of the Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City, where he found material about Samuel Eason, a freed slave from Tennessee who dedicated his earnings as a bricklayer to start an old folks and orphans home in the 1880s. After Eason died of a heart attack while pushing a wheelbarrow of donated food from the City Market to the east side, others took up his cause, which later became the Niles Home for Children.

Orendorff honors Eason’s contribution with a display of images, articles and pamphlets. “Within our increasing privatized contemporary context … reminders of Eason’s legacy and of the early grassroots organizations that emerged against all odds are especially vital,” he comments in a posted text.

We leave this show with a greatly enriched sense of history and cultural awareness and a renewed capacity for compassion — the cornerstone’s of Orendorff’s project.

To reach Alice Thorson, call 816-234-4763 or send email to athorson@kcstar.com.

On exhibit

“Loving After Lifetimes of All This” continues at La Esquina, 1000 W. 25th St., through Jan. 3. Hours are noon-5 p.m. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday and 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursday. For more information, call 816-221-5115 or go to CharlotteStreet.org.

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