A new gallery dedicated to artists with Kansas ties opens this week at Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, and there’s not a sunflower or dilapidated barn in sight.
Instead, the inaugural exhibition in the Kansas Focus Gallery — a glass-fronted jewel with soaring white walls inside the atrium — presents dilapidation of a more menacing sort.
“The City” by Lori Nix, who was raised in Norton, Kan., and is now based in Brooklyn, depicts a post-apocalyptic world from which humans have vanished. The viewer is left to imagine what caused the catastrophic damage to the interiors of a library, an art museum, a violin repair shop, a Chinese takeout restaurant.
Though the places are decidedly urban, the destruction and chaos are informed by Nix’s childhood in Kansas. The atmospheric violence always lurking on the high plains imbued Nix with a sense of danger and adventure visible in her work.
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And that is the kind of artist the Nerman wants to showcase in the Focus Gallery opening on Thursday, said museum director Bruce Hartman.
“We don’t want to limit it to artists currently living in Kansas,” he says. “We are also looking at people who have lived here and gone on to Los Angeles or New York and become famous someplace else.”
The gallery, designed by museum architect Kyu Sung Woo, replaces the museum gift shop. It was built with a $700,000 gift from Leawood art collector Mary Davidson through the Barton P. and Mary D. Cohen Charitable Trust. The gift includes money for the museum’s endowment and for acquisition of Kansas-associated art.
Hartman sees the decision to focus on Kansas as an extension of the Nerman’s commitment to collecting artists associated with metropolitan Kansas City. The Kansas Collection will supplement those holdings.
Kudos are already flowing in for the gallery from across the state line.
Gaylord Torrence, senior curator of American Indian Art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, calls the space “stunning” and adds, “its special purpose is a true enhancement to the Nerman.”
Julián Zugazagoitia, director of the Nelson, told Hartman in a letter, “This gallery will be a self-sustaining catalyst that, in showcasing the great talent out of Kansas, will inspire future generations of artists.”
That, Hartman says, is also part of the hope. “It demonstrates that it doesn’t matter if you come from some tiny town, you can make world-class art.”
Nix is a good example. Her work has been exhibited around the country but never in the Kansas City area. Plus, a major monograph of her work was published in 2013.
Nix’s large-scale, documentary-looking photographs were shot with a large-format Cambo Legend 8x10 camera and developed in a darkroom. But the scenes aren’t real.
They are intricately detailed dioramas that Nix builds to dollhouse scale of 1:10 or 1:12 in her living room.
Except for an occasional purchased prop, Nix fabricates every architectural detail and object from foam core, balsa wood and paper. For “The Library,” Nix carved and painted thousands of tiny books by hand. The constructions take seven months or longer to build and a couple of weeks to photograph.
Nix’s partner Kathleen Gerber applies dirt and color washes to the cracked walls and debris-strewn surfaces to age them.
Of her early years in Norton (pop. 2,880), Nix says, “It was a golden childhood. We lived in a newer housing division, but it was surrounded by pastures and farmland. My mom kicked us out of the house to run around all day.”
And the forces of nature were always present.
“There were insect infestations, snowdrifts up the side of the house so deep you could tunnel through them and make caves. There were hailstorms, tornadoes touching down in cornfields — all that stuff is fun for kids,” she says.
Nix crosses those impressions of natural destruction with the “major architecture” she has seen in 16 years of living in New York. The interiors of “The Art Museum” and “The Library” have the scale and neo-classical grandeur of large, older cities.
Other impulses for Nix’s phantasmagorical settings come from disaster films of the 1960s and ’70s, including “The Poseidon Adventure” and “Planet of the Apes,” as well as actual contemporary devastation wrought by climate change, terrorism and nuclear proliferation.
To coincide with the opening of the gallery, the museum is showing for the first time 15 acquisitions from artists of regional, national and international prominence who have ties to Kansas. Those works will be in the mezzanine and McCaffrey Gallery.
Perhaps the star of this grouping is a 1913 drypoint by Albert Bloch (1882-1961). Bloch was the sole American member of the Blaue Reiter, a group of modernist painters that included Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, who banded together in Munich from 1911 to 1914. From 1923 to 1947, he taught drawing and painting at the University of Kansas.
Standing in front of Bloch’s “Houses at Night,” Hartman says, “it’s so fabulous. It’s a precursor to German Expressionism.”
Other pedigreed artists represented include:
▪ Birger Sandzén (1871-1954), a Swedish-born and educated artist who immigrated to Lindsborg and taught painting at Bethany College.
▪ Abraham Walkowitz (1878-1965), a Russian-born, New York-based modernist painter famous for his fluid drawings of dancer Isadora Duncan. Walkowitz spent the summer of 1945 in Girard in southeast Kansas, visiting his friend Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, publisher of “The American Freeman,” the largest socialist publication in the U.S. at the time.
▪ Paulina Jones Everitt (1905-1996), a painter and sculptor raised in Kansas and trained by Thomas Hart Benton.
▪ Keith Jacobshagen, born in 1941 in Wichita to a father who worked for Beech Aircraft Co. and known nationally for his slightly elevated landscapes that evoke the view from small planes.
For the future, Hartman says he could imagine exhibitions featuring the likes of photographer and film director Gordon Parks, born in Fort Scott, or Buckminster Fuller, the futuristic modern architect who lived, worked and built for a time in Wichita.
The Kansas Focus Gallery at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art will open with an exhibition of “The City,” by Lori Nix, with a reception from 6 to 7 p.m. Also on Thursday:
▪ The first showing of 15 permanent-collection acquisitions from Kansas-associated artists.
▪ A closing reception, artist lecture and book signing by Robert Zakanitch for his exhibit, “Ephemeral Beauty,” from 6 to 8:30 p.m.
Lori Nix will speak 3:30-4:30 p.m. March 24 at the Nerman. Free