Loving After Lifetimes of All This at la Esquina
You can feel the love emanating from the radically crafted, handmade works in the latest multi-media exhibition curated by Danny Orendorff. Loving After Lifetimes of All This considers the “intersections of craft, (self-) care, apprenticeship and survival within the practices of historically disadvantaged populations.” To be clear, the work in this exhibition is visual art with a palpable “craftivist” streak that redefines art and craft as converging streams with the swelling flow of “social practice” including actions of cultural resistance, community engagement and service.
Witness the first piece you encounter in the gallery: a serpentine mixed-media tapestry installation by Ramekon O’Arwisters. From beneath an African mask bearded with a platinum wig emerges a colorful crocheted rag boa embedded with dozens of multi-generational family photos, and a conspicuous framed portrait of James Baldwin. Entitled Where We Are (2013), the work embodies his concerns with race, sexuality, and spirituality through folk art tradition. Here one senses a key theme in the exhibition: how storytelling is woven into the practice of craft itself, a method for traditions to be passed on from one generation to the next. O’Arwisters shares his practice in weekly “Crochet Jams,” a safe, inclusive space for community members to collaborate on craft projects with open-ended results.
Gina Adams keeps her ancestral connections alive by honoring the memories of anonymous female basketball players she discovered in archival photographs from American Indian boarding schools. By recontextualizing images of harsh assimilation through transformative layers of oil paint and encaustic, she communicates respect for these young women whose stories had been lost in time, now reverently revived. Her Honoring Modern Unidentified series (2013) uses similar techniques to bring the work into three dimensions. Cast ceramic basketballs painted in earth tones incised in encaustic with Native American beadwork patterns have the feel of sacred objects. Adams’ use of clay consciously bridges her work to an ancient material and practice that signifies the survival of her people.
Orendorff expanded his curatorial concept by digging into two unique Kansas City archives. In the Black Archives of Mid-America he discovered the historical person of Samuel Eason, a bricklayer by trade who dedicated his life to caring for the most vulnerable members of the African American community, especially neglected children, at the turn of the 20th century. Eason founded the Industrial Home for Children, one of the first charities of its kind in the city. With the help of graphic designer Wendy Vong, Orendorff brings Samuel Eason’s good works to life in wall mounted texts and cleverly reproduced archival materials that demonstrate the hardscrabble determination of one man to improve the lives of the least fortunate.
Another compelling artifact from the Gay & Lesbian Archives of Mid-America at the University of Missouri – Kansas City is a wallpaper sample book turned scrapbook by a woman named Phyllis Shafer who clipped every newspaper article she came across on the subject of homosexuality for nearly three decades. Her only son Drew was gay and in an act of love and creativity she sought to truly understand what it meant to walk in her son’s shoes. Drew, with the support of his parents, founded a gay rights organization in Kansas City in 1966 called The Phoenix Society for Individual Freedom. A poignant page in her scrapbook had a published letter to a newspaper editor circa 1980 suggesting that gay couples should be entitled to the equal right to marriage. 35 years later the Supreme Court is just now getting around to that debate.
Tina Takemoto takes yet another approach to the archival impulse in art production. Her research into “same-sex intimacy for Japanese Americans incarcerated by the US Government during WWII,” revealed Jiro Onuma, a gay bachelor from San Francisco. The artist employed the culturally and historically specific art of gaman, or found object craft practices of detainees, to visualize how Onuma survived the isolation of internment. In addition to carved wood cuff links, a tarpaper wallet, and burnt soy sauce drawings on rice paper, the centerpiece of this body of work is the video Looking for Jiro (2011) in which Takemoto playfully performs the role of Jiro Onuma “drag king” style.
Created just days before the exhibition opening, Tanya Aguiñiga’s Performance Crafting 3: Community Felt-In (2014) brought together diverse participants to collaborate on large felted, dyed wool tapestries assembled outdoors in public next to the Los Angeles River. The crazy quilt quality of the piece comes from the many different hands and skill levels of the makers who individually contributed a kind of woolen fingerprint to the overall design. Color photographs of the performance process show the artist arm in arm with her collaborators joyously stamping out the liquid from the felt. It makes craftivism look like serious fun.
Loving After Lifetimes of All This proves that shopworn arguments about whether craft practices belong in the rare air of contemporary art are bullplop. Talk to the hands that made these skillfully rendered artworks steeped in complex concepts, overlooked narratives, passionate activism, and DIY resourcefulness. While there is a certain ragged fringe aesthetic to the exhibition that may not appeal to all, the 15 makers have powerful, imaginative stories to tell. Patience and listening, as well as looking, are helpful to read the layers present. Like that favorite movie you keep discovering new details in, it rewards multiple viewings. Orendorff’s exhibition foregrounds artists, whose most radical practice is perhaps the simplest, love.
Loving After Lifetimes of All This (curated by Danny Orendorff) is on view at Charlotte Street Foundation’s la Esquina in Kansas City, MO from November 7, 2014 – January 3, 2015.
Images courtesy of Charlotte Street Foundation. Photos: E.G. Schempf