All Together Now


At the Kansas City Art Institute, students spend long hours working in their departments’ studios — painters with painters, ceramists with ceramists, illustrators with illustrators — a setup ideal for forming close friendships between artists working in the same medium. After spending four years on a campus of 500 students, it’s possible to go through graduation ceremonies certain that you’ve never seen many of the people walking across the stage.

And once they get outside the KCAI microcosm, people who have similar ideas about art and who make art for similar reasons tend to stick together professionally and socially, too. But even though the city’s art scene might be cliquey, it’s not necessarily unfriendly or exclusive.

There’s evidence of that right now at the H&R Block Artspace, where The Kansas City Flatfile mixes work by artists that you’d probably never find all standing in the same room.

The inspiration for the Kansas City Flatfile came from the Peirogi Flatfiles, a collection of two-dimensional work made by artists in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. With only a tiny amount of space to present artwork to curators and collectors, Peirogi 2000 Director Joe Amrhein stored the work in file cabinets and pulled out specific pieces whenever someone wanted to see them. Pierogi hit the road in 2001; the Artspace hosted the collection, and Artspace Director Raechell Smith was so impressed by the idea that she decided to create the Kansas City Flatfile, now planned as a biennial exhibition.

Out of the 250 Kansas City artists Smith deemed “actively making and exhibiting work,” 130 responded to her invitation to participate in the show, sending in as many as ten pieces of artwork that would fit into a flat, 24-inch-by-32-inch cardboard portfolio. Size was pretty much the artists’ only constraint.

Despite the hundreds of pieces of work in the show, the gallery space feels sparse. Most of the drawings, paintings, photographs, mixed-media pieces, computer-generated designs and even some ceramics and fiber-based works are stored in two heavy metal file cabinets. To look at any of it, visitors must find the artist’s name and file number on a photocopied sheet, open a drawer, choose a portfolio and thumb through it while wearing thin, white cotton gloves.

Staring at a list of 130 artists’ names is overwhelming even for someone familiar with the local art scene. Fortunately, though, the gallery’s south and east walls display tight groupings of work by up to two dozen of the artists. The display changes every week and a half. This gives visitors a visual starting point to find work they like on the wall and check out the rest of the artist’s stuff in the files.

There’s something almost scientific about opening each portfolio with white-gloved hands and peeling away the layers of wax paper protecting the pages inside. There are lots of other rules besides the mandatory white gloves: no backpacks, pens, drinks or food around the art. Only one portfolio a person at a time.

The exhibit would benefit from restricting the age of the work submitted. A surprising number of the pieces are dated 2004 — a testament to the hardworking and prolific nature of Kansas City artists. A handful of portfolios, though, contain work dating back to the early 1980s, which makes you wonder how active certain artists really are and how seriously they take the Flatfile exhibit.

But the setup is ideal for discovering artists and experiencing new work in a more intimate manner than by seeing it on walls or behind glass. Here, viewers play curator, deciding for themselves what they want to see and in what order. Over many trips to the show, I’ve run gloved fingertips across May Tveit’s maps of Kansas City, feeling the ribbed texture of the thick, multicolored lines of paint she uses to cover different parts of the metropolitan area. I’ve played with Jordan Nickel’s arresting neon paper cutouts, creating new images by putting one layer over another. I’ve smelled the odd, fake-grape scent — reminiscent of those fruity-smelling ink pens from the 1980s — that subtly rises from Michael Converse’s stack of papers. Converse’s bizarre series of drawings on graph paper depict different sets of smiling, monsterish cartoon figures wearing snow pants and ski sweaters, walking in from an outing on the slopes. He gives all of his drawings the same backdrop (mountainous ski runs and trees with a wooden porch in the foreground) but uses different textures and patterns, such as wood grain, polka dots and plaids, to fill in the negative space in the sky and the snow.

In the rear of the gallery there’s a viewing area for work by twelve video artists. Three chairs comfy enough for napping sit in front of a TV equipped with a VCR and a DVD player; on a nearby coffee table is a rack of tapes and DVDs and a binder containing artist résumés. To the artists’ chagrin, no doubt, a viewer’s most guilty indulgence might be having power over the remote control.

Three-dimensional pieces by furniture designers are on display throughout the gallery as well — lighting, chairs (safe to sit on) and shelving. For example, orange “Puzzle Screens,” which the local modernist art-and-design firm Egawa + Zybryk composed of interchangeable, rounded, H-shaped pieces, are stacked up in front of the gallery windows like mod Lincoln Logs.

The exhibit’s size encourages return trips; it’s impossible to see the entire show in one sitting. The gallery sometimes has a quiet, introspective atmosphere, much like that of a library. Other times it’s more crowded, the show’s interactive nature encouraging interaction between viewers as well: People shoot glances at work over each other’s shoulders or ask other visitors for recommendations.

Once, when I was hanging out in the video-files section of the show, I met University of Kansas graduate and video artist Oz McGuire, who recommended some of his favorite work from fellow video artists — and touted his own short video “Intimidation,” which melds TV footage of a NASCAR crash with sports-themed music. But before he handed over the remote control, Oz popped in a tape by Allan Winkler. McGuire had never heard of Winkler before the show, but he’d been impressed by Winkler’s résumé and had decided to check out his work.

It was proof that Flatfile has the power to break down some of the barriers separating Kansas City’s artists and gallerygoers.

Categories: A&E, Art