At Dolphin, Eric Sall paints a colorful escape route

It’s a cold Saturday afternoon in the West Bottoms, and a parking lot is cluttered with folding tables and chairs and coolers and Weber grills and stacks of firewood. Campfire-smelling smoke is blowing everywhere. But it’s not the American Royal Barbecue. Nor is it a cookout to feed the homeless, even though some of the bundled-up people look like they live life pretty close to the edge. No, this is the beginning of an annual event called the “Evil Monkey Party.” It marks the years — four of them now — since John Puscheck died. Puscheck, a painter who threw barbecues like this one, lived in a house on Charlotte Street, and now there’s a foundation named after that house, one that gives money to Kansas City artists. Today’s party will go long past dark, with music later despite the bitter wind. At the end of the night, one of the partiers will write on Facebook: “John Puscheck lives.”

The art space known as Dolphin lives, too. It’s been a year since pioneering gallery owner John O’Brien moved out of the Crossroads District and into a big, industrial-looking cube a couple of blocks east of the Livestock Exchange Building, across the street from an electric-company truck yard. Even with a party starting, Dolphin’s parking lot feels nothing like the Crossroads.

“I love it down here,” O’Brien says. “It’s been good for me.” He adds with a note of wonder that it’s been nearly 20 years since he started the gallery. It’s hard for him to judge how the business is going in this economy, he says, but the gallery has been busy.

“I’m very excited about the neighborhood,” he says. He notes that his Crossroads forerunner, Jim Leedy, supported the move. “Jim Leedy said we’re a city of the arts, not just a neighborhood. He encouraged me to push out.”

Inside this gallery’s spacious, concrete-floored main room, Eric Sall is pushing, too. In Isolated Incidents, Sall (a 1999 Kansas City Art Institute grad and onetime Charlotte Street Award recipient) shoves, smears, drips, swipes and piles paint onto seven large canvases in unsubtle colors. Each outsized abstract has its own distinctive theme, and Sall has given each work a name that suggests narrative: In “Blown Out,” an electric volt of thin bright yellow causes a thick disturbance amid steady winds of brown, aqua, turquoise and beige. The sickly pink shape in “Washed Out” emerges from a charcoal maw to echo and mock Rothko. “In Bloom” evokes a purple iris rising above springlike sputters and puffs of steamy reds, pinks and whites, with variations on cog shapes helping propel the ascent against winter blackness (alternative, hornier interpretation: giant blue bunny ears dripping with white-fur paint atop machinery that’s ready to get moving).

Far more intriguing than these particular paintings, however, is the “Studio Wall Installation,” a massive collection of random inspiration and painting exercises filling the space between two large paintings on the west wall. It’s hung with photographs of iconic American scenery: a sidewalk-level view of the Transamerica Pyramid; the blue-sky-and-puffy-white-cloud painted archway of the Blue Skies Inn Bed & Breakfast in Manitou Springs, Colorado; a worn-out shingle roof; black vinyl records; greenhouses filled with cacti; a lonesome highway; mountains; the Brooklyn Bridge. Scattered in between are skateboard decks that Sall has used as oblong canvases and small paintings, many of them clearly inspired by the real-world images nearby. Here, this abstract painter demonstrates how he transforms daily life and its objects into triangles, blocks, circuits, circles, discs, washes, spurts and squiggles.

He also notices freeways and buildings. Sall calls the painting on the north wall “Rock of Ages,” but he could have named it “Manhattan.” It’s a big island of sooty black where occasional greens, reds, oranges, whites, yellows and blues climb over one another, swerve like they’re in a hurry, drip like they’re lonely, make tracks and, finally, blend. Things are quieter on the blacker left side of the painting — the dark side of town, the kind of place where a gallery owner like John O’Brien, fed up with First Friday crowds and rising property taxes, might escape to be happy again.

Categories: A&E