High Tension: Kemper Museum explores tactile realms with Tensile Strength exhibit

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Soaps and stones from Used and Worn by artist June Ahrens (soap, stones, and steel). // Courtesy photo

We bend until we break. That tension and balance before the breakage is the theme running through the exhibit Tensile Strength, currently on view at the Kemper Museum. 

The precarity of El Gato perched atop a pedestal, a dense swirl of textured rubber—repurposed tires—by artist Chakaia Booker, suggests the pounce and poise of a cat. Everything in this exhibit seems to reflect the precarity of our times. El Gato is all at once tough and fragile. It seems indestructible and as if it could topple at any moment. 

In the face of such precarity, it seems our survival depends on making treasure from our trash. The repurposed materials in Bruce Dorfman’s The Weight of Light and Elias Sime’s Tightrope: On the Edge are examples of envisioning new from the old. Weight of Light, a “composite painting” made up of canvas, wood, metal, paper, fabric, and acrylic, pulls your eye into all the details and textures—the sense that all of this is cobbled together from something else, things that you easily could’ve left neglected in a heap. Instead, Dorfman makes it all into this abstract, contemplative wall-hung structure. 

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(Left) El Gato by Chakaia Booker (rubber tires, wood). // Courtesy photo

Sime’s Tightrope is also an assemblage of materials, but with a very different result: a massive wall piece that looks like a satellite image, a map from above. Electronic computer components in reddish-brown, silver, and green make city blocks and fields. The eight panels stretch at least 12 feet across, wowing viewers the overview from afar, to standing a breath away from the wall, taking in the microchips and circuitry that make up the components of this mosaic. The curatorial wall text reads, “The title Tightrope: On the Edge alludes to the precarity of our fast-paced consumer habits and quick disposal of technological products.”

Especially in a time of “supply chain issues” and infrastructure instability, it is all the more troubling how disposable these materials are. What fertile fields or lovely landscapes were destroyed to excavate and extract the materials needed to make these microchips? Now here they are, (re)used to represent another landscape.

Regarding disposability, we then turn to the wall of partially-used soap bars. Used and Worn by June Ahrens is a 16 x 32 grid of small steel trays holding either used soap or stones. The steel trays are reminiscent of soap dishes and may also be sardine cans. Most are filled with used soaps of varying colors and shapes, though in a few, you will find rocks instead. I was floored by the human presence in this piece—the hands that have touched these soaps. The time represented by the slow wearing away of soap bars and the slow erosion and shaping of stones. The stones are of the earth, just as we are. There is a reclamation at work here. These objects feel like remnants of humanity after the wreckage of climate and capitalism renders them all artifacts of a time before. 

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A full view and detail (below) from Tightrope: On the Edge by artist Elias Sime (reclaimed electronic computers on eight panels). // Courtesy photo

That could be an alternate title for this exhibition: “What We Make from the Wreckage.” The artworks here are hard-edged but tender, delicate but strong, and precise but all-encompassing. 

Donald Sultan uses oil paint, tar, and spackle on tile in Spike Acanthe, July 5, 1993, a flower of red blooms and green leaves emerging from industrial materials. William Christenberry’s House at Christmastime, Greensboro, Alabama is a small replica of a ramshackle, half-whitewashed home. A deteriorating home representing a deteriorating community, reproduced in intimate detail, with mismatched roof sections and uneven door frames. 

The massive fragile, pendulous bulbs of Jaume Plensa’s The Androgen perfectly evoke the theme of precarity and strength that runs through this show. The oversized bulbs—one red, three transparent—hang from white fabric attached high up on the wall. The height offers ominous potential energy. I can’t help but feel the shatter, the tremulous what-if-they-fell.

That potential energy, that impending failure, our ongoing societal collapse, is at work throughout the show. I have good news, though—there is beauty in the wreckage. 

Tensile Strength is on view through June 11 at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 4420 Warwick Blvd, Kansas City, MO. Free admission.

Categories: Art