Trashy People

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I know about trash in the urban core of Kansas City. My yard is often littered with the remnants of someone’s late-night feast from 7-Eleven or QT. I find Cheetos bags, Twinkies wrappers, cigarette cartons and Big Gulp containers in the azaleas. Empty beer cans and Styrofoam cups blow down my quiet street in the early morning breeze, creating a minor cacophony. I pick up the trash, dispose of it properly and complain at neighborhood association meetings. I never would have thought to paint it.

Susan Metrican has, though. In Beachcombers, a series of paintings and drawings at the Fahrenheit Gallery through the end of the month, Metrican makes art out of litter and the people who pick it up.

It was during a visit to her father’s family in Thailand that Metrican, a graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute, first became preoccupied with trash. Speaking by phone from New York City, where she has lived for the past five years, Metrican explains that in the area of Thailand where she was staying, people would throw their garbage in the streets; it was considered a social norm. The streets were unbearably dirty — walking anywhere was extremely unpleasant. Metrican organized a group of children to help her clean up the trash, and soon people began disposing of their garbage in designated areas. “They had just never thought of the alternative,” Metrican says.

One form of trash becomes a recurring theme in her paintings, and Metrican says it crosses all cultures and classes: the cigarette butt. She notes how educated people who would otherwise frown upon littering nonetheless throw cigarette butts on sidewalks.

But Metrican’s paintings don’t scream with social commentary; rather, they draw attention like a quiet clearing of the throat. In a series of three paintings, “First Thing Saturday I, II and III,” Metrican’s characters appear resigned to the task of picking up other people’s trash. “First Thing Saturday II” uses silhouettes and shades of gray and violet to depict anonymous, silhouetted figures walking, slope-shouldered, garbage bags in hand, caught midbend. As if to confirm Metrican’s commentary, I realized I was so accustomed to seeing cigarette butts as part of the landscape that I thought the clawlike tool used to pick up trash, pictured in “First Thing Saturday I,” was a metal detector instead of something directly related to the butts.

In another series of paintings, a soccer field is strewn with litter (“After Concert Event”) and a group of teenagers with garbage bags collects it (“Teen Trash Pick Up”). Finally, people gather on the cleaned-up field — presumably it’s the same kids — as if to contemplate their work (“Meditation Circle”). This is where Metrican shows her sense of humor: A somewhat pragmatic task becomes a spiritual retreat.

That sense of play becomes clearer in her other work, paintings that depict social situations where people have no model for appropriate behavior. In “Let Yourself In,” the subjects exchange keys for (we assume) a one-night stand. The key exchange is probably awkward enough, but Metrican heightens the sense of discomfort by framing only the individuals’ hands. In “Let’s Enjoy,” the setting is a bed; a masculine hand, its wrist adorned with a thick gold watch, is pushing buttons on a remote control while a feminine hand reaches for it.

This sort of intimacy isn’t necessarily pleasurable; it’s more like the closeness of a crowded elevator or subway. But Metrican’s paintings are funny in the way that seeing someone trip over a step or fall on ice is funny. Thinking about the way people throw crap in my yard, not so funny.

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