"Alias" at The Bank had a premise that sounded gimmicky. Curator Davin Watne picked 14 artists (ten local and four from across the country, all of whom have shown in Kansas City before) to exhibit artwork under pseudonyms, with the promise that their true identities would not be exposed. Each artist was encouraged to include an artist statement that was shown in conjunction with the work. The test of whether something was a gimmick or not rested in the substance contained therein — will you remember this show for the work presented or just for its clever curatorial mission/premise?
The range of work, along with the scope and depth of much of the output, left little to doubt regarding the lasting effect of both the artwork itself and the curator’s ambition. Included in the show were sculptures, videos, photo installations, and paintings, many by artists who regularly show in galleries under other names and using other mediums and genres. Under those circumstances the work might have been considered with a varying degree of success, yet overall the work did stand on its own and was accompanied by a feeling of freedom on behalf of the artists themselves. It is easy for the viewer to underestimate the conflict of even the moderately successful exhibiting artist when their work becomes recognized based on a style that has enjoyed critical or market success. Suddenly the identifiable becomes closer to a brand name or trademark, and the risks of experimenting with an untested medium or style corner the artist into a repetitive cycle bereft of experimentation (see Chuck Close's portraits). "Alias" broke this wicked cycle by giving artists free reign with no background baggage and no threat of identities being exposed. To their credit the artists responded with clever, sardonic, and often hilarious work that commented on a range of themes from identity-based work to the ultra seriousness of art world movements of the last century.
Three of the pieces by Mr. X are 22-by-30-inch, black and white photographs revealing locations where the artist committed heinous crimes. Mr. X's artist statement gives a detailed account of his troubled life including the fact that he now resides in a maximum-security prison in Missouri. We are never told if the photos were taken by Mr. X or by crime scene investigators, but the high contrast and dramatic composition lend the work a noir feel while the exposed negative frames lend an artistic touch that makes one certain Mr. X was one of those murderers who had a penchant for photography. The locations of the crimes committed (a tree house, a box car, and an old couch in an alley) become more disturbing when the literature about the artist reveals all his crimes (aggravated criminal sodomy, attempted murder, theft, etc.) took place in Midtown and Downtown Kansas City.
An antithetical desperation to Mr. X is portrayed in Lenny Hurch's untitled video work, which portrays the artist in a warts-and-all close up intended for a video dating service. In Lenny's statement he reveals his daytime job as a short order cook and his love of Nascar as well his desire "to meet a hot lady who's into finer things, like getting eat out." His crass straightforward lexicon is matched by the imagery in the video. Lenny is not only a pig, but also an ogre with a pudgy face that has not been shaven in three days, a greasy head of black receding hair, and he sweats profusely. In the short video the artist makes a range of noises and sound effects using his mouth, lips, lungs, and solar plexus. From the fart mimicking to the post-orgasmic yawn Hurch displays a range of pitch and scale that has been edited in post-production to achieve a great effect of allegros and crescendos, ending with the artist looking exhausted and pleased.
Jerí Cêch's installation encompassed one of the two gallery rooms adjacent to the main exhibition area. Cêch's oeuvre included a sound piece, two video works, crayon drawings, poetry books, inspirational postcards, t-shirts with the artist's silhouette in overcoat and fedora, packaged cigarette butts smoked by the artist, garlic necklaces, and a devotional collage to former Enron chief financial advisor Andy Fastow. All were packaged, priced, and ready to sell. Cêch is an established alter-ego who is a walking contradiction: an unrepentant über-capitalist, a dark brooding poet, a refugee of Central Europe, a vampire, an art world star, and a real-estate developer. Much of the works included suggest that Cêch is an archetypal European Modernist. The photos of Cêch on his t-shirts and postcards show a tall man with his back turned wearing a fedora and overcoat. The video featuring Cêch's poem "It's a Man's World" contain not so subtle phallic references and lines like ‘all wars are fruitful’, but Cêch defies simple caricature. Playing off the theme of the entrepreneurial artist, the art therapy-inspired, crude, crayon drawings included in the show fetch up to $12,000 (they are an art world sensation according to Cêch's biography). The real Jirí Cêch is hard to pin down because his autobiography is laced with factual information, including the printing of his book of poems "Whither", poems of exile, and the publication of his poetry in "The Iowa Review". One certainty from Cêch's installation is that his work is conceptually engaging without being dry or didactic, it is hilarious and a welcome addition.
The installation documenting the "SuperRealist" movement parodies the language, form, and seriousness of 20th century "isms" by providing a photocopied manifesto, a video monitor piece, photo collage of car wreckage, a photo documentation of a faux performance border exchange, and a Morse code drawing of the manifesto signed by its authors. The artists’ biography stated that the group "officially disbanded when the term ‘superreal’ became increasingly commodified and overused as a description for the otherwise indescribable in cultural discourse". Clever and shameless in its nod towards Futurism, Dada, and Conceptual art, the work reminds the viewer that the naming and categorizing in an effort to clarify is generally the work of historians and not the artists themselves, who usually end up sounding didactic and authoritarian.
Gracia Therber's I'll give you something to cry about depicts two pen and ink portraits of women who resemble each other in looks alone. Each drawing includes a caption relating to the women's desire to conform to a certain norm, one materialistic and one physical.
The photography installation by Evelynn Casey Adams, of banal black and white photos of Midtown Kansas City, were arranged around the center column of the gallery and taken by the amateur, elderly artist. Framed in various, cheap, homely wood and brass frames, and arranged salon style, the non-descript imagery recalls conceptual photography installations by Martha Rosler as much as the arrangements found in the hallway of an elder relative.
"Alias" ultimately freed up artists to explore different media and content, and it was a welcome sign to see such divergent media and genre in a group show of mainly local artists. "Alias'" success at The Bank follows the excitement created by other recent shows at the gallery; the wearable art show curated by Your Face and the two group shows curated by Tom Gregg that proceeded it. As with other spaces provided by the Urban Culture Project, The Bank looks to be leading the way towards a progressive and challenging gallery scene in Kansas City.