Bad to the Bone

This plains posse shoots straight from the hip

At Rocket Projects on a recent Saturday, a group of Midwestern artists gussied up for their Miami premiere. Florida Power and Light had torn apart the sidewalk in front of the gallery, and construction work blocked off the street. Someone taped signs on the building's exterior walls that read, "Enter Rockets Through the Rear."

Rather than receiving the red-carpet treatment, these artists, who flew in for "Whoop Dee Doo: Kansas City's Big Night on the Town," arrived to find the runway to Rockets paved in dirt and chunks of busted concrete. Nick Cindric, the gallery's owner, laid mulch outside his front door in an attempt to add some class to their big splash. The artists seemed nonplussed, but one of the curators paced on edge.

Curated by Jon Peck and Jaimie Warren, the exhibit, featuring works by 22 artists, many of whom studied at the Kansas City Art Institute, is looking to earn a "little respect" for a tight-knit art community back home, according to Peck. From where I stood, it succeeded just fine.

Chris Bell's You Can Never Go Home Again
Chris Bell's You Can Never Go Home Again

If you imagine a backwater still, into which every sight, sound, and emotion of a place has been crammed, from which trickles the essence of a scene, then you can taste the mule-kicking moonshine Rockets dispenses in this ambitious group show. As Warren sums it up best in the exhibition catalogue: This is "the weird, offbeat, nonsensical, homemade hillbilly weirdo, are-you-fucking-with-me shit." I couldn't have said it better myself.

Stepping in front of a flat-screen TV to check out Juan William Chávez's video, Josh as Shaman, I was transfixed by the imagery of an unshaven fop wearing a white fur cape and Superfly sunglasses while he hypnotically waved his hands to and fro above a conga drum. As bells began chiming, the fellow started to snake his tongue out at me like a startled lizard or Michael Jordan swooping in for a slam. What appeared to be a samurai sword floated into the scene from offscreen. It tumbled into the squirrelly shaman's hands as the music reached a jangling pitch and the conga drum went spastic between his legs.

Watching the fellow's antics, I was distracted by a steady sound coming from behind me. It turned out to be She Glows, a strange piece by Chris Bell that might have easily been a collaboration or an inside joke between the artist and Chávez. Bell has taken a plastic store-bought garden statue, painted it a glow-in-the-dark green, and sawed through its left foot, jerry-rigging it to make it seem as if the sculpture's toes are tapping.

Whether by design or because many of the artists are friends and familiar with each other's work, the majority of the pieces in the show complement each other like biscuits and gravy. Peck's gallery handout, however, grousing about how his Kansas City brethren are treated like bumpkins by big-city peers, smacked of hokum to me. He should veer clear of the status anxiety endemic here, stick to his guns, and let his posse from the plains hold their own mud instead.

Above Bell's rhythmic "Venus de Milo," Marcus Cain's rendition of a headbanger's hand run through a ham-slicer catches the eye. Cain's acrylic, gouache, ink, and graphite piece, Escapist: Party On, depicts someone's meaty paw, sans several fingers, with what appear to be geometric light rays shooting from its bleeding stumps.

Moon River, a quirky video work by Rebecca Dolan, features a cheesy, almost 3-D scene of a sparkling river, where a pair of buck-tooth-sporting lips set sail downstream while warbling the theme from Breakfast at Tiffany's. "Two drifters off to see the world/There's such a lot of world to see..../My huckleberry friend," they sing. As the hits keep rolling on the spool of fourteen videos looped on the gallery's solitary tube, I am struck by their wicked sense of irony.

One of the most deceptively simple yet hilarious gems here is Naoko Wowsugi's Frank. In the minute-and-a-half-long work, the artist, a Japanese exchange student who studied at the Kansas City Arts Institute, learns how to pronounce a friend's name. A closeup of a bearded man shows his mouth drawing out the name Frank again and again. As the camera cuts to the cheerful artist's face, all she can muster in response is a mumbled "Flank, Flank."

Picking my way across the dozens of works — many of which are cramped and chaotically arranged on the walls — I stumbled upon a series of pencil-on-paper drawings by Cody Critcheloe. One of them, Girls Who Scream, Women Who Dream, depicts a trio of female punk rockers standing in a circle of revelers passed out at their feet. The girls have been drawn without their mouths, and in the lower foreground a boy clutches a microphone while his head rests on the lead singer's boots. Her jeans are so tight you catch a whiff of a camel toe.

Michael Converse is another artist whose drawings jump out. He weighed in with a handful of large marker-on-graph-paper pieces remarkable for their zany subject matter. One work depicts a horse-jawed farmer wearing overalls and a straw hat while standing in front of a huge lactating breast with a nipple the size of a sausage patty. Behind him a human brain rests on a rock and with a garden hose protruding from its cavity. The farmer holds the nozzle and douses the floating tit with a stream of water. In another of Converse's odd drawings, a buzzard appears to be crowned with moose antlers. The bird roosts on a stick on whose end Cap'n Crunch's head has been skewered.

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