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'Word Play' Exhibition At The Belger Explores Power And Humor In Text

Laura Spencer

The experience of viewing a work of art often involves words — think of the neatly typed wall panels with an artist’s name and background, or details about the work itself. The written word — and its role in and on an artwork — is the focus of a Belger Arts Center exhibition in the Crossroads Arts District. 

"A couple of years ago, there were some visitors waiting for the elevator over there," says gallery assistant Mo Dickens, on the third floor of the Belger Arts Center. "And I heard one turn to the other and say, 'Hmm … I don’t know. I’ve never liked text on paintings.'" 

Dickens was an English major, and he took this as a challenge. He spent the summer going through the Belger’s vast collection – shuffling through paintings and prints, most dating from the 1960s to the present. He was looking for text, but not quite sure what he would find.

"So I go back in our stacks and I pull out a print – and I recognized it immediately as a work by Robert Rauschenberg," says Dickens. "It was under plastic, so I pressed the plastic up really tight so I could read some of the text. And I saw, 'Change is not a contest, change is survival’s praise.'"

This print was from a portfolio created for the 1977 inauguration of Jimmy Carter. Artists such as Andy Warhol, Jamie Wyeth and Rauschenberg created portraits of the president.

"So that was the very first discovery in this journey to find text in the Belger collection – and I loved it," he says.

The exhibition, with works from the collection, is called Word Play and includes works of artists incorporating words, phrases, or sentences.

Dickens says text can be part of a landscape. In a 1983 photorealist painting by Renee Stout, there’s a group of men in a diner; a menu is posted in the window and on the wall. But sometimes, the words tell a story.

Credit courtesy: Lawrence Lithography Workshop
William T. Wiley's "Blind Mickey's Blues."

"This is by William Wiley. Wiley used a lot of text," says Dickens. "He was probably the guy we were showing the day the person said, 'I don’t really like text.' Because he puts so much text in there it can be overwhelming."

Wiley’s print called Blind Mickey’s Blues depicts cartoon character Mickey Mouse singing the blues over a cryogenic tank. A song inscribed on it tells a nonsensical tale of Walt Disney’s head being cryogenically frozen.

"It wraps up, (a) nice blues ending: 'So now you know the story of Walt has come to pass. How we're using advanced technology to save Walt Disney's ass. Ooh, what class, a permanent pass,'" he reads. 

Some artists use humor, but others tackle environmental issues or politics.

There are two gas mask sculptures by St. Louis-based artist Moses Nornberg, who's known for his hip hop style. One mask is covered in Exxon motor oil wrappers and the other with Breath Savers.

"It’s been a good piece to share with students to show them the form is one thing," he says. "It’s the same in both of these works, but the way you decorate it completely changes it, the way you react to it."

An unintended consequence is that the exhibition encourages visitors to take their time. Dickens says people tend to "hit and run galleries," but if they stop and read, it slows things down.

Word Play: Selections from the Collection, through Oct. 4, Belger Arts Center, 2100 Walnut Street, Kansas City, Mo., 816-471-3250. 

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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