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For Two Kansas City Art Institute Grads, Bright And Drab Colors Tell Equally Vibrant Stories

Nelson Pereira
'Higher Perspective of Playa El Cuco,' a photograph by Kansas City Art Institute alum Nelson Pereira.

When two trained and industrious young artists, each exhibiting a set of arresting photos, understand themselves less as notable new photographers than as people with serious questions who happen to have cameras – just like everyone else with an iPhone and an Instagram – the message is a striking indication of where the form is headed now.

But when one of them says “We create the value for our images” and the other agrees, that’s a joint show, namely, "This Is Really Happening, See?" at the Kansas City Public Library.

"Happening" consists of inkjet photo prints by Casey Lee Holden, a 25-year-old Kansas City Art Institute graduate, and 22-year-old photographer Nelson Pereira, another KCAI alum.

Holden’s shots, centered on her Oklahoma hometown, are sly, quietly revealing and sometimes haunting. Pereira’s also stem from an exploration of heritage, though their wit and force come from the kind of deep coloration and implied motion that Holden pointedly avoids.

The show kicks off a series of student-organized exhibitions at the library this year.

“I was putting together a proposal and I thought, 'Who are the people whose work I want to see in a gallery right now? Whose work needs to be on a wall and be seen by the public?'” says Amy Hixson, the painting major at the Art Institute who curated this exhibition. “I wish I could say this was hard, but really my work was easy. I recognized connections between the ways they are navigating their environments.”

Holden’s prints come from her previous series "Came for a Wedding and Stayed for a Funeral," commemorating a visit to Oklahoma that included a grandparent’s burial and a friend’s nuptials. Her palette here is a wilted bouquet, appropriate to her depiction of the space between dutiful mourning and dutiful celebration.

“I’m thinking about the menial and mundane tasks we take part in,” Holden told an audience of about 30 people at the library in late February.

She was explaining the boredom of ritual she finds amusing alongside the solemnity of, say, wearing a floral-patterned dress and laying artificial flowers on a grave while an elderly relative dozes in a nondescript Chevy Impala.

Credit Casey Lee Holden
One of the photographs by Kansas City Art Institute graduate Casey Lee Holden at the Kansas City Public Library's 'This Is Really Happening, See?'

How does the bored, parochial Midwesterner inside her co-exist with her internal city-dwelling photographer?

“The line between them is very blurred,” Holden told KCUR.

“I waver between the two. Here, I am an artist. There, I am a daughter. In both, I am learning to exist as both an observer and a participant.”

Pereira, who came to the Art Institute from Houston, is also thinking of roots.

“My intention is to document where I’m from and experience it in photos,” he told KCUR. His 22 images are narrowed from a raw 4,000 taken during a monthlong trip to his family’s native El Salvador a couple of winters ago (where he went for a cheap root canal and stayed for New Year’s).

At a glance, Pereira's images are starkly different from Holden’s, emphasizing bright colors and a lush climate — posters for a travel agency rather than an undertaker’s brochure.

“Color happens very differently in this place. Nothing there is neutral or toned down,” he said, and the cheerfully oversaturated “Higher Perspective of Playa El Cuco” (shown at top) proves him right.

But his brilliant colors complement rather than clash with Holden’s suburban drabness. There are no crowd scenes in her photos, and the light tends to reveal manmade beiges and godforsaken earth tones ahead of bolder hues.

Credit Casey Lee Holden
One of Casey Lee Holden's photographs in 'This Is Really Happening, See?'

The vividness of Pereira’s street scenes, some claustrophobically peopled and all rich in evidence of dense population (even the litter is piquant), makes the scale of Holden’s shots more affecting, and draws out what color there is.

Where Holden’s sensibility most acutely lines up with Pereira’s aesthetic might be the photo of her young niece slouched low in a patio glider, her arms folded, a handful of dark-red cherries in the lap of her purple dress. It’s guileless, a little provocative — and, Holden said, a good example of her approach to photography.

“The cherry photo is one of those moments where everything came together without my hand, aside from my composition or the presence of the camera,” she said. “I was thinking a lot about this cycle of growing up, of becoming a woman, and of learning things about the world and yourself.”

Pereira’s photos are most stirring when they find the gaze of strangers.

Credit Nelson Pereira
'Walking Out of Comalapa Airport,' a photograph by Kansas City Art Institute alum Nelson Pereira.

In “Walking Out of Comalapa Airport,” he has just arrived in El Salvador, and the whole country seems to be there to pick him up. In a dense scrum just behind a barrier row of luggage carts, he shows us bored faces, expectant faces, faces old and young — many making eye contact with him (and us), some conveying distrust.

“My people, they like to stare,” he says. Everywhere, though, he and Holden find people and moments worth staring back at.

This Is Really Happening, See? through April 1 at the Kansas City Public Library, 14 West 10th Street, Kansas City, Missouri; 816-701-3400.

Scott Wilson is a writer and editor in Kansas City. Contact him at editorscottwilson@gmail.com.

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