The Wichita Art Museum is known for its American collection. Its permanent collection and traveling exhibits frequently showcase the works of artists who are deceased or from across the country – or both.
So it is significant and represents a bit of a departure to highlight the work of a group of living Wichita artists, which “Art’s Pure Voice: Abstraction in Wichita” does.
The exhibit at the Wichita Art Museum was curated by Patricia McDonnell, the museum’s executive director, whose expertise is in early American modernism – the moment where abstraction developed.
“I started with an impulse and a desire to present Wichita artists in our museum,” she said. “We are the Wichita Art Museum; we should be able to reflect some of the strong, really wonderful artists who also call the city home.”
McDonnell wanted to link people intellectually with a beautiful gallery exhibit, and she sought out local artists she had admired for years.
“When it came to me that abstraction overall is a strong impulse in our city, then it all kind of fell into place,” she said.
For their part, the artists featured in “Art’s Pure Voice” – James Gross, Kevin Kelly, Kevin Mullins, Ann Resnick and Kate Van Steenhuyse – feel honored and pleasantly surprised to be selected for a Wichita Art Museum exhibition. They say it represents a boost to their careers.
“It puts your work in a different context – all of the sudden it’s valid,” Mullins said. “It sounds silly, but you can, as an artist, work in a vacuum so long. There are places to show here in town, but top of the pops is WAM and the Ulrich.”
Van Steenhuyse is the owner of The Harvester Arts. So day in and out, she is working on demystifying the processes behind contemporary art.
“At Harvester, what we’re interested in is exposing people to process and ideas over slick, finished projects,” she said. “At WAM, slick, finished projects – that’s the whole point of the museum … and that’s a wonderful thing.”
Having her work displayed at the museum in a “really beautifully done show” is an honor. “I’m a painter – I love objects that hang on a wall,” Van Steenhuyse said.
Kelly, a painter, says a museum show brings a level of gravitas to an artist’s career, and he appreciates the spotlight on abstraction.
“I do think that abstraction is something that is very alive,” he said. “People always say that painting is something that is kind of outdated and past its time, but walking around the exhibit, I can certainly say there are some really new exciting directions that very smart Wichita painters are taking – and I’m not talking about myself here – that really are vital. … It’s breathing new life, for sure, into something that people can kind of think of as passe.”
Kelly’s paintings in the exhibit are based on the ordinary and mundane. He takes things such as the colors of dead grass and packaging and explores “what happens when myself as an artist has to make something beautiful and painterly out of those things.”
Mullins, a mixed media artist who often combines elements of printmaking with painting, says he wants his finished pieces to be beautiful, but he also wants their creation to be puzzling
“I very much like to baffle the viewer as to how the object is made,” he said.
One of the works featured in the exhibit is Resnick’s “Our Town,” a mixed media piece named with a nod to the Thornton Wilder play.
Resnick started with obituary pages from The Wichita Eagle, taking them to abstraction with pencils, stencils and fire.
Resnick said she was in a place personally where she was thinking about the end of community and of the deaths and illnesses of friends, family and pets. She says she enjoyed reading the obituaries she used for “Our Town.”
“I don’t just cover them,” she said. “I like to know that these people have community, and they were somebody in the community.”
Just as a play is often in three acts, she thinks of life that way.
“First, you’re creating a community for yourself and then that second part is cementing those relationships or adding and subtracting – finding your people, so to speak,” Resnick said. “And then that last stage is maybe detaching from all that.”
Resnick doesn’t want to strike a dismal note. She hopes that others will come away with the same feeling she has when she views “Our Town.”
“Those two aren’t mutually exclusive – obituaries and joy,” she said.
As curator, McDonnell deliberately chose succinct wall text for the exhibit, which runs through Aug. 30 in the Paul Ross Gallery and the Scott and Carol Ritchie Gallery.
“It’s not an explanation, it’s a lens in,” she said. “The content interests of the artists are very diverse. .. It’s all abstract, but each of these artists pursue abstraction for very, very different purposes.”
If You Go
‘Art’s Pure Voice: Abstraction in Wichita’
Where: Wichita Art Museum, 1400 W. Museum Blvd.
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat., noon-5 p.m. Sun. through Aug. 30
Admission: $7 adults; $5 seniors; $3 students and youth ages 5-17; free on Saturdays