Displaying objects that we see every day in the real world out beyond the gallery walls, the Belger Arts Center's expansive and multifaceted American Dream: By Design shows just how much the lines are blurred between art and utility, form and function. There's way too much stuff (which might be part of the point), but that doesn't diminish the fun of trying to bring order to these disparate objects.
A certain logic reveals itself if visitors are willing to wander the space and contemplate the American impulse to invent. The equation goes something like this: Classic cars lead to Harley-Davidson motorcycles, which lead to Kansas City's Kenton Brothers Security Systems, the "Merlot Room" (the re-creation of an art nouveau room), some Civil War-era muskets and rifles, old diner accruements and one-of-a-kind model airplanes. Accompanying these are traditional works of art by Terry Winters, Robert Stackhouse, Terry Karson, William A. Christenberry Jr. and others.
But there's more.
The building's first floor houses three vehicles from the John and Maxine Belger Family Foundation: a 1931 Packard 840 Victoria Convertible, a 1935 Ford Fire Truck and a 1919 Dodge Truck. All three are beautiful, unique and, sure, works of art. Additionally, there's a photo display detailing the Belger family's contribution to Kansas City through its cartage company (moving oversized things such as airplanes, a Truman statue and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art's shuttlecocks). Nearby, a Duane Hanson sculpture, "Dock Man," sits at a table, lazy and lifelike, reading the newspaper.
We got stuck trying to wrap our overstimulated brains around 10 small, synchronized clocks wired to a master clock (a display celebrating the invention and standardization of separate but synchronized timepieces). We loved the handmade creations by World War II airplane-engine mechanic Lawrence Lemke. He builds his model airplanes from memory, and to scale, from found materials piano wire, coffee-can lids, corn-dog sticks. They're so convincing and well-made, they look like they could fly.
Elsewhere, standing near an area called "Design in Everyday Life," is Clayton Bailey's hilarious pseudo-robot "Bug Zapper." Of average human height, the titular device has wires where its heart should be and, for added flair, a faucet knob for a nose. It's great, seemingly built out of kitchen materials. Another Bailey piece, "Secretary," looks like an understudy for The Jetsons' maid robot. It could be Bug Zapper's playmate.
Nearby, the vintage appliances, some on loan from Waid's Restaurant on Southwest Boulevard, are American treasures it's hard to resist the quaintness of a 1925 Universal toaster or a vintage 7-Up machine and Coke bottles. We never would have wondered about the origins of common inventions such as the safety pin (introduced in 1849), the Tabasco bottle (1868) or the drinking straw (1888), but now we know.
Even more fun are the old Harleys, one from 1917, another from 1925, because they look so primitive, so ancient. Marvels when first introduced, now they look like supercharged mopeds, something you'd give to your little sister for her birthday.
By that point, though, we couldn't bear to spend more than a few seconds looking at all the muskets and rifles behind Plexiglas. And we all but ignored the traditional art by Stackhouse and Christenberry no offense; we just decided to save them for another day.
Though the collection is scattered, both physically and thematically, it's easy to appreciate the creative and pioneering American spirit evident throughout, to be surprised by the array of stuff, and to grow thoroughly exhausted.
Fortunately, we have until November to catch our breath before the sequel, American Dream: In Question, arrives. Reportedly, it's more political.
We doubt, however, that it will provide any insight into something we're still wondering: Why don't we see more motorcycles in art galleries, anyway?