If you can call any of the exhibitions at Grand Arts typical, then last winter's Ecstatic Resistance might have been it. An earnest mix of photography, performance art, dimensional assemblies, printmaking, film and video, it brought together a disparate group of international creators engaged with the fusion of politics and pleasure. It was exactly the kind of sprawling, kaleidoscopic engagement preferred by this gallery of big ideas.
What the curatorially astonishing Ecstatic Resistance was not, though, was a crowd-pleaser, something this rebel space hasn't had in recent memory. Until now. Six weeks ago, a tall, hugely gifted painter named Ryan Mosley came from London to Kansas City, took up residence at Grand Arts and painted its most accessible exhibition of the past two or three years. A layered, hazy collection of gentle surrealism, Mosley's Painting Séance often feels like a timeless dreamscape encounter with the American West.
"My practice is based around the process of painting," Mosley says at Grand Arts two weeks before the opening. For him, the point of painting lies in exploration, and a piece can change utterly from one day to the next. He chases forms and fields of color across the canvas until they slowly coalesce into something that feels like completion. The finished painting is completely unpredictable. "The light here changes during the day," he says of the galleries. "Late at night, I might think a painting is finished, and then I'll see it by light of day and realize that it's actually quite far from finished. Sometimes in the morning, the girls will come into the gallery, and the paintings have changed so much overnight that they freak out and wonder where yesterday's paintings have gone."
A number of paintings lean against the wall, upside down. Mosley rights them for consideration. "I tend to look at them upside down when I'm not working on them, so I won't get used to seeing them, I suppose. It sounds daft." It's an attempt to avoid getting too attached to work that he knows he'll want to change.
Because he works across simultaneous canvases rather than executing consecutive paintings, the pieces in this exhibition are visually related. "The paintings inform one another," he says. "Something might happen in one painting that affects the others." The three largest canvases — "Wild Brew," "Waiting for Romance" and "Target Practice" (an impossible still life depicting a large cactus growing from a stack of hats) — present the same Southwestern color palette and shared visual motifs: mustachioed frontiersmen, jumbles of cowboy boots, old-fashioned hats, a cream-colored background expanse. "I think it feels like something is about to happen," Mosley says of the three paintings. "The colors look like noontime or daybreak colors." Mosley's paintings are visually deep: The lucid colors of the topmost layers bear the texture and the influence of under-paintings just as painstaking.
The cacti make up the exhibit's most obvious theme. They grow from the ground, surrounding the figures, their arms gesturing from the edges of the compositions like the marginalia of illuminated manuscripts. "I've always been interested in figurative painting, and cacti are the most figurative plants," he says. "It's like they're waving at you." They began appearing in his work before he came to the United States, evolving from chaotic, needled growths into the reduced forms visible at Grand Arts, swoops of paint at the edges of the canvases. "I like taking a motif and really working it and breaking it down to its essential parts," he says.
At the opening party the night of June 4, plastic tarps have been ripped from the floor and walls, stacked paintings expertly hung. A series of mysterious oval portraits called "Lords of the Frontier" has been sequestered in the Grand Arts small gallery. The haunting images are formally staged but unconventionally posed. Most of the subjects have their backs to the viewer, and all are slightly off-center. "The pieces don't feel like 2010, but they also don't feel like 1886," Mosley says. "They could be from any time. I used the form of portraits because portraits denote wealth, leadership, hierarchy. The ovals were an obvious way of capturing these images — they seem somewhat antiquated, like a prop from a stage play. They're meant to suggest the figureheads of society. Because you look at old photographs and you know nothing about the people. They could be completely fraudulent. Were they good people? Did they have vices?"
In scope, Painting Séance is as ambitious as other exhibits Mosley has painted, but he worked the fastest for it. "I've done equivalent shows in about six months," he says. "Here, there's no commute, I had nothing but time to paint. They're quite fast paintings but in some parts quite labored. That's the question: Can you make six months of work in only six weeks? If everything falls into place, then yes." The man seems satisfied. "I'm really happy," he says. "There are 14 finished paintings and another 14 that weren't finished or that somehow didn't fit." The next time he sees the work, he'll be in London. "They'll ship them to me," he says. He thinks a moment about the size of the crates that Grand Arts will have to build to contain his large canvases. "That will be quite amazing."