The transgressions start with touch.
The only way to navigate the 2014 Kansas City Flatfile, at the H&R Block Artspace, is to break ingrained taboos and touch the art (not without a pair of oil-absorbing white gloves that you're given). It's a strange experience at first, flipping through the files with childlike reverence, afraid that someone might stop you or that the pages might crumble like leaves between your fingers.
Let that hesitation go, though, and you can revel in the indulgent pleasure of getting up close and personal with these works. Feel Evan Pardue's oil sketches, for instance, and you'll understand that the pooling paint on supple Yupo paper delivers heft both visual and tangible. "Studio #3" and "Downstairs Bar" are among Pardue's strongest pieces, seductive in their Impressionist-like attention to light halos and hazy glows.
Miki Baird's smooth prints (look for "Need") frustrate the tactile impulse. Her disorienting tapestries seem woven from paper-shredder scraps but remain stubbornly two-dimensional. Baird subtly distorts the images by varying the size and slant of the "threads" in each striation.
And some other works are best read like Braille. David Rhoads' series of craggy oil and pastel drawings is richly textured but resembles set dressing from the lair of a Dexter villain in the middle of a psychotic break. (The pointed William Blake references do nothing to counter this comparison.)
Caleb Taylor's tightly controlled collages satisfy on multiple sensory fronts. Taylor layers lattices of thick paper over black-and-white illustrations and photographs from old coffee-table books. "Codex Remodeled Series #22, Intersection" controls our view of the backdrop with stripes laid out like venetian blinds, geometric viewfinders to filter our gaze. Another in the series, "#56, New Roman Times," trades crisp lines for more jagged, staticky shapes, piled on the page like straw.
Taylor is perhaps better known as a painter, but his pared-down collages outpace his other works in their clarity and straight-edge precision. The occasional accent of high-gloss paper may even be one embellishment too many on the artist's mostly matte constructions.
Johnny Naugahyde's file breaks further boundaries, starting with a surprise (I won't spoil it here) that gives his work a deserved fanfare. Naugahyde's mixed-media collages combine hand-addressed letters with peephole photographs and typewritten epigraphs (as in "He Had No Regrets" or "He Longed for More Time"). It's character crafting, flush with the romance of yellowed envelopes and the wanderlust of Cold War–era stamps. The result is an almost uncomfortable intimacy, as though you were nosing through a stack of your parents' love letters. The backs of the pieces are no less personal: The letters are patched together with messy stripes of masking tape, suggesting the work not of a dispassionate archivist but of an obsessive who never plans to take them down from the wall. Among other things, Naughahyde's file reminds us that future generations are bound to feel almost no voyeuristic thrill should they trawl through our electronic inboxes. Reading your name typed in semianonymous 12-point Garamond can never mean as much as seeing it in a loved one's cramped script.
Charlie Mylie's "Booty Notes" show instead a less romantic side of ink-soaked intimacy. Mylie's fleshy cartoon figures call to mind James Thurber's drawings; both artists use minimal pen strokes to frame their nudes in comic postures. Mylie's figures, however, occupy individual yellow Post-it Notes as they turn up their noses, arch their backs with courtly flair and sit on each other's faces. OK, so maybe a little bluer than Thurber. Still, Mylie draws his fellatio fans with such pomp and ironic dignity that the effect is more whimsical than vulgar.
Flipping through Mylie's two daily drawing devotionals is a much more private affair. Over the course of two zines, he reflects on mundane experiences with an engaged spirit, reimagining interactions with sharp visual metaphors and spare but substantive text. What started as a personal project — one drawing a day for a hundred days — morphs, as the pages turn, into something more polished and audience-aware. A Stack of Stones, his second zine, pairs bolder, more consistent lettering with his cartoons, and each panel feels like an entry inside a personal scrapbook. Mylie's unpretentious drawings have unexpected weight and warmth. They are among the exhibition's most rewarding discoveries.
Other surprises include two strong photographs from A. Bitterman, artistic alias of Reading Reptile proprietor Pete Cowdin (see The Pitch's July 12, 2012, story "Bitterman Crusoe"). "The Scout" and "Stands on the Sun" capture familiar Kansas City landmarks in strange new lights, and the striking photographs are as compassionate as they are bizarre. "Stands on the Sun" casts a complicated figure against the Nelson-Atkins' imposing shadows at dusk. A third photograph, "Half Life," seems pat by comparison. The split-screen photo of a figure perched on the "Troost Wall" fails to complicate a familiar conceit.
If you missed Ricky Allman's paintings at Kemper at the Crossroads (that exhibit closed August 1), you can trace isolated elements from those pieces through the artist's flat file. One highlight, a delicate, pale drawing on semitransparent paper, pencils a spindly cityscape from shifting perspectives. Organic forms — continents or snow drifts — seem to cling to the landscape's industrial edges, leaping out from the page in a stark shade of white. Two other drawings on toothy watercolor paper swap man-made metropolises for hulking land masses. Yet another fills a glass stairwell with swirling confetti debris. Allman has a range to match his imagination, and each piece in his file seems to have its own vocabulary of color and style.
Although a rotating selection graces the Artspace's walls, this almost overwhelming exhibition (more than 150 artists are on view) is mostly self-directed. You can stage your own conversations between artists by design or by simply pulling open a drawer at random. You might not find the conversations interesting the first time through. But with so much to choose from at Flatfile, you'd be foolish not to pull on a pair of gloves and start touching the art.