Kansas City Art Institute instructor Maria Elena Buszek organized Handymen in an attempt to expand the visual conversations of the annual Surface Design Association Conference, a national event hosted this year by the Art Institute and local galleries. Buszek wanted to highlight the fact that emerging artists who work with what may be traditionally seen as craft materials are more interested in the social, cultural, political and economic meanings of the materials rather than the materials themselves. She writes that the exhibition "spotlights the work of contemporary male artists working in media traditionally associated with 'feminine' aesthetics, spheres, and issues to address and subvert gender norms."
With his "Pink Shag Rug," made from spiky cable ties and screen, Ben Schaechter creates a rug that no one can step on, despite its alluring color. It both attracts and repels. So does Francis McIlveen's "Untitled (Laws of Physics — Attraction/ Repulsion)." His pink porcelain baseballs covered in a mottled, cracked glaze are enticing yet, upon closer scrutiny, fleshlike and grotesque.
Mark Newport has knitted a uniform titled "Two Gun Kid." This one-piece, loosely knit ensemble in blue, white and brown yarn suggests a police uniform through color choice, though the design implies a child's costume. It hangs on the wall, deflated of masculine presence and authority. Like any empty garment, it suggests loss and vulnerability despite its adult size. It's accompanied by three related archival inkjet prints. In "Button Up," a maternal figure fastens a man into his one-piece costume. He is a man, not a boy, yet the scene contains an overturned dump truck and a sock monkey. In "Whudd," a man is bent over, furiously knitting while, in the action scene behind him — borrowed from comic- book aesthetics — the word Whudd explodes as a sound effect. The idea of a knitting man as a superhero challenges notions of masculinity and power and traditional storytelling devices.
Like Newport, Bren Ahearn trades on the broad social, cultural and personal associations we have with clothing. In "Straight Back to my College Days," Ahearn layers a well-worn Penn sweatshirt over a polo shirt, then pulls the sweatshirt sleeves tight, like a straitjacket. Across the "Penn" lettering, Ahearn has sewn a running stitch that leads us to the back of the garment, where a lively and snappy narrative unfolds. Using several different colors of thread and including a legend to tell us what each represents, Ahearn connects pictures of people — "sex partners; love triangle; roommates; didn't know was gay; still closeted." Ahearn understands the emotional and psychic impact of garments.
We cannot help but be moved by clothing. It reminds us of who we were at a particular time in our lives or who we wanted to be. It allows us to try on different personas and alter how we navigate social territories. It is one of our most powerful vehicles of self-expression.