Matt Wycoff
Untitled (Left: Douglas Huebler, Untitled, Oil on plaster relief on panel in artist's frame, 1959, 24" x 30" Right: Matt Wycoff, Color field painting loosely inspired by color I see during orgasm, Oil on canvas, 2006, 72" x 72"), 2015

One/Thinking Two/Willing  /  Adam Marnie and Matt Wycoff  /  Organized by Dawn Blackman  /  Kijidome  /   Boston, MA, 2016


Review Magazine, Architecture Issue, Summer 2003

In the spring of 2002 I began some research into the history of segregation in Kansas City. I found a racial divide instigated by white developers and facilitated by a misinformed public to be a root cause of the segregation that exists here. This racial divide exists in many of the so-called second tier cities in America. While there are other reasons for the persistence of this division in Kansas City, this story of white developers devaluing the property of integrated neighborhoods by spreading racial myths and offering segregated alternatives reappears again and again. This segregation still exists to date through the questionable use of tax codes such as tax increment financing (TIF) and widely accepted racial stereotypes pertaining to property value and race.

With this research, my intention was to cultivate several distinct ends. I wanted to gauge the extent to which racism exists today in our community as well as isolate its current means. I wanted to familiarize myself with a specific history that could explain the racial evolution in this city and then use that as an index to think about racism on a larger scale. I wanted to become aware of groups in our city that combat racism as well as design a work for myself that could engage my research in a meaningful, sustained, and highly experiential way. Finally I wanted to place this information into a forum where it could engage others as part of a larger dialogue.

Focusing on Troost Avenue and its function in our community as a modern day Mason Dixon line, I looked into census reports citing annual income and percentages of residents that live at or below the poverty line. These residents are almost exclusively black and live east of Troost Avenue. Not only is little being done retroactively to facilitate development and investment opportunities on the east side of Kansas City, but short sighted policy continues to negatively affect the east side of Kansas City.

Tax Increment Financing (TIF) has become a key issue in discussions concerning economic policy in Kansas City. Tax Increment Financing, (TIF) originated in California in 1952 as a way to encourage developers to take on projects in low income or economically depressed areas. TIF diverts taxes generated by development to its private backers to offset their cost of improvements and under the rules of the Missouri version of TIF, “Approved projects must also be viewed as unlikely to occur without TIF assistance.” (MSCDC Economic Report Series No. 9703, June, 1997: Kenneth Hubbell and Peter J. Eaton) The use of tax breaks in areas like The Country Club Plaza has defined the conversation taking place on the use of TIF in the redevelopment of Downtown Kansas City. Should, or can, Tax Increment Financing operate simply as a “trickle down” stimulant for redevelopment or should TIF be used in conjunction with low end development incentives and protections so that it functions closer to its more altruistic origins?

Highwoods Properties Inc., which owns much of the Plaza, used Tax Increment Financng in the recent construction of the twenty four million dollar Saks Parking Garage completed in December 2001. The cities approval of this as a TIF project is discouraging considering the potential for TIF to act as a catalyst for the redevelopment of economically depressed areas. More recently many developers have sought the use of TIF funds in the redevelopment of “The Crossroads”, an area in between Crown Center/Union Station and the Downtown Loop. The Crossroads will be critical in linking Crown Center, Union Station, 18th and Vine and The Troost Corridor, to the Downtown Loop and River Market areas and could function as an example of both positive growth and cultural diversity.

With the proper incentives directed towards middle and low end development in place, the current use of TIF has the potential to play a positive role in the inevitable development of “high end” space in The Crossroads and other areas. The development of this high-end space, if managed correctly, could stimulate growth east of Crossroads and eventually bring the Troost Corridor and the 18th and Vine district back into the fold of downtown. There must be a keen acknowledgement however of the importance of middle and low end development as it manifests itself in cultural and small business oriented enterprise. For the economic and cultural vitality of a city to be maintained, low end business and housing must converge with high end development rather than simply being displaced.

Because there is a gap between the altruistic origins of TIF (see California 1952 TIF) and its current use to facilitate high-end growth in Kansas City it is imperative that there is policy in place to support and encourage the expansion of that growth back into the areas TIF was originally intended to revitalize. This will insure that the last hundred years of racist development practices, focused on expansion from Kansas City into the suburbs, are not repeated as we shift our attention back onto our urban core. This type of development practice is complex and has many far reaching implications but, if not managed properly, has the potential to be the modern day equivalent of its more explicit predecessors.

In fact, The J.C. Nichols company in association with the Federal Housing Administration, The Urban Land Institute and The National Association of Homebuilders, all of which Nichols helped to create, produced racially restrictive land deeds and development charters that explicitly excluded blacks from certain areas. Before the Supreme Court outlawed racially restrictive covenants in 1948, there were 354 explicit racially restrictive covenants recorded in the four county metro area. (Plat Books and Guarantor Books at the Recorder of Deeds Offices for Johnson County, Jackson County, Platte County, and Clay County. R, R, & UD 2002) This number included 148 in Johnson County, 138 in Jackson County, 34 in Clay County, and 34 in Platte County. These figures indicate that 96 percent of subdivisions built before 1947 in Johnson County contained racially restrictive covenants, 62 percent of subdivisions in Jackson County, 71 percent in Clay County, and 74 percent in Platte County. (Race, Real Estate, and Uneven Development, (R, R, &UD, 2002) Kevin Fox Gotham, 2002) Despite the passing of the law in the Supreme Court that banned overt racialization of space, restrictive covenants appeared on land deeds and other housing contracts up into the 1960’s in Kansas City. In fact, from 1948, when the law banning these covenants was passed, to the 1960’s there were 1,243 explicitly restrictive covenants recorded in Kansas City subdivisions. This shows the real estate industry recorded and applied more restrictive covenants in the two decades after the Supreme Court outlawed them than in the previous four decades. (R, R, &UD, p40, 2002)

The resulting segregation is magnified by the fact that evidence exists in the form of census data, from 1880 through 1910, that suggests the existence of evenly distributed racial and ethnic populations within the urban core of Kansas City. Masey and Denton 1993, 19-26 (R, R, & UD 2002) This underscores the serious and lasting damage that was done to our urban core when developers incited a century long program of intolerance and racial homogeneity for financial gain. By the time the racially restrictive covenants that caused these communities to break apart and segregate finally stopped being used to perpetuate isolationist tendencies among whites, there were entrenched homeowner organizations that maintained the racial line in Kansas City. The link between race and property value had been produced through over fifty years of segregation and racism. This link between race and property value is so much a part of the psyche in our city that it enforces it self long after the covenants have been removed from the books.

These homeowner organizations were so active in maintaining the racial line after 1948 that they organized to purchase property away from blacks that managed to cross the racial line. They acquired vacant homes in their neighborhoods to prevent any racial minorities from moving in and they lobbied city hall for the passage and enforcement of discriminatory land use ordinances. In some cases these groups organized demonstrations and threatened boycotts of white businesses that catered to blacks. (R, R, & UD, 2002) This kind of paranoia perpetuated such practices as blockbusting, in which real estate companies would capitalize on the fear of white homeowners when there was a new presence of minorities in a previously segregated neighborhood. The real estate companies would spread fear of falling property value in order to buy up homes at depreciated values and then resell them at their real cost. (R, R, & UD, 2002) These types of practices fueled the stigma that surrounded racially integrated neighborhoods and while both whites and blacks were the victims of this type of real estate scheme, it only made integration more difficult.

The passage of new laws against segregation made it harder for developers to maintain racial lines based solely on race. Developers needed a different language with which to maintain segregated neighborhoods, and the market which still displays a desire for segregated housing needed a new legitimacy to support the racially motivated underpinnings of their desires for racially homogenous communities.

This history leaves us with a new racism. It is a racism that exploits numbers not color. It references class not race while it conveniently neglects the fact that developers have systematically tied race and poverty together by over the past hundred years. As economists talk about laissez-faire business practices, competition, and individualism we are left with a black community that has never been on “equal or competitive” footing. It is once again the victim of discrimination without the protection of rigorously enforced laws against segregation, state or federal.

Under the assumption that some organizations must be focused on combating this problem that exists in our community, I began to seek out those in the community whose charters are to eliminate racism. There are organizations such as The Urban League, FOCUS Kansas City, and The Kansas City Call that work very hard to provide opportunity and information to people in Kansas City and work to combat a century of unjust treatment by empowering minority populations.

After becoming more familiar with the organizations that work with this problem everyday, I went about setting up a system of integrating myself into neighborhoods that are almost exclusively made up of black and other minority residents, and at the same time are the poorest per capita anywhere in the metro. I wanted to set out an action that would gauge the condition of race relationships in Kansas City and actively engage the racial separation that is so pervasive in our city. I laid out a series of routes that took me through these areas of our city. I set out a schedule, a time line, and began looking for an action that would encompass my understanding of the history of our city and the causes for its segregation but not make assumptions about what I did not know. I wanted a process that would allow for a kind of interaction that was sustained and honest but that required real time to mature and become meaningful. I wanted an action that prompted people to react based on their prejudices, as well as their insecurities and mistrust, for what I imagined I would symbolize.

I decided to train for a marathon along routes through the areas in our city that shared a combination of low property values, overwhelming minority populations, and high percentages of residents that live at or below the poverty line. Training for a marathon is an interesting metaphor for endurance and conditioning towards a greater end. Running as an act is a cultural signifier of a lack of physical activity in our daily lives. It shows an aspect of narcissism in its very nature. Running seeks to not only promote heath but acknowledges the “other” in a very concrete way by trying to create a physical appearance in ourselves that is acceptable to those we desire. The mythology of the marathon tells the story of Philippides’s celebratory, but ultimately tragic run, (due to his death from exhaustion) to Athens to spread the news of victory after the Athenian Army defeated the Persians in 490 B.C. This was interesting to me as a back drop for exploring racial conflict, tragic misunderstandings, expectation, and futility. The performative aspects of running were art historical in their reference to previous work by artists like Vito Acconci, and as an act it is simple. It allowed for interaction without any inherently aggressive implications. It allowed me to function as a symbol of what I knew was foreign to these neighborhoods. Because the form did not allow time for specificity I could gauge reaction on a fundamental and honest level. I would become, in some ways, a blank screen that others could then project their fears, mistrusts, and prejudices upon. During the course of the training, I was able to see the affects of decades of racism manifest in the actions of Kansas City’s minority populations. This frustration was thrust back upon me in very short interactions that are a series of microcosmic models that represent the relationship between the races in this city.

I executed this action over a period of four months from the beginning of May to the end of August 2002. As is to be expected with almost anything of this nature reactions varied from disturbing and obvious to reassuring and depressing. In the beginnings verbal and physical abuse was prevalent and it was apparent that aspects of these communities harbored obvious frustration towards whites. During the course of these four months I was the object of close to two hundred verbal attacks and three physical attacks. I was jeered at, laughed at, spit on, kicked, chased, pushed, swerved at by cars and told to; “Get the fuck out of my neighborhood”. I was the target of thrown bottles and rocks, and I was warned several times about being seriously hurt or killed if I continued this action. I met several children that asked for my assistance in various things from pulling a bike from a ditch to coming up with rap lyrics. I was accused of being a narcotics officer. I received over thirty smiles from strangers. I was intimidated into smoking a cigarette on a street corner and chased by a group of young men waiting for the bus. I was a participant in nearly twenty five friendly waves and was the recipient of a hand shake from a skeptical, but good natured, man at a garage.

My integration into these areas was minimal but sustained. I came to be familiar with several people and groups as I passed almost every day through their neighborhoods. The verbal and physical attacks directed towards me went down substantially and the amount of friendly gestures went up as the project continued.

Verbal attacks from passing cars persisted but from my experience these types of verbal attacks occur anywhere, regardless of race or economy. The persistence of this particular kind of verbal abuse is representative of the origin of the problem between the races in this city. These kinds of attacks represent actions that lack accountability. They are representative of a kind of action that is at the root of most conflict and misunderstanding. The lack of accountability that comes with power, in any form, allows those who posses it to take advantage of those subordinate to it. In this particular instance the power is expressed by mobility, speed, and protection that comes from being in a moving vehicle. In actions like yelling, “Fuck you white boy!” or “Faggot!” from the window of a moving car there is no potential for repercussions, and there is often no witness. Actions like this are at, or near, the base level of human relationships. In this circumstance it is rather inconsequential, a passing remark or derogatory statement, but the fact that people realize their ability to take advantage of another individual without judgment by others, and act without any reference for the specificity of another’s will or situation, has far reaching implications. It is with this acknowledgment that this segregation in our city was incubated and it is through this that it still exists.

The actual training for a marathon is the systematic execution of a preplanned regiment. Its means are a direct road to a specific end. You begin with very short runs and through out the training they get gradually longer in distance and time. These relatively short runs are interrupted by very long runs that gradually get longer as the training continues. Usually there is one long run a week and three to five short runs. It is a kind of attack and retreat method of conditioning the body; breaking it down and allowing it time to grow back stronger. In the beginning of the training, runs lasted no more than fifteen or twenty minutes and I traveled no farther than a few miles. By the end my runs could last well over two hours and could cover up to twenty miles. The manner in which it was executed mirrored the sustained means that allowed the races to be split in the first place. The same sustained means will be necessary to repair the racial divide that exists in Kansas City.

There were both positive and negative aspects to this method of gauging the extent of hostility between the races in Kansas City. Because I was engaging in specific activities to achieve a desired end I could not account for any change in process that may have been necessary. The process allowed me however to focus on observing and being sensitive to my environment because my means were predetermined. As it was executed the process had a kind of gathering synthesis between the physical and psychological aspects of the project that moved together. There was a direct relationship to my achieving longer distance in my runs and becoming more integrated into the neighborhoods that I had chosen to run in.

As the summer of 2002 waned I had achieved a limited level of integration into the neighborhoods I had chosen to train in. I had experienced a change, albeit small, in my own perception as well as the perception of others. I had become familiar with where there were unchained dogs, when families or individuals came outside to sit on the porch in the evening, and what day people cut their grass. I knew how much trash certain families threw out on trash day. I knew what time schools and church services got out and I knew certain individuals bus schedules. I was utterly familiar with the splitting and glass covered sidewalks. I knew which kids played basketball in the evenings and which sold drugs on the street corner. I knew that some people would always be skeptical of my presence, that some people could care less, and that some people maybe even welcomed me. I had become, in my estimation, a tolerated observer.

I never ran the marathon for which I had spent four months in training. I twisted my knee two weeks before I was supposed to participate in it. I stopped running. The summer turned to fall and then to winter and I am sure some of the people I had encountered regularly have forgotten I ever existed, and for those who remember I can’t speculate as to what place I occupy in their conscious memory. I considered the project a failure because of its lack of conclusion, because I failed to accomplish what I set out to do. This need for finality is something that I have been conditioned to expect. It is a dangerous way to see a world where answers are never found simply by moving from point A to point B.

I have been thinking about this activity for almost a year now, and on the eve of another summer I am still not sure exactly what my actions accomplished, or for that matter, what they mean a year later. I consider many of the negative reactions I received to be a conditioned response coming from a place that sought to define its difference from me. I think about the way we, at some level, must define ourselves in relation and therefore in difference to others. I have come to believe that most of the negativity that exists between the races in this city is perpetuated because as we define ourselves in difference that is based on class and race, our concept of self and community does not allow for the other. When concepts of community and self are defined by this similarity of class and race anything outside or “other” constrains and threatens these ideas of self and community. This causes hostility that is detrimental to sustaining positive growth and is yet another reason why integration of class and race is so critical to the development of a city.

Due to the nature of reactions I received during this process I don’t believe, for the most part, that the negative reactions were or could have been premeditative. Rather, most of what spurred negativity towards me were efforts to reinforce a cultural identity that has come to exist through isolation. That isolation of the black community and the resulting negativity towards whites is a consequence of the segregation developers and city planners created and not a trait that defines the character of a community.

In the months since last summer, I have questioned the system that I set up to gauge the condition of race relations in Kansas City. In seeking to elicit reaction based on stereotypes I set up a project that allowed me to gain a greater understanding of the condition of race relations in Kansas City, but that did not allow for growth, outside of a kind of toleration and in a few instances limited good will. This “good will” is representative of the small shifts in perception that were possible even through this limited process. Despite its limitations, the project did reassure me that this separation is temporal. Through my efforts, much of the separation I felt in the beginning subsided as my presence moved from being a threat or a nuisance towards some sort of conceptual and physical integration. In my mind the piece hovers between my desire for the act to function as a catalyst for change and its more realistic place as an object of thought for those already privy to critical dialogue.

I am struck in my own recollection of the activity by a fondness for the experience because it took me out of myself in a way that I have seldom experienced before. I am afraid I will allow myself to let this article be the end of this experience. I fear that it will fulfill that conditioned need for a formal resolution that I desire. I am interested also in how deeply this separation has influenced all aspects of our society, from quality of schools and economic structure to architecture and the preservation of historic buildings. This kind of segregation has created two distinct cities that have been polarized by exploiting minor differences and ignoring the overwhelming similarities and desires for a high quality of life that exist between them.

I am surprised at the passing of another year so quickly. I am humbled by the passage of time and the enormity of history, encouraged by the beauty of human potential, and very sad to see the ills that persist in our and other societies. I think often about how we can come closer as a society and as a city to understanding each other better. I think about it not just in terms of race, but in terms of having a real and present acknowledgement that every individual has a will outside of ours that has its own desires and needs, dreams, fears, and aspirations. I think about the potential simplicity of real person-to-person interaction and the complexity of interaction that is driven by stereotypes, misinformation, assumption, and fear. I think about the disastrous consequences of acting upon those assumptions without engaging those people that we misunderstand.

<            >

See, Hear, Speak

Matt Wycoff

Review Magazine, January Issue, 2005

About the time I moved to Kansas City in 1998 an entire social scene was experiencing the end of a protracted youth. This is a story about that group of friends and one expression of their vitality and influence. The end was more a fizzle than a pop. Marriage, substance abuse, substance control, financial insecurity, age, death, medication, children and a host of other circumstances created meaningful distractions for a group that had been held together by an unusually strong and long lasting bond. This group of artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, craftsman and spectators; over a period of thirty years, served as a poignant example of the sometimes un-realized connections between life and art

What was made public in the early nineteen nineties by three artists; John Puschek, Mike Randall, and Mike Temple under the moniker the Evil Monkeys existed for nearly two decades as a larger social bond. This bond was forged around art, alcohol and drugs, food, fun, friendship, dancing, sports, sex, and music. The larger group and the later more formalized expression of it mines the geography of a city that is working diligently to find a voice that is representative of its experience. The strata and substrata of this social group and period account for people and influences that have had hugely positive impacts on the original success of a cohesive visual arts and culture community in Kansas City. And the Evil Monkeys themselves provide an opportunity to look, simply, at three lives lived within the arts.

The implication that the larger social group that exists and the three artists that make up the Evil Monkeys are reducible one to the other is not the desired conclusion however. The two will take on a symbiosis here that I hope captures their necessary intersection without denying them separate lives. This history of the Evil Monkeys is one point of reference in an evolving history of the arts in Kansas City and the Evil Monkeys as a group are an event that is representative of those efforts and the communities from which they originate. In focusing on the three individuals that make up the Evil Monkeys and those closely related to them I hope that I can paint an accurate picture of their efforts, a larger more contemporary effort, its connections to this group, and the meaningful affects these relationships have had on the arts in Kansas City.

In 1974, two years after his graduation from the Kansas City Art Institute, John Puschek moved from a basement apartment on 39th Street and Warwick into a shabby house on Main Street. This property is now home to the Blood Center in Midtown Kansas City. The row of ramshackle houses and the empty lot to their west became known mainly as Little Arkansas, or alternately as Three House Island, for its proclivity towards disrepair and a general feel of rural sweetness and seclusion. The enclave, twisted in Christmas lights, functioned as a spot for countless parties and barbeques, studios, relationship drama, drinking, drugs, loud music and late night badminton tournaments under hot lamps and photo- floods.

The reasons for this spot developing the dynamic that it did are widely varied. The bombing of the bar and restaurant Judge Roy Beans in the mid seventy’s was the most significant reason for the dispersal of an arts scene that was developing in what was known at the time as the River Key and is now known as the River Market. This left somewhat of a vacuum and the houses at Little Arkansas served as a replacement of sorts. The proximity to the Art Institute, the existence of other art friendly venues like Penny Lane, now Streetside, records on Broadway, and other artists and friends living there also contributed to maintaining a steady stream of visitors that would go on to develop the friendships and shared histories that promote community, generate excitement, and support creativity.

What has been referred to at times as The School of Puschek was for all intents and purposes a bond that grew between John Puschek and those around him. Those that lived at or frequented Little Arkansas collectively remember a feverous creative energy emerging from John that flirted at times with the obsessive. Because of this energy John is often cited as a sort of ringleader or unifying force behind a lot of the activities of the community that he found himself in and it’s because of this that I start with him.

Like much of this story there is very little about John Puschek himself that leans on convention. He has an immediately noticeable youthful energy and a quick-witted inquisitive sensibility. His demeanor is at the same time supple, full with an uncommonness that exits most poignantly through his eyes, and awkwardly clumsy as if his body can not quite keep up with the movements of his mind. He is exasperating to the point of endearment and has a smile that hangs on his face like a reappearing gone fishing sign. He appears to be acutely aware and completely oblivious at all times. Severe dyslexia prevents him from writing and reading has remained difficult. And as those around him at the time often recall it was hard, or altogether unnecessary, to determine where his life stopped and his art began.

In the mid seventies John was represented by Dorrie Gates Gallery in Kansas City and was successfully living off of the sales of paintings and help from friends. His processes ranged from water color to reverse spray painting on plexiglas and a sort of hybrid of the two that involved painting on snow over paper and waiting for the snow to melt, letting the paint settle on the paper, to reveal a composition. His subject matter moved between everyday objects, a grille, ice cream cones, or drinking glasses, to paintings of planets and stars. This, while indicative of a larger attitude, comes off in the work as a simple transition and is representative of a worldview that is inclusive rather than concerned with boundaries or barriers. The scale of the work also covered a huge range, from very large seven or eight foot paintings to post card sized pieces on both plexiglas and paper.

Picking up on the techniques that John Puschek was using to make paintings Mike Randall and the last of the three Evil Monkeys Mike Temple, or Tempo alternately, both adapted the style of reverse spray painting on plexiglas to their own ends. Mike Randall developed compositions largely influenced by avant garde jazz or world music to create highly stylized lyrical patterns and Mike Temple pursued imagery that is stark and simple in its figure ground relationships.

While Temple and many in the larger group that gathered at Little Arkansas were graduates of the Art Institute, Mike Randall was one of a handful of exceptions. Although he ended up being a regular fixture on the campus of the Art Institute he was never enrolled despite attending classes and critiques. Mike Randall came to Kansas City from Joplin, Missouri in the early seventies and quickly found Little Arkansas through mutual friends. During what he describes as an apprenticeship with John Puschek, Randall developed what would become a life long passion for painting and his own interests would influence the shape of the group in which he found himself.

While Puschek may have functioned as the charismatic ring-leader for the group, Mike Randall’s tireless energy and financial support was the structure for making much of what happened happen. Randall’s natural generosity and kindness extended out into the larger community influencing and making possible the shape and intent of shows that he and others organized towards ideas of community, inclusion, and fun. But while Randall became an important fixture in the social and creative life of this larger group in Kansas City Mike Temple left Kansas City to pursue teaching, art, and music in Los Angels shortly after graduation.

Mike Temple describes his contributions to the Monkeys in a lyrical, rambling recollection of the energy and excitement that was present in the group. His musical influence shaped his thoughts on the structure of the group as well as his paintings. He traces the evolution of the Monkeys back to exquisite corpse drawings done at Little Arkansas and describes the process as a sort of ensemble playing or musical jam session. While distance prevented him from frequent interaction with the group his contributions would occur as impromptu performances that coincided first with his bands road schedule and later with the Evil Monkey’s yearly show.

In what contributes to the undertone of this story as one about art and life being inseparable, the various interests of this group outside of traditional art related endeavors account for much of that. When art practice extends out of the studio and into activities that generally conjure up a different demographic the results can produce lived experiences that infuse events with a new vitality. In great stories about these experiences people involved describe infusing the old Kansas City Kings basketball games or the American Royal barbeque competitions with what often veered towards performance art.

A regular fixture at the Kings games were the seats behind the backboards reserved for the “Backcourt Boozers”. Here Mike Randall often made hundreds of paper masks for the crowd to wear in the likenesses of players or managers. This is a nice statement about active versus passive ways of looking and interacting with the world while really just being about having fun. The influence of sports and in particular basketball extended the other way also; into shows like the 100th birthday of Basketball show organized by Randall at Athena, a Midtown restaurant owned by Susi Lulaki, and for a time into the imagery of Mike Randall’s larger body of paintings. And when John Puschek tried out for the Kings cheerleading squad The Glitter Girls, complete with tights, confetti, and drum accompaniment provided by drummer Arny Young he created a situation that exemplifies the crossover between life and art that gets to the heart of this group. This kind of activity reminds us that all things are not products, rather, means to a different, less direct, but more valuable end.

The American Royal barbeque competitions were another venue for this sort of crossover. After seeing a news special on the Mung immigrants from South East Asia making fires in their ovens for cooking because they couldn’t figure out how, or didn’t know they were supposed to, turn them on Puschek quickly adapted the idea for his own barbequing. In what multiplied in size each year John and others competed in the competitions with rows of old ovens filled with charcoal amidst “serious” cooks from all over the region. This combined with a loud band and a large contingent of supporters eventually got them banned from the competition, but not without taking home a few ribbons.

Aside from these types of extracurricular activities a regular variety of yearly shows at restaurants like Athena owned by Susi Lulaki and The Blue Bird Cafe, owned at the time by Kathy Marchant and Michael Martin, helped support many artists and created the atmosphere for later collaboration. These early shows began what would become the formula for the later Evil Monkey shows, fun. Mike Randall created fliers for many of the shows and later began asking for audience participation. These returned fliers were then exhibited with the art work in the show. Many involved in these shows remember this aspect of the shows as being one of the best. This idea became a big part of the later Evil Monkey shows as well. Looking through boxes of these invitations in Mike Randall’s cluttered studio it is easy to see why. In wide ranging responses to the call for audience participation these collections of returned invitations made by attendees of the shows make a nice statement about building community, redefining the role of the artist, and the importance of creating situations where art and life mix easily.

The shows were then infused with the artistic contributions of many; as well as food, beer, music, and dancing to create what is often simply referred to as a party, only here in the name of art. In effect they created something from nothing, building a social bond and inventing reasons for celebration that in turn supported and enriched the lives of an expanding ring of participants. They created context, audience, and value outside of, or possibly in spite of, a more established or traditionally serious notion of making and exhibiting art. The work accrued meaning and value outside of its inherent or subjective aesthetic value in its reflection or representation of the larger group. These shows slowly garnered a following that became a larger and tighter knit group of people that shared similar interests and lived in a city where, at the time, things like this were the exception rather than the rule.

The reasons for these shows ranged from things like the 100th birthday of basketball to shows for Valentine’s, Christmas, Halloween, The New Year, or no specific reason at all. By all accounts sales were good, good enough to support John Puschek almost entirely and several of the other artists involved substantially. More importantly however these shows generated enthusiasm within a community that was dynamic and self-sustaining. This enthusiasm spilled over into many expressions of the larger spirit both infused by and infusing those involved with a nurturing environment for expressing creativity.

In the late 1970’s or early 1980’s the properties of Little Arkansas were demolished for the construction of the Blood Center. The shows at various locations around town continued and John Puschek then moved to a small house on Charlotte Street. At the time Chuck Haddix, host of KCUR’s Fish Fry, was living next door and his house had been nicknamed “The Mission” because of its rotating house guests and laid back atmosphere. John Puschek eventually moved into a house across the street from Chuck’s and this house would also become known as “The Mission” or more specifically the “Johnny Mission” and went on to function in the same role as the three houses of Little Arkansas. In what is often described as a sort of commune and fail safe place to party, the Mission would carry the energy of the group and John Puschek would serve as its host for nearly two decades.

In stories from this era John’s house acted as an oasis, or better a stage upon which activity and drama just unfolded as if it were scripted. Relationships and friendships were built, strained, rebuilt, and strained again, rarely for good but generally because of sex or infidelity. Around countless parties and barbeques friendships that began at Little Arkansas continued and new ones emerged all the time at The Mission, growing stronger and deeper with time. Any night of the week you could find a regular group gathered there playing dominoes, drinking, eating buffet style from an old ping pong table, or dancing among strings of Christmas lights, over grown bamboo, loud music and fried foods.

The help of these friends was often employed in everything from paying rent to keeping the lights on. In what was sometimes referred to as the Kansas City benevolent Power and Light Society, extension cords running from Chuck Haddix’s house occasionally kept the lights on for parties when buying beer and food seemed more important than paying the electric bill. When it was decided that John’s house needed a deck a friend who wrote articles for a home remodeling magazine got the materials and plans donated to John and the deck was built by Dave Stewart, a musician and woodworker, and still more friends putting time and energy into the scene that nurtured them. Once a year before big shows Pete Ruhl also a musician as well as a painter, and long time friend of John’s would clean John’s basement studio. While John received lots of help with a wide ranging list of things all of it was a natural extension, a spirit, of a larger community built around John’s generosity and gift for hosting as well as a larger effort by those involved to nurture the sense of community.

The Mission continued in this way through the eighties, continuing to attract a larger more diverse crowd for parties that ranged from small weeknight gatherings to frenetic bashes. During the early nineties however John Puschek, Mike Randall, and Mike Temple collectively decided it was time to make a more concerted effort in the area of exhibiting work both locally and nationally. It was Randall who would turn out to be the driving organizational and motivational force behind the effort that was called the Evil Monkeys. At the time he had the drive, ambition, money, and desire to organize and for the most part fund the effort to consolidate the past fifteen years of working and exhibiting into a more coherent statement and excuse to party.

Puschek, Randall, and Temple had shown together on many occasions over the two decades since their graduation from the Art Institute. In 1992, under the name the Evil Monkeys, they consolidated that history and created a yearly extension of their larger studio practice for exhibition. In shows that began at the restaurant Athena and later moved to the Dolphin Gallery the Monkeys would work frantically to produce work - often up to the last minute, make and send out invitations, organize food, beer, music, and sometimes door prizes, hang salon style shows, and then open the doors and party. The spirit that was found in Little Arkansas and later at the Mission spilled over into the Evil Monkey shows as well. Mike Randall remembers tireless effort from Mary Harrison and many others in preparing for and hanging the shows. But the size of the shows and the intensity and amount of work that went into them often prompted arguments as well as friction between the owner of the venue and the artists themselves.

John O’Brien and Susi Lulaki, the respective owners of the venues for these shows, describe frenetic, often disorganized, activity and bickering between the artists and themselves. This made the preparations seem anxious and stressful but still, possibly with hindsight, oddly enjoyable and exciting. The exhibitions, which sometimes included hundreds of pieces from the three artists and always one large self portrait of the artists executed collaboratively, were huge undertakings that garnered equally large crowds for the openings.

The Evil Monkey shows took place from 1992 through 1998 in Kansas City as well as Los Angeles and New Orleans, but achieved little critical acclaim despite the huge turnouts and investments of time and energy. In fact many dismissed the work itself as amateurish, not serious, and gimmicky. The artists did their part in co-opting these criticisms, thumbing their noses at the more established hallmarks for making things look and feel serious. The artists themselves at times even suggest that the work wasn’t serious. But what the shows were about was having fun, gathering people together, and celebrating a shared passion - for both life and art. This relationship to art positions life as the important end to the process; it is representative of a growth in the maker - “as the tracks but not the actual animal.”

More interesting than presupposing their seriousness, or even artistic merit in a classical sense, are ideas about the creation of community around culture and fun as art itself. There are numerous current efforts in fact to acknowledge this sort of curation of community as not only a necessary part of the process, but as the work itself of a growing number of artists. As more and more artists work to create these communities for themselves and their work the dynamic creation of environment takes on an entirely new, a different, subversive seriousness. This comes at a time when traditional notions of artistic merit are basically meaningless and justifying anything is a task that is generally contradictory and increasingly difficult.

Equally as important is that these shows, despite any criticism, occurred at a pivotal moment in the evolution of the visual arts in Kansas City. The majority of the shows occurred in the Crossroads Arts District just as the grass roots efforts began there to create a larger public presence for the visual arts in Kansas City. These shows; the people who went to them and were part of the larger social group contributed greatly to a do it yourself spirit that still runs through much of the arts community here. The Evil Monkey shows, and the attitudes of the larger social group of which they were a part, also contribute to a celebratory atmosphere that has also helped to define “the feeling on the street” of much of the visual arts community here.

Without making direct links from one person or group to another the influence of these ideas about inclusion, community, and celebration permeate out into many aspects of the development of the visual arts community in Kansas City. These links are less like direct influences and more like a pervasiveness of spirit that continues to occur in various forms and emanates from the social group surrounding the Evil Monkeys and similar groups all over the city and region.

Dolphin Gallery and its owner John O’Brien, who was a part of this larger social group, were influential in encouraging gallery owners and small business to relocate to the Crossroads helping to spawn its current success. This success reinforces the importance of these kinds of communities while exposing their vitality to a larger audience. Later Davin Watne’s Dirt Gallery, influenced by this community as well as David Ford’s The Left Bank, would embody many of the same characteristics and influence an entire generation as well as subsequent generations to take on this same spirit and do it your self attitude. Currently, David Hughes’s Charlotte Street Foundation, which gives yearly grants to artists based in Kansas City, takes its name from John Puschek’s house on Charlotte Street known as The Mission and the community that was nurtured there. David Hughes cites the sense of community and vitality achieved by this group as a model for his efforts to expand and support the arts community in Kansas City still further. This short list however does not even mention the contributions of countless other artists, photographers, entrepreneurs, restaurant owners, craftsmen, musicians, and others who were a part of this social group and have positively influenced the evolution of the arts here.

What is potentially one of the most striking aspects of the Evil Moneys and the larger social group that they were a part of is the fondness with which people recount these events. The people involved in many of these events gave these stories to me like gifts. This community and its various expressions exemplify a version of dynamic lived experience that is inspiring. These moments are rare and difficult to maintain. As they expand outward and become larger and more inclusive and their members grow older and take on more responsibility and complexity in their individual lives maintaining vitality and cohesiveness becomes difficult. It is something generally restricted to youth, but here extended over thirty years in various forms and places.

Looking at the creation of these communities and their various expressions serves as a useful model for urban revitalization or community redevelopment as well. They are indigenous, dynamic expressions of place and time that cannot be manufactured but can be nurtured through thoughtful assistance and policy. Likewise as art struggles to maintain its purpose and legitimacy these communities infuse invaluable charisma into a process that is becoming more concerned with profit – and less with maintaining its necessity outside of the market. These communities are made up of people who get it – who feed and feed off of the creative process in a way that legitimizes the whole endeavor more than a sale ever could. These situations refocus the impetus for creating back towards people and communities and away from profit or self-aggrandizement. And as the individuals potential for creating himself in the process of making “art” diminishes, re-discovering a communal legitimacy for art making looks more important than ever.

<            >

A River Runs Through It

Matt Wycoff

What’s the matter with Kansas?
(Exhibition Catalogue) June, 2005

The Kansas River stretches 170 miles from Junction City, Kansas to Kansas City where it meets the Missouri River and continues east across Missouri towards the Mississippi. It is the state’s only natural access to the eastern half of the country. The river, while often low on water, is rife with symbolism. I recently canoed the entire length of the river and was mindful of that symbolism in looking for both continuity and distinction between this region and the rest of the country.

Other than the plains, the Kansas River is the most substantial geographic feature in Kansas. The river captures well over 50 percent of the state’s population in the ten counties that border it. The Kansas River Basin’s drainage area is larger than Iowa. The basin covers around 60,000 square miles, draining water from Eastern Colorado, Southern Nebraska and most of Northern Kansas. The area has been thought of at points in its history as both un-farmable desert wasteland and the crucial agricultural engine of the country. The river’s alluvial plain is the only major source of drinking water in Kansas, and it begins just east of the geographic center of the United States.

The river has a sordid environmental history marred first by industrial degradation and currently by agricultural pollution from fecal coliform bacteria running off hog and cow farms. An environmental law was passed in 2001 by the Kansas Legislature to protect livestock manufactures from the high cost of keeping the water clean, which repealed the landmark 1972 Clean Water Act, and has resulted in the river becoming among the most polluted in the country. The social history of the area is marked by a bitter struggle over slavery — white settlers voted against slavery, not because of humanitarian concern for slaves, but because they hated blacks — and contempt for the native American populations that stood in the way of western expansion. The region’s formation is one of the clearest examples of the effects of manifest destiny in this country and it remains an area willing to advance industry, nationalism and consumerism while sacrificing aesthetics, fostering racial hatred and willfully ignoring environmental consequences.

Because the coasts were so prominent during the radical cultural upheavals between the end of WWII and 1970, the Midwest arrived to the rampant consumerism of the 80’s and 90’s primed by its similarities to pre-war expansion values. Not only did the Midwest miss out on the 60’s counter culture, it’s missed out on the anti-globalization movement as well. Despite anti-globalization’s lack of focus, cohesion and potential for real change, the Midwest is dangerously unaware of its existence due to the movement’s seclusion to the sympathetic coastal populations. The Midwestern cultural vacuum is so severe, disaffected youths are still milling around Kansan malls and movie theatres as if Kurt Cobain had just uttered the words, “Oh well, whatever, never mind.”

This isolation, of course, is not all encompassing, yet the delayed arrival of contemporary ideas to the Midwest has left just enough space between periods of social change to torque these histories into new and sometimes deeply uninformed expression. The Kansas River and the history of its larger geographic area mirrors the history of the country — its struggles with industry, environment and the heavy handed politics involved in exploiting the weak and less organized. But its distance from, and lack of concern for, the larger cultural shifts in this country and the world have given birth to a unique social isolation, global oblivion, bootstrap politics and the mutated grandson of manifest destiny. Sometimes it seems as if no one is watching, and more than likely they’re not.

The river itself has long been replaced by I-70 as the main connective tissue between Kansas and the rest of the country, but the irony of the state’s only natural outlet laying in ruin still holds considerable significance. The Midwest is crucial to the rest of the country in terms of agricultural production, but by and large it is culturally ignored. The strangest twist in the story is that Midwestern conservatism is now the national political majority, and is changing the face of international relations and with it the course of the world. It is troubling that the beliefs and culture of an area so deeply affecting the national countenance are so overlooked.

The Kansas River is a sanctuary for the marginal. The river is home to naturalists, environmentalists, and boating enthusiasts that make recreation on the river a political statement as well as a practical form of enjoyment. Their effort is characteristic of contemporary protest – well intending but slightly pathetic in the face such a dominant adversary. It is home to endangered species like the whooping crane, peregrine falcon, and sturgeon chub that have been ignored into desperate situations. Large populations of homeless men and women live along, bathe in and survive on fish from its waters using the rivers isolation as protection from a society that has criminalized poverty. With a few exceptions the river it-self is a social pariah in many of the cities it helped to create, as sprawling suburbs and the interstate system made the river obsolete. The river lends itself to a kind of outlaw culture. Camping on its broad sandy, often tire strewn, banks or emerging from overpasses in small towns to by beer or water left me embracing that isolation, if for nothing more than good company.

<            >
Copyright © 2019 Matt Wycoff