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.

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Copyright © 2019 Matt Wycoff