March 15th, 2011
I’ve lived in Kansas a majority of my life, and some may consider me as not being a very good Kansan by rarely venturing away from the Lawrence/Kansas City area. This region bears a stigma of being very different from the rest of the state, distant from the conservative rural culture that most Kansas communities are infused with. We are often seen as pretentious because of this difference – I’ve heard the term “Snob Hill” applied to the University of Kansas campus by residents from other parts of the state. And perhaps there is some truth to that. As a Lawrence resident I’ve never felt that other communities had anything of cultural interest to me so why would I bother going to Topeka or Hutchinson? To go to a rodeo or a flea market?
From my bias I’ve always had a negative perception of Wichita, the largest city in Kansas. The only time I’d been to Wichita was for the state wrestling tournament in about 1997 (yes, can you believe I used to be a 140 pound wrestler?), and my main memory of the city was seeing miles of junky streets lined with empty and abandoned store fronts on a van ride downtown. But I knew that my bias against Wichita was based on little first-hand experience or knowledge, and that in a city of 1 million there had to be something of artistic or cultural interest. So it was with blind curiosity that I ventured into the city in search of it.
The most obvious starting point was at Wichita State University where I interviewed Ericka Walker. Walker gave me a list of print-related artists in the area and I made arrangements to meet with some of them. Before meeting with the next artists, husband and wife Ann Resnick and Kevin Mullins, I scouted around the area to get a feel for the city.
For a city of its size, Wichita feels small. And although the downtown area has many attractive old buildings and was obviously once an active hub of the region, it feels very deserted and like an urban core that has struggled to revitalize as other cities have in the last ten years. Resnick and Mullins’s studio is located about a mile east of downtown Wichita, and the stretch of Douglas Avenue leading there is dotted with gritty-looking tattoo parlors and motorcycle shops. It’s more the type of area you’d expect to find a seedy dive bar than an art warehouse. But an art warehouse is a fairly accurate description of the 6000-square-foot home and studio that Mullins and Resnick maintain on the second floor of a commercial building next to I-135.
“It was built in 1929, 1928, something like that. Its first incarnation was as a gym. I always pictured it as sort of a Jack Lalanne gym. Then it was a dance studio,” Resnick explained of the building. “I don’t know how many people would come to shows here and go ‘I learned to tumble in here,’” Mullins added, referring to when they used to host a gallery in the front room. They no longer have regular shows and the front room is now primarily Resnick’s studio. There is also a full woodshop and another massive studio room, which by itself is probably larger than any house or apartment that most artists would ever inhabit. One might assume that 6000 square feet would be way too much space to use, but in their 15 years there they have accumulated quite a bit. Days could be spent looking through boxes, shelves, and cabinets full out odds and ends found throughout the building.
Originally from Utica, New York, Mullins has earned several degrees in art from the Kansas City Art Institute, the Banff School of Fine Arts in Canada, Instituto Allende in Mexico, the Chelsea College of Art & Design in London, and the University of North Carolina. “One way or another I’ve been in school my whole life,” he said. Resnick met Mullins after he had done much of his international travelling, but as a couple they have lived in far-reaching places such as New Mexico and Alaska. “It seemed like every two years for a while we were moving,” Resnick said. How then, I wondered, did they come to end up in Wichita of all places? They came to the city when Mullins was offered a job as a museum curator. Kansas was a very foreign place for Resnick, but she said she grew to love the landscape and the area, and they have remained since then.
There is a variety of results that are achieved through this method of working. Some pieces look organic, using a floral-inspired wallpaper pattern, while others are very geometric. But the one most common thread through all Mullins’s work is the use of Ben-Day Dots. He said one of the most important moments of his life occurred as a student at KCAI when the Nelson Museum had a show of California printmakers in 1990. A lot of the work was screen printed and used halftone process, and the work left quite an impression on Mullins. “I just thought it was magic,” he said of seeing that work, and since then has continued to include the somewhat experimental screen print elements in his work.
The presence of the dots in his work, and also the sketchbooks full of collages, gave me a strong sense of pop art inspiration in the work, but this hunch proved incorrect. Mullins said that he can enjoy the work of Lichtenstein, but in general doesn’t care for pop art and actually despises Warhol. “I agree with the statement that no one did more to cheapen fine art than Andy Warhol. I think he’s overrated,” he said. And taking Mullins’s work into account it is understandable that he would dislike Warhol, because they both share the idea of mechanization and, to an extent, mass production in art.
For Mullins, screen printing became a quick, easy solution to what he was already trying to achieve through purely painting, and the visual effect of the process happened to agree conceptually with his efforts also. “I like the sort of ‘untouched by human hands,’ machine-made look to my work,” he said. But while Warhol used this aesthetic to illuminate the shallowness of the world, Mullins is very different by exploring the ideas of complexity and spontaneity in the work.
To lean on a tired old cliché, it would seem that opposites attract when comparing the art of Resnick and Mullins. While Mullins prefers to remove evidence of the artist’s hand from the final product, the main focus of Resnick’s work revolves around hand-crafted imagery by working with personal correspondence from an era before computers and free long distance calls. At least, that was the only project she had available to show upon my visit.
Her current project involves sorting through the collection of letters that she has received throughout her life and using them to make scrolls. Altogether, the pages of writing have to contain an immense amount of information about a majority of her life. She initially kept all the letters thinking she might want them for posterity, but came to realize that she would never have enough time to meaningfully revisit the reams of writing. Instead of throwing them away, she began using the letters as the basis of her new artwork. She began by reading through and sorting the letters into chronological order, then stitched the pages together into several scrolls. “It’s an odd experience to go through your past like that,” she said of the project.
This by itself would be a pretty interesting piece to see in a gallery or museum, but she decided that the pieces needed more. “I was trying to think of what this all means, and how you leave things and collect things, and whether it’s meaningful or not. And I decided it would be better to make it into something entirely different,” she said. She began using the letters as a surface for drawing, painting, and burning images, creating a long stretch of changing imagery interlaced with words from her past.
She said that when she wrote letters it was common for her to include some kind of illustration with it, and that this project is an unintentional re-connection with that practice. Sometimes she will try to come up with imagery that is a specific reaction to the content of the letters. “These letters I obliterated. There’s a reason for that,” she laughed, pointing out to pages of notebook paper that were densely covered in patterns of pockmarks from a wood burner. The final assembly of the letters forms an intensely personal artifact, and it translates the contents of the letters into a visual story that everyone can identify with.
Taking her work with these old letters a bit further, she began to become interested in the signatures and work with them on their own. On the wall of her studio were several large replications of signatures found in the old letters, each with their own unique character and different method of signing off. Visually they were very interesting hand-made replications. At the time of my visit she was not completely decided on how to execute the pieces, but said she was envisioning an entire wall of the signatures, which could work out very nicely.
Although they said they were finished regularly hosting art shows in their space, they said they still plan on holding occasional shows in their space in a continued effort to contribute to the art scene. The next event will be this fall and likely one worth checking out. The main reason they began hosting shows was because they saw a lack of effort among gallery spaces to bring in artists from outside of the area, and the next show will continue that effort of building bridges to Wichita by showing work by a group of Kansas City artists.
The work and contributions to the art scene made by Resnick and Mullins are far beyond anything I ever would have expected to find in the city of Wichita. So if you’re looking for the art is, just look above the Donut Whole on Douglas Avenue. You can’t miss it, it’s the building with a big chicken statue on top.