Arts » Art

Cheap Souvenirs

Art Institute students went to Italy last summer, and all we got were these dirty jeans.


We didn't really need to see Andrew Hansen's cream-dried jeans.

Hansen's site-specific installation, "Goodbye Gelato," is one of the less successful pieces in Bernini to Fellini: KCAI in Italy, the student exhibit now up at the Kansas City Art Institute Crossroads Gallery. The show, representing all eight of the Art Institute's departments, is inspired by a monthlong trip that students took last summer. Under the aegis of two KCAI faculty members, they traveled throughout Venice, Florence, Sorrento and Rome. Literature related to the show says the artists created a body of work that deals with "culture, personal experience and historical context of their time abroad."

Hence, Hansen's jeans. In his artist's statement, Hansen writes that he was "physically affected by the 'pillars' of light being emitted from the openings in the centralized dome" at St. Peter's Church in Rome. Seeking to comment on the fact that other tourists seemed unaware of the place's uniqueness, Hansen bought, and then let melt, several gelato cones. Two photos capture the before and after of the performance, with gelato spills on Hansen's hands, shirt and jeans. The jeans, covered in dried gelato, now hang on the wall at the Crossroads Gallery in a display that's mostly just self-indulgent. Hansen would have done better to videotape himself covering his body in melted ice cream than to hang this static piece.

"Goodbye Gelato" is an intriguing idea poorly executed in a show that probably ought to be subtitled "What We Did on Our Summer Vacation." Obviously, the experience was significant for all involved. Posted near each work, artists' statements indicate thoughtful reflections on the shared experience. It's unfortunate that this couldn't be translated into the art they were so moved to create. As it is, the written explanations tend to be more evocative than the art itself.

The works that feel strongest are photographs on the wall near the gallery entrance — simple images of the students relaxing in Italy. The photos have a casual and intimate quality that much of the other work lacks.

There's no shortage of mediums, which at least adds variety. Paula Nagy was fascinated by the eroticism she saw in religious paintings; her oil-on-fabric paintings feature a Bronzino-like Christ in different poses and backgrounds, but there's nothing remarkable about the work itself. If Erika Hamlett's contour drawings make a connection to her time in Italy, it's not clear — the drawings are mildly interesting, but poses of people reading don't offer much insight into the culture or Hamlett's experience of it. This problem also affects Jessica Lively's "50 Painters," essentially crayon scribbles on 50 sheets of paper. And Ryan Gravenstreter's "Venus of the Oranges" — a used-fruit Venus constructed of wire, plaster and citrus peels — comes across as a joke.

One saving grace is the approximately 30 color photos by Jessica Balick and Rena Wood, which playfully capture the many moods and moments that a tourist might observe among other tourists in a foreign land. They convey some sense of travel, of a journey.

Amid everything, Brittany Prater's untitled digital print stands out. In its layered shadows and paper cutouts, her single submission suggests a cathedral; the light source at the top of the frame is pierced by the steeple's point as arch, curve and shadow mingle. It appeals on an artistic level but also reveals the perspective the show purports to deliver. "The most amazing experiences I had in Italy happened while entering the cathedrals," she writes. "Stepping inside a cathedral was like stepping back in time. Light coming through the windows was the only thing I observed ... as it came from the outside but penetrated the windows with an intense magic. My piece means to serve as an echo of that experience." And it does.

Add a comment