The Leedy-Voulkos gallery has some of the best floors in the city for looking at art.
When a visitor walks in, they travel up a short and narrow flight of stairs and into a large main gallery with wood floors. The floors squeak. The floor greets one like the floor of an old monastery, the age clear in the sounds and feel. UMKC Arts professor Dylan Mortimer’s latest exhibition, Cure, is not hanging in this room; it’s in the room right next to it – a room with sunlight coming through large windows and a floor of pale blue concrete. Walking into this room from the entrance is like pressing the mute button on a television. Immediately the organic creaks and feeling of the slight shifts in the floorboards disappear in a silent hardness.
The works are hung all about the space and at first the eye does not know where to look. Every piece, save for the 20 smaller paintings near the door, is enormous and painted with glitter. Cure is about Mortimer’s struggle with cystic fibrosis, a condition that attacks the lungs and digestive system by causing natural juices and fluids in the body to become thick and create blockages.
The life expectancy for those with cystic fibrosis is 36, and Mortimer just recently turned 37. Being a pastor, much of the work is about his relationship with God while living with the condition.
“We are all born into this world as we are,” Mortimer explains in his artist’s statement. “I was born with a disease called cystic fibrosis, a severe degenerative disease that attacks many systems of the body, leaving an average lifespan in the mid-thirties. This is the first body of artwork where I have directly wrestled with this fight in the imagery. I am and have been in this fight my whole life. It is not my only fight. But it is a big one.”
A work with a clear connection to this theme is WTFHITS, God? (What The Fucking Hell Is This Shit, God?), an image of a Nike Air Jordan trying to unstick itself from a green goo. The work is constructed like the others: Mortimer uses corrugated plastic and foam built like a neon sign, the entire piece made with walls of plastic that makes it about 4 or 5 inches deep. Under the shoe are two shapes that appear to be words, possibly the title itself, but only roughly shaped and with no real definition to the letters themselves. It’s as though the viewer is observing the piece from behind. Much of Mortimer’s pieces in the show borrow design elements from stained glass windows. Each piece uses glitter paint, an unnatural design choice.
“I want to share some of the fight. My own pain, loss and despair,” Mortimer explains. “I also want to share how my sorrow and pain have been transformed – like glitter sprinkled over phlegm, blood and tears. Is it a covering? A masking? A way of hiding? Is it a crutch? Maybe?”
Ascension is one of the best examples of this stained glass mimicry as it literally is made to look like a stained glass window with a human sized body profile standing in the center. The body has its arms outstretched with hands reaching up. It is translucent, and Mortimer added the blood vessel system in the body in blue and red as well as behind the frames of the window itself.
Another piece using the stained glass elements is Church Hoe, which resembles a circular cathedral window with green bars coming off one side and vines with leaves coming off the other. The mysterious words appear again without any real definition as though possibly Mortimer is hiding these obscenities from the both viewer and God.
Many of the works involve bulb lights that are similar to Las Vegas casino signs. One in particular is I Want More Air!, which shows a full representation of the circulatory system of the lungs in pink and red glitter with lights running along every vein.
The most heartbreaking work is tucked away in a far corner of the room. Can I Live? is a work which shows the fullest depth of despair and confusion at the prospect of living with a condition like cystic fibrosis, but also an aching and clear connection to God. The piece is built to resemble a cross with a single eye hovering above the phrase “Can I Live?” actually written out in the only defined text used in the whole exhibition. From the eye falls a single teardrop that stretches past the words and far down in a straight line. There are lights built into the piece but they are not on.
Cure is not a difficult exhibition to experience. It’s hardly gloomy, not focused on death or disease, and that was probably the point. It is a cure, both for Mortimer and for the viewer. The glittery works show struggle, but also acceptance of the now – the immediate. This is not Blackstar. Nothing about Cure brings to mind death or an end, but more an instance of a wondrous talent letting itself run loose and create beautiful works so full of life that the show itself becomes therapeutic.
Dylan, we can’t wait to see what you do next.
Cure is open through Feb. 30.