Exhibition marks 'Reunion' for KU alumni

Relocated KU grads share sense of absurd in homecoming show


Special to lawrence.com

"Nipples and Plugs" is part of Kansas University alumnus Mark Cowardin's new series of sculptures that use dead tree parts as plumbing fittings. The works will be shown with those of fellow KU art school graduate Kiel Johnson in "Reunion," on view today through Nov. 5 at KU's Art and Design Gallery.

Kiel Johnson and Mark Cowardin don't share their studio space on campus anymore. They don't even share the same zip code these days, with Johnson in Los Angeles and Cowardin teaching at Mississippi State University.

But they do still have a shared interest in playful, whimsical art with an edge, and that is the theme of their new show at Kansas University's Art and Design Gallery. "Reunion" runs through Nov. 5.

"We forged a friendship while we were undergraduates at KU, and we've both gone in different directions," Cowardin says. "We thought it would be fun to do a show together because our work goes together very nicely. We both work in caricatures of reality, and there's that cartoony, playful element to both of our work.

"I love the idea of having a show where we both had our first serious exhibition."

Both artists graduated from KU in 1998 with degrees in sculpture. Cowardin headed to Arizona for graduate school, while Johnson chose to stay in Lawrence and began showing his work at Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Mo. Having grown up in Olathe and lived in Lawrence, Johnson applied to art school up and down the West Coast before settling on California State University, Long Beach, because the school offered him a good deal and a great location.

"Reunion," sculpture by Kiel Johnson and Mark Cowardin Event is ongoing until Friday, November 5 @ KU's Art and Design Gallery

"I figured I might as well go somewhere I'd never been," Johnson says. "I also like to kayak, so I figured I needed to go close to the ocean. In terms of the arts, L.A. is one of the art centers of the world. There are tons of galleries and tons of young people who are into making stuff. I won't be able to stay here forever. It's kind of insane. For the most part, though, I love it."

The "Reunion" show will be a combination of Cowardin's sculptures and a collection of Johnson's drawings from a series called "Hot House Exotica," currently on display at a Kansas City gallery.

Johnson has been experimenting with a new collage technique in which the image is drawn on paper and then carefully cut out with an Exacto knife. "Good Morning This Morning," part of the "Hot House Exotica" series, is one of these collage paintings of a bird in a field of flowers. The painting, Johnson says, relates to a reggae song he listened to in the morning and the plant life he saw around him in California.

"There are lots of flowers, and some are painted on and some are collaged on. I can just float them around and it's kind of like playing with Photoshop for Dummies," Johnson says. "I don't try to get too serious about my drawings. I like to have fun and make images that make people smile. I really like finding art or finding images or things to draw from everyday life. I believe you can find beauty or form in everything."

Johnson also has been working on a drawings of "30 Places I've Slept" and another series of architectural elements and buildings, drawn both from his head and from memory, called "Some Places I Think I Might Have Been." Johnson had another show recently with fellow KU graduate Travis Millard, another Los Angeles transplant. They called the show "OOO-lathe" after a hometown car commercial for Sonny Hill Motors.

Although Johnson will be showing drawings and Cowardin works in sculpture, the two share a similar sense of the absurd. Cowardin's contribution will include new sculptures of plumbing fittings made from tree parts, copper and chrome.

"I see plumbing as an analogy for humans and the connection between humans and the environment," Cowardin says. "Plumbing has become a literal connection of humans to nature. Humor is a great way to create conversations about those connections."

Cowardin hopes "Reunion" will illustrate life after graduation for KU students with art degrees, while still giving the Lawrence community a chance to see something new.

"It's just fun for us to come back to KU and say, 'Look at what we've done and look how we're surviving on our art.' I'm completely biased, but I think the work will be engaging and playful," Cowardin says. "It's some fresh work for Lawrence, Kansas."


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