Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. And while Kansas City artist Brett Reif wasn't there for the catastrophic storm, his family was.
Today, the hurricane, along with other forces of nature, serve as inspiration for Reif's new art show in Chambers Hall.
The gallery, entitled “Downpoor,” includes pieces with titles such as “Watered Down,” “Up to my Neck in Alligators” and “Come Hell or Hot Water.” Each exhibit piece includes different organic shapes. Two of the sculptures, made of round tile, look as if they are melting off of the boxes they stand on, while another piece lies on the floor looking like splatters on the ground.
Although the title may seem like a misspelling, it was intentional. Reif explained while the downpour aspect originally comes from the water motif, the final double o’s of the title come from his feeling that the pieces have an almost apocalyptic feel to them. Reid said he feels a "subtle, creepy, anxiousness" when thinking of the images of the show.
“I wanted the language of the show title to try to capture that anxiety,” Reif said.
A common thread among the pieces in the gallery is the water motif present in the drains, tiles, stormy waves and the feeling that the pieces are almost melting. Reif began working with the drains after hurricane Katrina.
The main star of the show is the bathroom tile, accented by different layers of distressed wallpaper and various house fixtures. Though the pieces can be called “paintings”, the show required very different skill sets than what is typically associated with paint.
“There’s nothing here that didn’t take at least a month to complete,” Reif said.
He said he's been working with tile for about eight years and finds it is similar to working with ceramics.
"[Y]ou have to know how to shape it and cut it and sand it. Eventually, I was able to draw with it and create the works that you see now, but it was definitely a lot of work. That piece took over three months of work,” Reif said referring to the mass of oozing tile on the floor of the gallery.
Though the artwork itself doesn’t “ooze” per se, the overall feel of the show is fluid. Shawn Bitters, an associate professor of visual arts at KU and chair of the gallery committee, said the artist's use of unusual characteristic spurred him to view Reif’s work at his not-for-profit studio space, Studios Inc., in Kansas City, Mo.
“I tend to look for Kansas City artists who are doing really interesting work that our students can benefit from and connect them to the Kansas City art scene,” Bitters said. “I went to Reif’s studio, saw his work and just fell in love with it.”
Bitters has two, one-month-long slots to fill each year, which means whomever he chooses isn’t by accident. The decision is made carefully, but once Bitters saw the “wall works,” he made up his mind on the spot.
“I love the way that he takes really ordinary materials that you and I wouldn't pay any attention to at all, and transforms them into something completely different,” Bitters said. “You still know exactly what materials he used but somehow he gives a life to them and a feeling.
"Sometimes they’re slightly creepy, disturbing or maybe even a little kinky. They’re provocative in the best sense and absolutely beautiful.”
Each piece features aspects often associated with home décor and home building: tiles, drains and wallpaper. The pieces themselves drew on different emotional and observational aspects for inspiration. The observational influences came from New Orleans as well as other forces in nature like the extreme drought occurring in California, Reif said.
Reif also has a strong emotional connection to the aspect of melting throughout the art pieces.
“This sort of melting away is something that I empathize with when watching the news or reading articles about Donald Trump,” Reif said. “There’s an aspect of our country, whether it’s political or socioeconomic, that I think also has this melted, watery, tumultuous feel to it.”
With a total of 21 pieces, some including time-consuming materials like tiles, Reif enlisted the help of interns from the Kansas City Art Institute to assist him with production, which allowed him to accelerate some of the procedure. The production can be time consuming; the large floor installation took four months to complete. The partnership between artist and intern was ultimately mutually beneficial, he said.
“By being a part of the process I can help them move forward along their own artistic path and trajectory while getting some help on my own artistic path,” Reif said.
Although it might prove stressful for some to let others work on a project near to a person’s emotions and creativity, Reif is no stranger to the teacher-student partnership. He began teaching in 1994 while in graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has been teaching every year since 1997. He's been teaching at the Kansas City Art Institution since 2002.
Reif is also currently in a three-year residency at Studios Inc. in Kansas City, Mo., which provides studio space and other benefits for mid-career artists. Because of his connections, Reif was offered to host an art show at the University. Reif agreed after coming to visit the gallery, excited by the shiny black floors that would go perfectly with the shiny white tiles he was working with at the time.
“I just knew that one of my pieces had to live on that floor,” Reif said.
Since the installation of the art show, students have already come in to the gallery to see it. Amanda Yeh, a senior and a gallery guard in Chalmers Hall, said a class came in to analyze the art to try to decipher its meaning, although each piece is abstract.
“I’m hopeful that people feel a sensation of being in the proximity of something beautiful or powerful or challenging,” Reif said.
The show will run from Aug. 23 to Sept. 18.
Update note: This story was updated to reflect additions by another reporter, Samantha Sexton. No information was altered.