Narrative Evocations in XX9: Andrea Coates, Annie Dunning, Natalia Lopez, Erika McIlnay, Holly Osborne

Threads of storytelling weave through this year’s iteration of the XX biennial. Neither form nor content are specified for this exhibition, but each time I attend, I look forward to the connections that will inevitably emerge for me between the works. The XX series features five female artists, each selected by an artist from the previous exhibition. Elizabeth Stevenson of Fisch Haus initiated this innovative “tagging” structure with the work of five Wichita-area artists, but the concept has now extended so far afield that, as first happened in 2017, none of the artists call Kansas home.

Holly Osborne’s Sicily, a large figurative oil painting that opens the show in the foyer, conveys a mysterious narrative. The sepia tones and ghostly development of the figures make what could be a family scene at the beach feel uncertain – not unfinished, but more like a memory from long ago whose details have been lost to the passage of time. 

Fragments, a series of thirteen colorful, patterned watercolors by Annie Dunning, offer a clear visual connection to fabric. Painted in shaped geometric snippets, Dunning’s watercolors lead us to imagine the life that accompanied these patterns. In our visual memories, we remember bits and pieces, vivid details even when the bigger picture has faded. How many of us remember the pattern of the curtains in our childhood room? Or the pattern of a favorite dress or blanket? How do these fragments of memory connect to the stories we tell about ourselves? While the patterning of Dunning’s watercolors immediately brought fabrics to mind, it was not until later in the exhibition that I found specific reference for the geometric shapes. Mrs. Almost gathers fabrics into a utilitarian quilt, its individual patterns carefully cut and pieced as part of a larger whole. While many historical quilts in the U.S. were economically made, reusing garments or salvaging fabric scraps too small to be sewn into clothing, giving each fabric a dual reference, Dunning’s title, Mrs. Almost, lends the possibility of an emotional narrative. In imagining this life in fabrics, do we also wonder what might have been?  

Andrea Coates uses cut paper, digital collage, and photomontage to tell stories and ask questions about representation. In a series of small pieces titled Alternate Selves, fabric and jewelry obscure faces. We see lips and hair but few other identifiable facial features. Across the gallery, four large photomontages continue the idea of portraiture through hair, jewelry, and an “empty dress.” Where a photographer like Cindy Sherman has for decades used clothing, accessories, wigs, and makeup to create identifiable characters and types, Coates seems to eliminate the body beneath the accessories, prompting viewers to consider their own self-presentation. What stories do we tell ourselves, and others, through our accessories? 

Erika McIlnay conveys her narratives through unexpected materials. A delicate lace handkerchief takes on a new strength when cast in metal, and narrative titles like Nurtured Stoic and Sacred Viscera lend emotional resonance and possible histories to such cast forms. In a particularly engaging wall installation, a diamond arrangement of four abstract cast forms mounted on beautifully polished wood emerge from the wall like taxidermied heads, asking us to lean in and look more closely. 

In To Emil, Natalia Lopez offers us a story in epistolary form. Lopez juxtaposes photographs of trees with copies of a letter to relay a detailed narrative about public parks and a trolley donated by Wichita citizens to the town of Orleans. The meandering storyline of the letter draws us in, and a specific reference to the XX exhibition gives it a veneer of truth. And yet, the letter seems to drop us in mid-narrative, lending an aura of fiction. Truth or fiction, does it matter if it’s a good story? 


--Dr. Rachel Epp Buller is a feminist-art historian-printmaker-curator-mother of three, regional coordinator of The Feminist Art Project, and Associate Professor of Visual Arts and Design at Bethel College.