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Columbia College alumni give art history a gender-identity makeover
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Melissa Wasserman
2015-09-29

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Photographer Niki Grangruth and multimedia artist James Kinser frame gender performance with a creative process in their exhibit titled "Muse," housed at Columbia College's C33 Gallery.

The Department of Exhibitions, Performance and Student Spaces ( DEPS ) at Columbia College selected Grangruth and Kinser as the inaugural DEPS Alumni Summer Residents. In this residency, the two will continue working on their Muse series and engage with the Columbia community through classroom visits, open studio time, workshops on gender expression and artist talks.

So, on Sept. 22, guests were able to view the exhibit and then attend an artist talk at Plymouth Court to learn more about the featured works.

"It's something that's very precious to us and dear to us," said Grangruth of the exhibit, which opened in early September and runs through Oct. 2. "We're putting the work out there in a way that we haven't before."

In the artist talk, Grangruth and Kinser shared the story of their small-town roots, how they met, their collaboration, the creation process and the details of each piece. The alumni duo, who have been working together since 2009 on the production of Muse, also had plenty of colorful, personal anecdotes about what went on while creating what was hanging on the walls.

"I don't feel like exhibition is truly complete without these kinds of conversations like we had with the students tonight," said Kinser. "It's really about exploring the topic of gender expression, spirituality, but then also kind of being able to draw back the curtain and show a little bit of ourselves in the process of the work."

"Muse" is a series of 11 photographs that addresses gender-identity and gender expression, through the re-imagining and re-interpretation of well-known works from art history, specifically paintings of female subjects by male master painters. In each re-creation, Grangruth is behind the camera, while Kinser is the subject, wearing his own costume and makeup design. The costumes are also included in the exhibit.

"There was this masculine archetype that I grew up with and thought that I needed to live with it," said Kinser. "Then when I went to graduate school, I was working on performing as a drag queen and exploring that female archetype and I realized what's in the middle is the most interesting. That's the most juicy part for me. It came down to acceptance that there are these masculine parts of myself, there are these feminine parts of myself. What if we just blend them together? What feels right, what feels most authentic and what's it like to make work from that authentic place."

"The ladies," what Grangruth and Kinser call their pieces, draw on non-conforming gender identity while questioning common beauty ideals—and challenges the traditional artist/muse relationship. In talking about their art, they add that some of the pieces reflect different relatable life experiences.

When asked what inspires them, Kinser answered, "Glitter." Being somewhat humorous in this answer and adding he has graduated into rhinestones in his other costuming projects, both elaborate that it is not just about the shimmer.

"A lot of our inspiration comes from things that are given this odd gender assignment," Grangruth explained. "That's everything from the materials James is using in his costumes, to a look—female and male gazes—the assigned gender to things that are completely ridiculous. I think if we're not talking about people as inspirations, that's something that really inspires us; just questioning it and bringing it up."

For more information, on the exhibit, visit http://students.colum.edu/deps/c33-gallery/exhibitions/MUSE%202015%20DEPS%20Alumni%20Residency%20Exhibition/index.php.

To learn more about Niki Grangruth and James Kinser, visit www.nikigrangruth.com and www.jkinser.com .


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