Kansas City Star

Paintings put artist’s affection for her native Midwest on display.


Whimsy, critique and a jaunty hand with paint make for a winning combination in “Lisa Sanditz: Flyover,” a new exhibit at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.

Sanditz, a native of St. Louis who now lives in New York, maintains a soft spot for middle America.

While others may regard the country’s center as a “flyover zone,” Sanditz finds much to explore.

Among her favorite subjects are the region’s family-friendly tourist attractions, with their weird mix of artifice, sincerity and willingness to exploit local stereotypes to make a buck.

Add in that these attractions are often at sites of great natural beauty, and they become a rich lode for environmental as well as social commentary.

Take, for instance, the Meramec Caverns in Stanton, Mo., an hour from Sanditz’s childhood home in suburban Creve Coeur.

Sanditz’s 2005 painting of the caverns centers on the black-and-white checked tiled floors that run for 26 miles within the cave.

Yes, this synthetic addition to the natural wonder exists; meanwhile, Sanditz endows the rocky walls with a sense of the unreal, punctuating her dark, painterly evocations of the cave interior with passages of hallucinatory rainbow stripes.

Or one can relate to the whole production as a hallucination — Sanditz includes a dollhouse-like version of the site’s “Ozark Moonshiner’s Cabin” surrounded by a white picket fence. Further into the cave, a disco ball hangs over a gathering of red and white plastic chairs.

From the Ozarks, Sanditz moves to the Smoky Mountains with “Dolly Parton’s Peaks, Knoxville, TN,” her depiction of mountains named for the country singer. Sanditz blankets the tops of twin peaks with flowers and clusters a confectionary collection of tourist structures at their base, where power lines dip and rise.

Social issues are a natural for Sanditz. Before moving to New York to attend the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, she spent four years as a community mural painter in San Francisco, working in the Mexican social realist tradition.

Her decision to become an artist also was something of a foregone conclusion.

“I’m a docent baby,” she quipped during a recent interview at the Kemper. Both grandmothers and her mother were docents at the St. Louis Art Museum.

The influence of art history giants Whistler, Hockney and Ruscha runs through Sanditz’s work, but she likes abstraction, too. Playful reinterpretations of modernism’s stripes, dots and grids join winsome borrowings from folk art. You can see a kinship with hot New York painters such as Amy Sillman and Jules de Balincourt.

Like many artists working today, Sanditz gives free rein to her fantasist side, running the real world through her personal imaginative filters.

In “Subtropolis,” she portrays Kansas City’s subterranean industrial park as a model-train-set village wending between the massive pillars of the limestone cave. Dangling concentric circles of color indebted to Kenneth Noland’s “target” paintings double as light fixtures; she shifts to an expressionist lexicon of layered and built-up strokes for the cave.

In “Oklahoma City on New Year’s Eve” a patchwork of colorful hexagons describes the city’s Buckminster Fuller-inspired dome, which looms under a black sky exploding with fireworks.

Arranged in an arc around the dome are downtown skyscrapers, two with illuminated windows that create cross forms. In a landscape increasingly dominated by box stores and cookie-cutter housing developments, Sanditz finds cause for celebration in vernacular expressions such as these.

Part of the appeal of these paintings is that they’re not predictable. In each piece Sanditz looks anew at the relationship between nature and the constructions of man and reaches different conclusions. “Chevrolet Cabriolet Chapel,” an homage to the late visionary architect Samuel Mockbee, exudes hope; the puffing smokestacks of “Sock City” carry a dual message of prosperity and threat.

At 33, Sanditz is part of a generation likely to conclude that the choice between economic and environmental well-being is a false one.

These days it’s a radical act to acknowledge the complexity of an issue, but Sanditz does it with humor and grace, not to mention visual elan.