Letts’ “The Strangeness of Everyday” Costume Designer-Turned Painter Creates a World of Wild Style

. November 30, 2018.

K. A. Letts’s exhibition, “The Strangeness of Everyday,” opened at the Connections Gallery at the University of Michigan’s North Campus Research Complex on September 20th and runs through December 21. Letts says of her art: “My work looks both forward and back in time. I employ techniques and strategies from painting’s history to describe the present Anthropocene age where all of nature is touched by humans and all humans are touched by technology.”

“The Strangeness of Everyday” is an intimate exhibit. Entering the gallery, the art seems to move in tandem with the flora outside the gallery’s floor-to-ceiling windows, adding to the organic movement of Letts’s subjects, ranging from animals, the book of Jonah, the age of surveillance, the female figure, and others. Each painting is simple in its construction: almost all are acrylic on paper and either monochromatic or of a limited palette. Upon close inspection, viewer can see pencil lines of Letts’s original sketch, the ghosts of her creative process.

Biblical themes reimagined in a graphically vivid sequence

Her most captivating pieces in the exhibit are the three-part retelling of the book of Jonah, with monochromatic palettes and crowded abstract faces faintly reminiscent of Picasso’s “Guernica.” The first piece, “Extreme Measures,” shows an internally empty Jonah being cast into the sea by fearful sailors and an anticipatory whale edging close to the prophet. The second piece, “Myth of Agency,” shows Jonah in the belly of the whale, with the whale’s clamped jaw pointing heavenward. The third piece, “Rabble Rouser,” shows Jonah—with shapes filling his once empty frame—on a beach, preaching to the lost souls of Ninevah. Each piece draws the viewer in and out of itself, mirroring the undulation of the water, constructed with a masterful use of pointillism.

Compelling commentary

Each piece can be viewed individually, but taken together with other works in their series, Letts’s work creates compelling commentary. For instance, the “Some of Her Parts” series provides a feminist lilt on the idea of the female figure. In each painting, certain parts of the figure’s anatomy are gilded with gold paint: a mouth, a buttocks, feet, legs, and breasts. Calling attention to such attributes constructs a dual message: that women are so often diluted to just these parts, yet they are more than just these parts.

Another example is “Eye in the Sky,” which shows a group of people sitting together with drones hovering above. The drones and all but one of the individuals have the same eyes: abstract yet startlingly lifelike as the viewer continues to gaze at them. Staring at the one individual without the drone-like eye, a sense of vulnerability creeps into the piece, causing the viewer to question the lack of privacy in the age of constant surveillance of self and others.

Letts’s art possesses contrasting qualities: simplicity and complexity, stasis and movement, geometry and the organic. The viewer is constantly pulled into the piece, roving to collect inconspicuous details, then pushed back out again to appreciate each piece in its entirety. This art is not to be taken in by simply strolling by and glancing at it; rather, it touches the viewer, demanding time to take in the moments, commentaries, and visions depicted in Letts’s work.

Connections Gallery | UM North Campus Research Complex, Bldg 18
9am-5:30pm, Monday-Friday | Through December 21

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