Institutional critique always appears more trenchant when contained within the confines of an establishment, where it can be dissected by the very language that defines it.

The Omaha Public Library is our city repository of shareable knowledge, a site open to inquiries by all comers. That exists, by its published mission, to “connect people with ideas, information and innovative services.”

It is also an arm of the local government, with its incumbent practices and regulations that extend beyond those of the library profession into wider civic governance. Witness what might be called recent “power struggles” between the mayor and the library board over who determines what is “right” for the organization.

Enter artist Kim Darling (aka Kim Reid Kuhn), whose exhibition Self-Governance, curated by Alex Priest at the main branch’s Michael Phipps Gallery, prompts inquiry into contemporary cultural and political institutions and ideologies.

Darling’s provocations are responsive to current discourse on such topics as gender identity, health care, law and religion. As witnessed by the fever pitch with which bathroom laws, second amendment rights and use of force by police are dominating the political cycle and media coverage, even the least civic-minded among us are set to wonder how we got here and where we should be headed.

How do the structures we created serve us? Where does self-expression fit within the umbrella of liberty? Darling is no didact. Her art sets up curious juxtapositions between recognizable symbols that either brings them into sharper focus or exposes their ambiguities.

Take, for instance, the series of photographs entitled Power Positions. In each, men and women in police uniform are seen performing traditional yoga poses against a pink background.

Yoga is in fact an ancient discipline and, for those who are true followers, its systematic practice engages a path to enlightenment through a deep connection to the physical body. It should be a path to self-awareness. Even viewed primarily as a form of exercise, yoga promotes flexibility and balance, a kind of centeredness and concentration.

What then to make of Darling’s uniformed practitioners in their powder-puff studios? Do the surroundings or peaceful poses make them appear submissive, lacking in authority? Or, on the contrary, does the aura of tranquility put a gentle mask on abuse of power?

Consider too the context provided by her loosely rendered silhouettes of AR-15 rifles, semi-automatic weapons often used by law enforcement. We are asked by one array of four such images, “Which is your favorite?”

It is the viewer’s particular perspective that extends the conversation into whether they are symbols of might or destruction, of liberty or hatred, etc. The inherent potency of the weapons as symbols far outstrips the intentionally cartoonish quality of her rendering: guns are no laughing matter.

Make no mistake, there is a great deal of wry humor in Darling’s art. Take, for example, the larger-than-life paintings on wood of transvestite legs. Exaggeration is all, as hairy legs and knobby knees are outfitted in a variety of high heels, stockings and tattoos. Yet they are unsettling, truncated at the top of the thigh to reveal the flesh and bone within. A reminder to see the human behind the cliché?

The far wall of the gallery is dominated by “Hard Pills”, a single piece that spills onto the adjacent corners. Two giant open mouths—all red lips, gapped teeth and lolling tongues—attempt to glom down pills and capsules that stream by, as if Pac-Men in a video game.

The work has a charming, childlike naiveté that makes any number of references: to our national crisis of addiction to prescription drugs, to our general obsession with finding magic pills to cure whatever ails us, to a dose of reality being a “hard pill” to swallow, to a winking play on words for medicine to treat erectile dysfunction.

This is the delightful slipperiness of Darling’s art—its wonderfully surreal, outré quality that makes an amalgam of imaginative whimsy and implied commentary. It mixes representation and fantasy, is multifaceted and complicated.

The large untitled painting on cardboard at the center of the gallery is the summation of these attributes. It is brimming, edge to edge, with floating layers of items that are recognizable, including truncated body parts, motorcycle boots, pills and lab flasks, as well as an array of primordial biomorphic shapes: a scientific experiment designed by Rube Goldberg and Philip Guston.

In the context of the Omaha Public Library, Darling reminds us to keep our societal conversations going, to understand them filtered through a variety of voices. That’s the power position of art.

Kim Darling: Self-Governance runs through June 6 in the Michael Phipps Gallery. It is located on the main floor of the W. Dale Clark Library in downtown Omaha at 215 S. 15th Street. It is free to the public and open during regular library hours.

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