Lindsborg painter’s ‘scathing critique of American exceptionalism’ finds a home

Lindsborg painter Mike Hartung at the Red Barn Studio Museum, where his new work is up through Oct. 24 (Saskia Lehnert)

Mike Hartung’s paintings are not for the fragile. In that way, they’re just like Kansas.

He’s also a classic character, the kind that could only emerge from a flinty place like this.

Now 76, Hartung grew up in Fredonia and worked as a commercial printer in Salina for 45 years. At night in his Lindsborg studio, he quietly created more than 700 paintings, many of them on 4-by-8-foot sheets of Masonite. He might have lived out his years in obscurity if not for his old friend Laura Klocke and her husband, Richard Klocke, then the exhibitions manager at Lawrence’s Spencer Museum, who learned he was in poor health and living in dubious conditions. They intervened and began working to bring him some attention.

“Waitresses” was part of the Salina Art Center’s 2017 exhibition “Gas Stations, Laundromats, and the Spaces in Between: Paintings by Mike Hartung.” (Submitted by Mike Hartung to Kansas Reflector)

Hartung’s first exhibition was three years ago, with simultaneous shows at the Salina Art Center, the Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery in Lindsborg and the Moss-Thorns Gallery at Fort Hays State University.

“His paintings of gas stations and laundromats possess the existential angst of Edward Hopper’s iconic works from the 1930s and ’40s,” the critic Elizabeth Kirsch wrote in KC Studio, “while works that deal with the seasons and nature are delicate, romantic, even surreal.”

“It’s an incredibly important body of work,” says Bill North, who spent 17 years as the senior curator of the Beach Museum at Kansas State University and then seven years as the executive director at the Salina Art Center before he left last year.

North sums up Hartung’s work as “a scathing critique of American exceptionalism.“

“He’s going to places where most people don’t care to go,” North says. “You know, Kansans like pretty pictures. And Mike’s pictures are not pretty, but they’re so powerful.”

Which brings us to “The Golden Turd.”

Hartung says he was essentially paralyzed by COVID-19 — not the actual disease, but the overpowering emotions many of us felt as the pandemic hit back in March.

“Weide Gas Station” was among the paintings exhibited at Fort Hays State University’s Moss-Thorns Gallery as part of the 2017 exhibition “Works of Mike Hartung.” (Submitted by Mike Hartung to Kansas Reflector)

“I couldn’t accept it,” he says. “Just the idea of what normal people were going through deeply affected me. I couldn’t believe how the health profession was treated like they were expendable — these people had gone to school for a long time to take care of us, and we threw them out there without protection and fumbled around, called it a hoax.”

He couldn’t work.

“I guess maybe I’m not totally opposed to dystopic visions of whatever,” he says, “but that was more than I wanted to deal with.”

But he also had a show coming up.

“I was lying in bed one night and thought, ‘Well shit, I’ve got three weeks. Why don’t I see what I can come up with,'” he said. “I’d had this idea before COVID, in the back of my mind.”

Hartung sometimes makes up stories to go with his paintings, deploying these bizarre, lurid and darkly comic narratives as part of the work’s texture.

Mike Hartung with his 2020 painting “Golden Turd.” (Marsha Howe)

The show opened at Dala Town, a retail space on Main Street, on Sept. 18. It was up throughout that weekend, but on Monday, he learned some folks were not pleased with “The Golden Turd” and another painting that included an unpleasant rendering of the former president of Lindsborg’s Bethany College.

The show came down. Lest anyone think Lindsborg is intolerant, it reopened this past weekend at a place called the Red Barn Studio Museum. The Smoky Valley Arts & Folklife Center, which had been promoting the show, posted a note on Facebook making it clear that “the artist’s depictions do not express the views or opinions” of the various sponsoring organizations or venues, but “we believe that freedom of artistic expression is an essential part of our mission.”

Despite his depiction of the president, Hartung volunteers that he’d describe himself as “a progressive Republican like we had with people like Jim Pearson” (the state’s Republican U.S. Senator from 1962-1978).

“Even Nancy Landon Kassebaum was pretty reasonable,” he says. “I sure as hell wasn’t ashamed of her. Now these clowns we’ve got are pathetic. It’s all Trump all the time.”

Hartung says he hasn’t experienced any negative repercussions from his work. He credits North for “showing a lot of courage” by including his piece “Tailgating with the GOP” in the Salina Art Center’s 2017 show. Hartung describes it as depicting “a handmaid delivering children whose heads are being chopped off, going onto a grill to become chicken wings, with three little piggies sitting on park bench as the 1%.”

Mike Hartung’s 2015 painting ‘Tailgating with the GOP.’ (Submitted by Mike Hartung to Kansas Reflector)

“It’s a very tough, tough painting,” says North, who hung it in a back room and posted a sign alerting viewers so there was no chance of anyone “stumbling onto it.” At the opening, he says, he stood next to a woman he guesses was in her 70s, and probably a Republican.

“She turned to me and basically thanked the Art Center for showing it,” North says.

He doesn’t remember her exact words, but they were something like: “I don’t agree with any of it, but I know it’s important that we look at things like this and talk about them.”

Kansans can see and talk about Hartung’s new work at Lindsborg’s Red Barn through Oct. 24. And they might find him any time hanging out on Main Street.

“I’m sort of the curmudgeon who sits down at the White Peacock coffee shop and dispenses wisdom whether they want it or not,” he says.

Hartung says he’s enjoying himself.

“I don’t ask for much,” he says. “All I ask is that I can at least live until Nov. 3 so I can vote.”