Monday, November 24, 2008

New Works on Paper & Splatter Pattern

by Betsy Bolen

"New Works on Paper" and "Splatter Pattern"
Morton J. May Gallery, Maryville University St. Louis, St. Louis, MO
November 6-December 5, 2008

St. Louis artists Gina Alvarez and Nick Nihira are exhibiting new work at the Morton J. May Gallery at Maryville University St. Louis. Located in the University's library, the Gallery has recently been expanded from its former one room to two spacious rooms.

New Works on Paper,” a print, collage, and fiber based show by Gina Alvarez, occupies the front room. The two largest works in the show, Migrating Flora and Farell Blue, are composed of six elongated monoprints hung side by side. These works, which face each other on opposite walls, call to mind Japanese multi-panel screens. In them, groupings of quiet-hued, sausage-like shapes are strewn across the six prints. In Migrating Flora, the monoprints are spaced about an inch apart and the shapes flow in a continuous stream across the panels. Farell Blue on the other hand, has spacing about two feet apart. Here, the shapes coalesce within each print creating a visual pause between panels and an emphasis on the long, individual sheets of paper.

Gina Alvarez. Farrell Blue. 2008. Edition various 12.
Woodcut, Relief, Collage on Paper,
Printed at Pele Prints, St. Louis.

Alvarez also shows six rectangular collages that are pinned directly to the wall. These pieces employ various elements such as print, paper cut-outs, weaving, and stitching. As in the two larger works, significant areas of the white paper ground are left open. In this way, a “space” is achieved in which the viewer can focus on the individual process of each collage.

Nick Nihira.

Exercise in Patience, a series of six small, white framed mixed media pieces completes the show. Three of these use old, yellowed book pages as ground for painted images and cut-outs. The small pages of text offer a subtle contrast to the larger, white papers in the rest of the show.

Several of the works in Nick Nihira’s show, “Splatter Pattern,” have titles that refer to the economy such as Real Estate Bubble, Trickle Down, and Recession Sketch Series. Pencil on paper drawings in allover field patterns alternate on the walls with acrylic paintings on canvas, and mixed media works.


"New Works on Paper" & "Splatter Pattern" remain on view through December 5, 2008. The Morton J. May Foundation Gallery is located on the campus of Maryville University St. Louis in the Library Building, 650 Maryville University Drive, St. Louis, MO 63141. 314/529-9381. Gallery hours are Monday-Thursday, 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday 7:30 a.m.-6 p.m.; Saturday 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Sunday 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Thanksgiving hours; Closed November 26-29; open November 30, 3-10 p.m.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury

by Jeff Farris

"Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury"
Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University, St. Louis, MO
September 19, 2008-January 5, 2009

"Birth of the Cool" is a broad retrospective of mid-century California culture ­ art, architecture, design, music, and pop culture ­ named after Miles Davis’ 1949-1950 jazz-music compilation. Using elements of interior design, paintings, architectural photographs, and the audio-visual media of contemporary pop culture, this exhibition immerses the viewer in the artistic and cultural milieu of mid-20th century California. Although it might have been easier to separate the disparate parts of “cool” culture and display each aspect of the show in its own gallery, the curator has wisely chosen to intersperse the diverse elements of the show throughout the exhibition and thus envelope the observer in a complete sensory experience.

Karl Benjamin, Black Pillars, 1957, oil on canvas, private collection. © Karl Benjamin, courtesy Louis Stern Fine Art, West Hollywood.

Hard-edge paintings by noted California artists serve as anchors for the show and set the tone with their straight lines and bold geometry. The curators have selected works by Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson, Helen Lundenberg, Frederick Hammersley, and John McLaughlin. The show devotes one gallery almost exclusively to outsized, vibrant works by Lorser Feitelson and equally large, but subdued pieces from Helen Lundenberg. Of special note are two works by Karl Benjamin, Black Pillars, 1957, and Small Planes: White, Blue and Pink, 1957. These works illustrate the clean lines embodied by the architecture and interior design of the period and illustrate how straightforward form can have an outsized impact.

Charles and Ray Eames, LCM Chair, © 1951. Manufactured by Herman Miller Furniture Company; molded birch plywood, chrome-plated steel, rubber. Boyd Collection.

The creations of Charles and Ray Eames dominate the retrospective with furnishings and two video presentations, Kaleidoscope Jazz Chair, 1960, and Tops, 1957. Both of the Eames’ film loops present spinning visions of light infused with the cool jazz sound of the era. While neither film has a storyline, both films, according to Charles Eames, “get an idea across.” A wide-ranging selection of the Eames’ furniture is shown, including an extensive collection of chairs, early cabinetry, and the California-inspired “Surf Board” coffee table. Eames’ iconic chairs are displayed on an imposing three-level platform giving the viewer the opportunity to view the pieces from all angles.

Julius Shulman, photograph of Case Study House #22 (Pierre Koenig, Los Angeles, 1959-60), 1960. © J. Paul Getty Trust. Used with permission. Julius Shulman Photography Archive, Research Library at the Getty Research Institute.

Complementing the clean-line aesthetic of the hard-edge paintings are Julius Shulman’s photographs of the Case Study Houses. Shulman highlights the angular form of the homes while showcasing the furnishings and fashions of their inhabitants. Special attention is given to architect Pierre Koenig’s Case Study Houses #21 and #22, with wide-angle interior shots and expansive views of the houses’ exteriors. Shulman captures the openness of the interior spaces and their connectedness to the outside world by focusing his camera’s attention onto Koenig’s extensive use of floor-to-ceiling windows. A hallmark of Shulman’s work is to feature people and furnishings, thus making the pictures more visually interesting. These photographs serve to include the related, mid-century architecture in the exhibits as well as showing the context in which the other elements of "Birth of the Cool" were displayed during the era.


"Birth of the Cool" was conceived by the Orange County Museum of Art under the curatorial direction of Elizabeth Armstrong and is on view in St. Louis at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum from September 19, 2008 to January 5, 2009. The Kemper is located on the campus of Washington University at Skinker & Forsyth Boulevards, St. Louis, MO 63130. 314/935-4523. Museum hours are 11-6 Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday; Friday 11-8; closed Tuesday.

Monday, November 10, 2008

New Media Series: Bill Smith, Loop Web

by Jeanne Rosen

New Media Series: Bill Smith, "Loop Web"
Saint Louis Art Museum
October 31, 2008–January 4, 2009

The New Media Series currently on view at the Saint Louis Art Museum features works that utilize technology to create art. Artist Bill Smith's “Loop Web” includes film, sculpture and audio components that create a visual and auditory experience which is thought-provoking on many different levels.

Bill Smith. “Loop Web.” Courtesy P.P.O.W. Gallery

As odd as it may sound, the first component of this piece is a film projected onto a wall, featuring monkeys (lots of monkeys) bounding through a rainforest against a soundtrack (the second component) of old spiritual hymns and dramatic preaching. “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” is sung by a man with an Al Jolsen-type of voice and choirs in the background. What comes to mind almost instantly is the origins of humankind, creation, “The Garden,” evolution. The third component is a sculptural piece suspended from the ceiling that hangs just below the film. The sculpture is beautifully rendered of berry twigs and has five bulbs or pod-like shapes hanging from them. This is illuminated by a kaleidoscope of colors projected onto the twigs and bulbs, which in turn creates a pattern on the floor and becomes the fourth component of the work.

Bill Smith. “Loop Web.” Courtesy P.P.O.W. Gallery

At the very beginning of the loop (the digital DVD that plays continuously) the bulbs are illuminated in white, the same as any ordinary lightbulb. This signals the beginning of the loop process, but it’s also the beginning of time, of life itself. As time progresses, the bulbs are illuminated in a beautiful assortment of colors by the complex stream of light. On the bulbs are produced gorgeous hues, while the pattern on the floor resembles live cells undulating under a microscope. Two perspectives on life are represented here: the simplistic idea of life beginning in “The Garden” (also embodied in the naïve look on the monkeys’ face) brought into existence by a creator “God,” to the complexity of a single living cell. Smith uses images from the Hubble space telescope to stress the vastness of the universe and of the unknown. He plays with the patterns from the telescope and with the patterns of living cells, showing their similarities.

Bill Smith. “Loop Web.” Courtesy P.P.O.W. Gallery

Is the artist implying that it’s naïve to think life could begin in a garden? There is definitely a play on faith and science in this piece. Faith is made to appear simplistic, but so is evolution. Faith is putting your trust in something unseen, but Smith attempts to illustrate the ideas of life, origins, the universe, and the unknown.

Smith does a great job at stimulating our thinking from simple explanations of how we came to be here, to the very complex realities of what living beings are made of. He succeeds in making us ponder big concepts, while delighting us with the beauty of it all, and leaves the questions for us to answer.


Saint Louis Art Museum is located at One Fine Arts Drive in Forest Park, St. Louis, MO. 314/721-0072. Free & open to the public Tuesday-Sunday.


Jeanne Rosen earned her BA in Art History and MA in Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Art for Places and Spaces

by Vic Mastis

"Art for Places and Spaces"
Through November 15, 2008
Gateway Gallery, Clayton MO

In “Art for Places and Spaces," the current exhibit at Gateway Gallery in Clayton, one artists' works in particular caught my eye: St. Louis artist Garry McMichael.

McMichael's works were presented in a grouping titled "Lil’ Passions." His works are like an air of mystery that lures you down a misty path. You can feel the winding river’s edge or the smell of a flower garden which is achieved through McMichael's adept use of a variety of media, including pastels, colored pencils, oil painting, photography, and even Polaroid transfers.

Garry McMichael. Mississippi Paddlewheeler. Polaroid Transfer.

Further enhancing the scenes he depicts, the artist presents his works in one-of-a-kind, distressed wood frames with individual finishes. His pieces create an overall feeling of unity, fitting the scene he has chosen with each unique frame.

I was impressed with how "Lil’ Passions" looked when hung in a series. Each piece helped blend the collection and it truly engaged me. There was such unity in a collection of different subject matter.


Gateway Gallery is located at 7921 Forsyth Boulevard, Clayton, MO 63105. 314/503-3880. Gallery hours: Wednesday-Thursday 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Friday 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.-5 p.m.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Refraction: Three Contemporary Photographers

by Tony Renner

"Refraction: Three Contemporary Photographers"
The Gallery at Regional Arts Commission, St. Louis, MO
October 24-December 21, 2008

"Refraction: Three Contemporary Photographers," curated by Amy Bautz, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Studio Art at Saint Louis University, presents the work of Mark Douglas, Bob Reuter, and Antje Umstaetter in The Gallery at Regional Arts Commission. The exhibit is currently on display through December 21, 2008.

Mark Douglas. Book #5.

Mark Douglas, who teaches photography and graphic design at Fontbonne University, weighs in with five large color photographs of close-ups of books. The photos, however, are not so close up that context is lost, that is, views can immediately recognize that they are looking at the top edge of an open book. The photos extenuate the arcs, curves and lines formed by opening the books, as well as the textures of the worn and frayed cloth covers.

Antje Umstaetter. Untitled.

German artist Antje Umstaetter, visiting professor in the department of fine arts at Saint Louis University, contributes a number of photographs, ranging from the very small to the very large, that the artist has placed in clear plastic bags splashed with white enamel paint or otherwise manipulated. The subjects of Umstaetter’s works are variously swimmers caught in the act of jumping or diving and close-ups of flowers. Through its sheer size the 13'x 11'. Winner, a cut-out photo of a rotund man captured mid-jump, dominates Umstaetter’s portion of the exhibition. Umstaetter’s most successful piece, though, is an untitled color photo of two skinny-dippers, backsides gleaming. Also notable are two un-credited–the wall cards were nowhere to be found, at any rate–close-up color photographs of berries covered in white paint. In these works, the paint has been added to the subject before the photo was taken rather than being added afterwards.

Bob Reuter. Exile on South Grand.

Bob Reuter fills one wall of the gallery with well over 150 black & white photographs ranging in size from 5"x7" to 11"x14". Entitled Exile on South Grand, these pieces document a nighttime world of musicians and artists. Reuter’s work is striking for not only the masterful use of light and dark but also the careful composition of each shot. Reuter’s photos have been mounted, neither framed nor matted, directly on the wall with a very carefully calculated casualness.


The Gallery at Regional Arts Commission is located at 6128 Delmar Boulevard, St. Louis, MO 63112. 314/863-5811. Gallery hours: Monday- Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday & Sunday 12 to 5 p.m.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Mary Sprague Tree Drawings

by Sun Smith-Fôret

Mary Sprague Tree Drawings
Duane Reed Gallery, Clayton, MO
September 12-October 18, 2008

Mary Sprague has been educating, delighting and surprising the St. Louis art community for years as a painter, teacher, raconteur, and unique personality in the service of Art. A founding Member of Art Saint Louis, Mary continues to serve on the Advisory Council.

In the catalogue accompanying her most recent show, “Mary Sprague Tree Drawings” at the Duane Reed Gallery in Clayton, Missouri, Jack Heinz in his introduction writes “Her trees have distinct and compelling personalities, and they are rendered in corresponding styles. Some are light and airy, drawn freely with an economical use of line. Others are menacing, broody or spooky, with deep shading and a thousand strokes. Each is her own tree."

Mary Sprague. Oak Annoyed by Mistletoe, Filoli, California (2008)

What resonates for me is the energy, restrained and exuberant, in every rendering. The style is Rembrandt-esque, with execution worthy of comparison with Gustav Dore. For people who love and know drawing, this is mark making at it's most controlled and spontaneous, it's most rich, lush, and evocative. Whether Sprague is illustrating an image of a single tree isolated on the page with minimal landscape element support, such as Pine Tree Forest Park (2007), or has located her subject tree in a complex and possibly surreal mise en scene, Oak Annoyed by Mistletoe, Filoli, California (2008)--the eye of the beholder is pleased. We know good drawing and we think we know what a tree is.

Mary Sprague. Bite of Illinois (2008)

It is tempting to locate Sprague's current work in a venerable landscape genre, the great American Landscape Tradition as practiced by such Midwestern and local notables as Fred Oakes Sylvester, Dawson Watson and Jacob Berg. Mary’s subject matter calls to mind works from the French plein air movement, the Barbizon School. However, Sprague lures us into a more ambiguous and less accessible realms of nature with the miniature scale of the images relative to our concept of 'tree'. She includes us in an exquisitely wrought visual puzzle and wry conceptual joke of the huge made tiny as she did in reverse with her enormous anthropomorphized chicken drawings and paintings in 2007.

Mary Sprague. Garden with Elephant (2008)

At first, her titles seem straightforward and reassure us about the reality of each tree in it's own particular geography, attained through rigorous observation and travel near home and far away, by van and across the country in both directions, as Heinz points out in the catalogue. Sprague, however, is always looking inward and her work invites us, should we choose, to do the same. These softly seductive intentions become more clear in her hand-colored photographs that somehow manage to look like monumental Sprague paintings even though all are drawn with inks by pen in the same small scale as the drawings. To let yourself gently into her subjective world, see Bite of Illinois (2008) followed by Garden With Elephant (2008). Drawing Elephants (2008) is a kind of grand finale except that one goes back around and around and around.

Duane Reed Gallery is located at 7513 Forsyth Boulevard, Clayton, MO 63105. 314/862-2333. Gallery hours: Tuesday-Friday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.-4 p.m. and by appointment.

Sun Smith-Fôret is a practicing psychotherapist in St. Louis and a regional artist. Her mixed media textiles, drawings and paintings on the subject of movies over time have been exhibited in numerous exhibitions, including her current solo exhibit, "Interpretation: Silver Screen Quilts by Sun Smith-Foret," Belger Arts Center, Kansas City, MO (July 4, 2008 through October 3, 2008). Her work will be presented with Marjorie Hoeltzel and Dawn Ottensmeier in "Charms and Talismans," Chesterfield Arts, Chesterfield, MO (October 24, 2008-January 3, 2009). In addition to her art making, Sun serves on the Art Saint Louis Board of Directors.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Currents 102: Sarah Oppenheimer

by Sun Smith-Fôret

Currents 102: Sarah Oppenheimer
Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, MO
April 11-July 6, 2008

It is an old trick to include a piece of visual communication like a penny, a peach, a person, a plane, to establish scale and to locate the viewer in a space with some logic and the possibility of comprehension on the part of the viewer. Similarly, visual tricks can be used to distort space and or context.

In Sarah Oppenheimer’s site-specific “Currents 102” installation at the Saint Louis Art Museum, “Horizontal Roll,” the artist inverts the principle of familiarity, in this case appropriating specific works of art from the Museum's collection by constructing a room-sized, three- sided, multi-apertured box camera in the center of Gallery 337 into which viewers are invited to walk, look, and experience familiar works in contemplative, often shared, fresh acts of seeing.

If you take the elevator to the third floor galleries you disembark and see a Gee's Bend pine cone pattern quilt on the wall directly across from the doors. The pattern reads as a repetition of apertures, lens like circles that have the capability of opening and closing to reveal or hide, a clever if unintended visual reference, a jump cut into the Oppenheimer's filmic enterprise.

Then make a sharp right-hand turn through the Modernist gallery and go straight ahead through the Gallery 336, “Post War-Post Wall: German Expressionism 1960-1990.” This huge gallery, the largest in the Modern and Contemporary domain of the Museum boasts familiar mainstays of the collection. Straight ahead and through the doorway to Gallery 336 stands a new barrier wall, the installation wall, with it's relatively small opening, a polished plywood sheathed hole, engineered to frame and isolate from the rest of the image the nose and mouth of Chuck Close's “Keith” (1970). We know that we "know" this image, but questions are raised.

Sarah Oppenheimer, American (b. 1972).
Horizontal Roll
(framed views of Chuck Close's Keith), 2008.
Courtesy the artist and P.P.O.W. Gallery. Photo by David Ulmer.

In an interview by Robin Clark included in the exhibition broadside, Sarah Oppenheimer comments that the piece "Horizontal Roll” “is less a response to the Museum's collection than a response to the Museum's encoded space. Any work placed within the Museum's boundaries is framed by it's institutional purview, it's array of spaces and arrangement of objects. This project addresses the act of moving/viewing inside the Museum space. The components of “Horizontal Roll” are placed strategically in relation to works in the collection in order to set up zones of pictorial reflection and repetition."

Sarah Oppenheimer, American (b. 1972).
Horizontal Roll
(framed views of Chuck Close's Keith), 2008.
Courtesy the artist and P.P.O.W. Gallery. Photo by David Ulmer.

We walk into and around the piece for a full 360-degree amble. One go-round hardly suffices as she has punctuated the walls of her installation on three sides with apertures that allow shifting views of all or portions of 12 artworks in the surrounding galleries, some of which reflect each other or in the case of Gerhard Richter's “Gray Mirror” (1991), reflect artworks and observers outside of our direct line of sight. If we participate in her piece by allowing ourselves to accept suggestions, by adjusting our focus, we can be engaged in an entirely new kinesthetic connection with other viewers and with objects from the collection chosen by Oppenheimer for their references to how and what we see.

The investigations of others are highlighted in her generous modern and minimalist references. She includes “Mary Magdalene,” Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen (1519), depicting a Renaissance woman involved in a private act of gazing into a reflective if distorting surface. My friend and colleague Elisabeth Kirsch who writes for the Arts Page of the Kansas City Star suggested that Oppenheimer's work could function as a post modern, non-cynical critique of Duchamp' s erotically charged critique of "looking" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “Étant donnés: 1. la chute d'eau 2. le gaz d’eclairage (GIVEN: The Waterfall 2. The Illuminating Gas)”, mixed media assemblage (1946-1966).

Sarah Oppenheimer, American (b. 1972).
Horizontal Roll
(framed views of Roy Lichtenstein's Curtains), 2008.
Courtesy the artist and P.P.O.W. Gallery. Photo by David Ulmer.

With its spare footprint, Oppenheimer's built environment is room as camera, room with literal “holes” in the walls, room within room, room offering multiple viewpoints. The piece plays with the notions of interiority and vista. Meanings subjective, layered, and occur as we move through the spaces encountering other viewers or not. The design and engineering of “Horzizontal Roll” is meticulous.

At the opening for the exhibition, Oppenheimer commented to my friend St. Louis artist Dawn Ottensmeier, that she used computer technology in the design phase and only had 1/16th inch leeway for the placement of the wall and apertures on the Mondrian/Kelly view. Using the confines of discrete and fixed gallery spaces she allows one the opportunity to feel, on a physical level, one's self-as-camera. Our eyes are the film, our bodies the steady cam moving and stopping to frame connections for ourselves through Oppenheimer's elegantly engineered and constructed punctures. We have new relationships with the objects and with other viewers and participants. The work engenders conversation. I talked with J.D., a thoughtful Museum Guard who helped me locate the identity of the unmarked and ubiquitous Artschwagers. I talked with two Museum Art Handlers, both artists, about differences and similarities between 2D and 3D works and about the technical demands of their craft in containing and shipping and unpacking art works. A fellow visitor and I roamed from mirror to mirror and together mirrored our shared surprise at all the connections. These kinds of random engagements are of course the essence of Postmodernism.

What Postmodernism addresses is the inseparability of context from what we "know". Postmodernism, instead of asking for the facts, asks how we construct our knowledge. As in Contemporary Art, the tenants of Postmodernism inform the practice and work of psychotherapy and how we form relationships from the cradle, or the womb if you will, forward in time and space. As a practicing psychotherapist and a working artist I felt an enormous surge of conceptual compatibility with “Horizontal Roll.” Putting myself simultaneously into the roles cinematographer and director I followed my new eye toward "After the War and After the Wall-German Painting 1960-1990” exhibition in Gallery 336. In concert with the pathos and power of the paintings I re-imagined the poignancy of Florian Henkel von Donnersmarck's 2007 Oscar winning film “The Lives of Others,” Ger. (2007). On this my second visit, something different took over my usual museum context viewing, allowing me to appreciate at a deeper level that period of history and the people who experienced it first hand. I was guided along an alternative line of sight created by another, the artist. The links were suggested, available, never forced. This mindful arrival at insight and discovery is of course the stuff of psychotherapy. It is rewarding to have a young and highly accomplished artist as both model and fellow explorer.

Saint Louis Art Museum is located at One Fine Arts Drive in Forest Park, St. Louis, MO. 314/721-0072. Free & open to the public Tuesday-Sunday.

Sun Smith-Fôret is a practicing psychotherapist in St. Louis and a regional artist. Her mixed media textiles, drawings and paintings focus on the subject of movies over time and have been exhibited in numerous solo and group exhibitions, including the recent two-artist exhibit, "Interior States " at Regional Arts Commission, St. Louis, MO (November 2007-January 2008). Her works will be shown in a solo exhibit, "Movie Quilts by Sun Smith-Fôret," at the Belger Arts Center, Kansas City, MO (July 4, 2008-October 3, 2008) and in a 3-artist exhibit, "Charms and Talismans" with Marjorie Hoeltzel and Dawn Ottensmeier at Chesterfield Arts , Chesterfield, MO (October 24, 2008-January 3, 2009). In addition to her art making, Sun serves on the Art Saint Louis Board of Directors.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Miao Xiaochun: The Last Judgment in Cyberspace

by Kara Lybarger

"Miao Xiaochun: The Last Judgment in Cyberspace"
February 3-May 18, 2008
Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, St. Louis, MO

Miao Xiaochun. The Last Judgment in Cyberspace: The Front View.
2006, Digital C-print. 100" x 93". Image courtesy of Walsh Gallery, Chicago.

Miao Xiaochun’s work for this exhibit is definitely among the most unique I have ever encountered. His innovative approach to a reinterpretation of Michelangelo’s classic is one I won’t forget.

The artist invites viewers to revisit concepts of humanity’s ultimate fate with a contemporary stylistic edge. His strictly black and white scale presentation of the scene with a crisp, sharp contemporary style made this version of The Last Judgment seem less complex with less attention paid to the kind of detail that makes Michelangelo’s piece a bit much for the viewer to perceive all at once. Miao’s contemporary cyberspace is something with which many viewers may associate a sense of familiarity, considering the technologically focused and advanced culture in which we live. His work is inviting and engaging to the point that I felt as though I was a participant in each piece, existing right there amongst the figures and experiencing the Last Judgment through their eyes--whether damned, saved, or lingering in between.

The very first part of this show that caught my attention was the video playing at the back of the room. When I stood there watching vulnerable looking human figures fall helplessly through the sky, my stomach dropped as if I was falling beside them. In addition to the images of falling figures in the video, Miao also included more still shots of figures in positions of serious contemplation. Their subtle, yet powerful facial expressions suggest a state of deep reflection, most likely upon their earthly lives and how their souls came to rest in this state of final damnation.

Miao Xiaochun. The Last Judgment in Cyberspace: The Vertical View.
2006, Digital C-print, 99.5" x 236". Image courtesy of Walsh Gallery, Chicago.

In Below View, the hands of the damned souls appear to be reaching out in a state of agony, attempting to clench onto anything that is life. The facial expressions seen on the damned figures in this painting are quite moving, evoking a sense of great loss and weariness. In Vertical View, Miao gives the viewer an up close and personal view of the facial expressions of the saved. These faces express complete peace, contentment with exactly who they are and where they are now, and some of their eyes are drawn down to the damned in pity.

Miao’s Rear View depicts damned figures reaching out to and drawn to the heavenly light, but at the same time, trying to keep it from their eyes because it is intense and bright. The artist not only emphasizes the eternal physical darkness experienced by damned souls, but also the eternal spiritual/mental darkness of a Godless hell. The scene is even more dramatic as many of the figures look up at the perfect happiness of those now living in the light that they will never again have the opportunity to attain. Miao’s use of stark black and white shading to distinguish the realm of the heavenly from that of the damned dramatizes the scene in a way Michelangelo’s approach does not.

Miao Xiaochun. The Last Judgment in Cyberspace: The Side View.
2006, Digital C-print, 99.75" x 50". Image courtesy of Walsh Gallery, Chicago.

Side View depicts an interesting image of a boat floating on water amongst the damned. The boat design seems reminiscent of the bone structure of a human ribcage, as if a large fossil symbolic of the transition from life to eternal death. On a more positive note, however, Miao makes the focal point in this image incredibly powerful. At the center is St. Sebastian positioned in strong, distinct body language that speaks of the ultimate triumph of God over humanity and life over death, his eyes piercing directly into the viewer’s. I couldn’t help but make eye contact with this figure for several seconds.

Miao Xiaochun’s ability to break down Michelangelo’s original masterpiece into more digestible contemporary style segments from a variety of new perspectives is very clever and refreshing. Don’t miss this exhibit!

MOCRA (Museum of Contemporary Religious Art) is located on the campus of Saint Louis University is located on the campus of Saint Louis University at 3700 W. Pine Blvd., which is a pedestrian mall. 314/977-7170.

Kara Lybarger is a recent graduate of Murray State University, where she received a BA in Liberal Arts studying Art History and English. Kara is currently serving internships at Art Saint Louis and the Missouri Humanities Council. In Fall 2008, she will begin graduate school at the University of South Carolina-Columbia working towards an MA in Art History and possibly a Ph.D.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Unrefined Light

by Mark A. Fisher

Unrefined Light: Image-Making with Toy Cameras and Their Friends
March 28-May 9, 2008
The Foundry Art Centre, St. Charles, MO

Leica. Nikon. Hasselblad. Canon. All respected names in the photographic world. Names readily recognized across the globe as the standard-bearers of image-making tools that come to life in the hands of amateurs and professionals alike, capable of capturing phenomenal slices of time in those “decisive moments” of Henri Cartier-Bresson, those single frames of a life experience.

Windsor. Lensbaby. Stellar. Mark L. Diana. Holga. Perhaps not as well-known in the photographic arts, not exactly the first echelon of fine photographic optics and craftsmanship, not the standard-bearers of much beyond their idiosyncratic light leaks, thirst for electrical tape, and their watery, blurry, uncoated plastic lenses.

And yet, placed in the hands of master photographers, artists who can think “outside the box” (or turn a box into a pinhole camera), such primitive plastic “toys” and their friends become amazing instruments yielding wonderful photographs.

For the current toy camera exhibit titled “Unrefined Light: Image-Making with Toy Cameras and Their Friends,” juror Michelle Bates, internationally recognized authority on the Holga plastic camera and author of Plastic Cameras: Toying With Creativity (Focal Press, 2006), selected seventy-five images from fifty-five artists for the six-week exhibition.

John Dean, St. Paul, MO. Tank #7.

About the exhibit Ms. Bates writes:

"In creating photographs there is an inescapable relationship between the photographer and the tools used to capture light on film, paper, or sensor. Both the photographer and camera see the world in their own distinctive way. Often, people let the tool dictate the images made—subject matter, image style, perspective. But as the photographer becomes more familiar with different cameras and the equipments’ reaction and interpretation of light, the more each camera can be used to create images particular to personal interpretation. When an artist uses a camera as a tool for their artistic vision, he/she can make images that are uniquely their own.

Plastic cameras present many fun and fabulous opportunities for image-making. They’re cheap, light-weight, and simple to use. They allow an entry into medium-format film photography for the uninitiated, and an escape from complex, expensive equipment for the overwhelmed or jaded experienced photographer. The cameras are a departure from “normal” photographic gear, to the point where people tend to laugh as they watch someone shooting with one. And they can’t believe it when they feel how light a toy camera is. Many times this lightness tends to pull photographers toward shooting ethereal, whimsical subjects.

What intrigues me about these cameras is that, even though their controls are almost non-existent, and their structure minimal, in the hands of a visionary photographer such tools yield stunning imagery. In jurying this exhibition I looked not only for beautiful and technically sound images, I also sought out artists who used the cameras to create images unique to their own individual artistic vision. I applaud people who use their knowledge of light and photography to expand the bounds of what most people believe a plastic camera such as a Holga or Diana is capable of.

It was a joy to spend several days in the company of these images, and I was thankful that the gallery is large enough to allow me to choose a large selection of images. I thank everyone who entered, congratulate all those selected for the exhibit, and would like to express my appreciation to the Foundry Art Centre for hosting this fabulous exhibition

— Michelle Bates
March 2008

Tony Schanuel, O’Fallon, IL. Introducing the Pears.

In the world of plastic camera artists, Annette Fournet, Meg Birnbaum, Lisa Maira, Mary Ann Lynch, and Pauline St. Denis are recognized as some of the most accomplished practitioners in the genre. John Mann, Gary Moyer, Katie Clark Slick, Larry Joe Treadway, Bill Vaccaro, and Kai Yamada continue the list of world-class photographers who choose to include Holgas, Dianas, and other toy manifestations for their essential equipment list. Each of them offered strong visual, lyrical, well-seen, well-executed imagery for this exhibit, and local artists Tony Schanuel, Ben Guffee, Barbara Zucker, Joan Proffer, M.J. Goerke, Kay Wood, Marion Noll, Russ Rosener, John Dean, and others added their names to the growing list of those exploring what image-making with a toy camera can do for their own vision.

As Ms Bates intimated in her statement, “…in the hands of a visionary photographer such tools yield stunning imagery…” Five such visionary artists were selected for honors at the opening reception held March 28, but Ms. Bates was hard-pressed to select only five, such was the strength of offerings being shown.

Night Flight, a Holga image by Meg Birnbaum of Somerville, MA, was awarded a Solo Show or $1,000 cash prize. Four other photographers, Gwen Arkin of Pukalani, HI, Annette Fournet of Memphis, TN, Russ Rosener of St. Louis, MO, and Shannon Welles of Seattle. WA, were granted inclusion in a “Group Four Award” exhibition as well. To fully explore each image by each artist is an adventure best left to those visitors to the Foundry Art Centre who can allot a full afternoon to such a task, but brief synopses of several works follow.

Meg Birnbaum, Somerville, MA. Night Flight.

Meg Birnbaum’s Night Flight is full of mystery and marvel, a sinister edge, more than a bit foreboding. Prominent in the image, extending diagonally from lower right through the center and beyond is a lithe female form photographed from behind, clothed in a gown of some type, arms extended sinuously into a surreal background inhabited by blackbirds—perched on bare branches, or in flight—disturbed by the implied motion of the dancing woman’s arms, all shrouded in a brooding cyanotype envelope. Whether inspiration for this piece derives from mythology or from the wholecloth of Ms. Birnbaum’s own fertile imaginings, the overall feeling is of the latent dream world each of us visits when in slumber. More than a bit discomfiting, this image evokes a sense of fear, panic, impending attack. The placement of the birds, multiple layers of shadow, thrusting tree branches, and visual frenzy cause the eye to wander the full image, attempting to peel away the foreground figure from its ethereal surrounding.

Gwen Arkin, Pukalani, HI. The Standing of Time.

In The Standing of Time, by Gwen Arkin, the viewer is invited into a landscape both real and surreal. Done with a pinhole camera, then translated on watercolor paper as a photogravure, this image presents a series of almost cartoon-quality trees in the central horizon line, with other equally whimsical tree forms further removed on the right, all wonderfully shadowed and textured through a combination of sunlight and printing prowess. Pinhole images are known for their equality of sharpness in every quadrant; this clarity is then given some softness and atmosphere through the photogravure process to complete an amazing primeval scene of otherworldliness.

Shannon Welles, Seattle, WA. Off the Dock.

In a joyful display of youthful exuberance, Shannon Welles captures that delicious moment penultimate to plunging headlong into a body of water as her subject dives into the bay. Off the Dock arrests perfectly the awkward, ungainly young torso, suspended in midair, and speaks perfectly to the playful nature of summer days at leisure, captured no less playfully than with a toy—a $25 plastic Holga camera from China. Ms. Welles’ use of lith printing further enhances the sense of memory, of days past, of images put in drawers long ago only to be revisited by distant relatives or strangers, to wonder of the circumstance, the lost or forgotten tale. Such revelation through a simple plastic lens proves again that technology is no substitute for clear vision and readiness to capture such fleeting moments.

Annette Fournet, Memphis, TN. Hlnik, Slovakia.

Annette Fournet, whose photograph Krakow, Poland garnered her inclusion in a "Group 4 Award" at the Foundry, spent eight years creating a photography school in Eastern Europe. During that time she explored the marvelous, almost primitive cultures largely forgotten during the cold war and all the other wars that befell that region. In her explorations of the Slovak states she captured an entire vanishing culture, a throwback to centuries past, using one of her favorite photographic tools, the Diana camera. Such searches yielded a subset of imagery in her work—scarecrow figures used by the peasants in the region to ward off predators from their crops. One such piece, Hlnik, Slovakia, reveals a cruciform figure in a field of—what? Flowers? A grain crop? What is it about this place that requires such guardianship? Clothed loosely in what appears to be old clothing or fabric, but reminiscent of ashcloth, burlap, or other rough vestments, it takes on a holy embodiment, complete with the trappings of a flowing sash—in reality a large unfurled banner of what appears to be a plastic drop cloth or gauze—which winds its way from scarecrow to the foreground in an undulation mimicking the undulating hills of the background. There is history here, unspoken, unexplained, that thus far has been protected through benign neglect, given no credence or validity by passersby other than those who understand the true value of such a place, of such a time. Ms. Fournet has taken a simple field, a simple object, a simple time, and, in transcendent fashion, presented the viewer with something sacred, something valuable, something holy.

Russ Rosener, St. Louis, MO. Night Walk 3.

Looking at Russ Rosener’s Night Walk 3, taken with a 1937 Kodak camera altered to accept close-up rings and other things, one is transported to the same spot in time where that particular camera was first being used by ordinary families. Such families also went to movie houses to see good films, and poor films, and every other type of film, many done in black and white, just as most still photography was also being done in black and white. In Rosener’s image, a figurine very reminiscent of The Bride of Frankenstein stands as sentinel in the center foreground, her one visible eye glowing in the dimly lighted space. To her right, a shadowy figure stands. Threatening? Beseeching? Ominous? Another murky figure from an old film? And to the left, arching over the main figure, a streetlight? Doorway arch? Such is the adventure set up for the viewer by Rosener. As with any good storyteller, any good image-maker, there are levels to be explored, and beyond them, more layers. And so he invites us to create our own story, subplot, cast of characters, environment. He reveals much, but tells us little.

And the same can be said for all of the images to be found in this extraordinary exhibit. Whether taken with a Holga, an altered 1937 Kodak, a pinhole, or a Diana, all of the photographs reveal something of the human landscape, its prejudices, its loves, its mysteries, its joys. It is unfair to the remaining fifty artists in this exhibit to not discuss at length their work as well, for they are equally deserving. Given unlimited time, and unlimited space, they all should have their art, their vision, fully exposed to the public in this fashion. But if they were all merely written about, rather than experienced in person, then the true vision and artistry that is theirs would ultimately be lost.

To honor their work, to include their work in your own experience, to embrace it fully, it is required of us all to go to the Foundry Art Centre to see for yourselves. And to go to Art Saint Louis exhibits, and Mad Art, and all the other fine St. Louis regional venues where superb artists provide us with the opportunity to share in their joy, their vision, their art. You will be much richer for the experience.

The Foundry Art Centre is located at 520 N. Main Street in St. Charles, MO. 636/255-0270.

Mark A. Fisher is a photographic artist whose works have been exhibited in numerous national and regional solo and group exhibits. An art educator, Mark teaches photography at St. Charles Community College.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Thaddeus Strode: Absolutes and Nothings

by Kara Lybarger

"Thaddeus Strode: Absolutes and Nothings"
February 8-April 21, 2008
Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis, MO

As I walked through the "Thaddeus Strode: Absolutes and Nothings" exhibition, I was a bit overwhelmed. Strode’s complex canvases are in-your-face, throwing at the viewer many layers of potential meaning and often times over stimulating. His pieces appear to be painted quickly, violently, impulsively, yet the viewer cannot interpret them at that same pace. I know I couldn’t just stroll past one of them and feel satisfied. To quote from the Kemper’s Education Guide to the exhibit, one must engage in “slow viewing” to let Strode’s work become most meaningful. I appreciated this visual challenge!

One piece that particularly intrigued my imagination was The Magic Wooden Ship vs. Swastika Toys. Strode presents the viewer with nontraditional images of toys in a dark context, one that one would not typically associate with the concept of the toy and play. The reference to Nazi Germany in the title of this piece is something that got my attention and kept me sitting in front of it for awhile. The painting’s overtone was certainly one of death—not only physical death, but, perhaps moral decline and the death of innocence and a culture once uncorrupted by the evil of a man drunk with power. The patches of flesh tone paint and eerie images of human hands manipulating toys on a string indirectly remind the viewer of the reality of this shameful period of oppression and in human history—an absolute.

In addition to this painting, I also spent some time with Suggestion Box. The title alone brought many associations to mind, among them: ideas, thoughts, opinions, improvements, feedback, progress, interest, change, needs and wants. All of these associations relate to the notion of dynamicity and growth, which definitely contradicts the previous concept of the absolute. Strode depicts the box in no specific context. The viewer is left with nothing to lend more meaning to this mysterious suggestion box. The only other marks on this canvas with which I was able to identify were the abstract patches of black paint. I associated these marks with some sort of shadows or, after staring a little longer, with some of the images seen in Rorschach inkblot tests. Ironically enough, the purposes that the suggestion box and Rorschach tests serve are quite similar: to take on subjective suggestions.

Overall, I really enjoyed my afternoon with this exhibit. Thaddeus Strode gives the mind much food for thought, and I would definitely recommend the experience.

Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum is located on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis at Forsyth and Skinker Boulevards. 314/935-4523.

Kara Lybarger is a recent graduate of Murray State University, where she received a BA in Liberal Arts studying Art History and English. Kara is currently serving internships at Art Saint Louis and the Missouri Humanities Council. In Fall 2008, she will begin graduate school, working towards an MA in Art History and possibly a Ph.D.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Keep The Conversation Going

On Sunday afternoon, February 17, 2008, the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis hosted “The Repair of the Provincial Art Environment,“ a public forum organized by Matthew Strauss, Founder & Director of White Flag Projects.

The panel was comprised of:
Carmon Colangelo, Dean, Sam Fox School of Visual Arts, Washington University; Charlotte Eyerman, Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art, Saint Louis Art Museum; Jim Schmidt, Gallerist, Schmidt Contemporary Art; Matthew Strauss, Founder & Director, White Flag Projects; and Roseann Weiss, Director of Community Art Programs & Public Art Initiatives, Regional Arts Commission.

The audience included artists, art students, gallery owners & curators, representatives from funding agencies, museum curators, non-profit art gallery administrators, art writers & critics, art patrons & collectors, and others with a vested interest in the local art community. Many in the audience were of dual citizenship, so to speak (or better yet, multiple hat wearers): artist/non-profit art organization administrator; non-profit art administrator/former for-profit gallery director; artist/art professor; art writer/artist; artist/art patrons; artist/art collector; artist/private art collection curator; and so on and so forth.

The forum was lively and many important ideas were expressed, valid statements made, and vital needs established. But with only two hours, there wasn't nearly enough time to cover all the items on the agenda.

As a way to continue the dialogue and explore some of the forum's topics in greater depth, Art Saint Louis seeks responses for posting on this blog, Art Saint Louis/
Art Dialogue. Even if you didn't attend the event, you may very well have definite ideas, responses, questions, and even some answers to contribute to the conversation. We want to hear what you have to say.

We encourage you to
keep the conversation going and invite you share your thoughts with us. Please select a couple topics from the agenda posted below and express yourself by e-mail to, or you can use the comments section of this posting (please, no profanity or mean-spirited rants). We welcome your contribution to this dialogue.

Agenda reprinted with permission from White Flag Projects


White Flag Projects, believing negligent provincial art galleries operate with undue pretense, and abuse their inflated authority to routinely betray the good will of their patrons by exhibiting art they know to be compromised, by misrepresenting their motives and expertise, by effectively defrauding both their artists and clients, and by generally diminishing the environment for meaningful contemporary art as a result of their perverse curatorial behavior, and further believing that every exhibitor of contemporary art should be held accountable for the quality and relevance of the artwork they display…

White Flag P.G.S.
(Provincial Gallery Simulator)
urges all interested and affected parties to participate in a


to be held Sunday afternoon, February 17 at 2 o’clock
at The Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis

on the topic of


to include matters of…

CAN a smaller city ever be a viable center for progressive visual art?
MUST all smaller cities necessarily be provincial?
IS provinciality defined by geography or philosophy?
ARE all art galleries in smaller cities necessarily provincial?
WHAT are the systemic problems that hinder every small city art environment?

IS an art gallery merely a business like any other?
WHAT are the functions of a commercial art gallery?
DO commercial art galleries have any cultural responsibilities?
HOW do economic factors dictate gallery policy and practice?
SHOULD commercial galleries, which determine a significant percentage of the art exhibited in their city, be held accountable for the quality and relevance of those exhibitions?

WHY are local artists eager to be represented by galleries that do the absolute minimum to earn their commissions?
WHAT functions does a more effective commercial gallery perform that the provincial gallery does not?
DOES the provincial gallery advertise, publish catalogues, travel to important art fairs, cooperate with other galleries, or do anything else to expand awareness of their artists beyond the province itself?
HOW are local artists of otherwise good judgment cowed by their limited alternatives?
IS being represented by a provincial gallery more harmful than helpful to the career of a local artist?

WHAT are the qualities of a selective buyer of contemporary art?
WHAT is the difference between purchasing art from a provincial gallery or a cosmopolitan gallery?
SHOULD the payment of significant commissions to galleries assure buyers that all due measures are being taken to adequately promote and protect the art and artists in which they have invested?

HOW do indiscriminant donors and misguided not-for-profits squander their city’s limited resources?
CAN the education efforts of local museums produce a genuinely astute and sophisticated audience for contemporary art?
HOW do the hiring and retention practices of universities affect the quality of the local art environment?

WHO determines art world legitimacy?
WHAT factors determine a gallery’s legitimacy within the larger art world?
DO provincial galleries strive for actual legitimacy or merely the appearance of legitimacy?
DOES the provincial gallerist demonstrate any particular taste, discernment, foresight, intelligence or energy that would lead a credible authority to place any value in their endorsement?

ARE there any objective standards of relevance in contemporary art?
WHO are the individuals & institutions responsible for the provincial philosophy’s persistence?
IS anyone in a position to improve the provincial art environment?
WHAT can an individual do to earn a better art environment for their city?
CAN the provincial gallerist be persuaded to amend his or her practices?
CAN the mercenary endeavors of a few individuals overshadow the intellectual, aesthetic, and artistic well-being of an entire community?
MUST we risk that higher standards resulting in less art and fewer galleries in the short term will beckon better art and more galleries in the long term?


Reprinted with permission from White Flag Projects



From St. Louis artist Jennifer Weigel:

"It seems to me that we need to celebrate diversity and raise awareness within the community of the art scene that we have in order to foster it. Often it seems that there are perceived divisions, either among the artists or the institutions, that can hinder communication and collaboration. There are so many more opportunities and support here for the arts and yet it seems that there is still a sense of competition that can cripple our passions for making new things happen.

One such division exists in questioning whether galleries and institutions should support local versus national/international artists. A lot of local artists feel underrepresented within some of the larger institutions here in town. But many of these institutions feel the need to bring in artists from outside of the city in order to educate people here about what is happening in the arts both nationally and internationally and to spawn new dialogues within the arts here in St. Louis, and a lot of their programming is geared towards these ends. However, that does not mean that they don't support the local art scene, just that their support is guided in another direction. It also does not mean that they will never showcase works by local artists or that they do not realize that local art needs to also be well represented in order strengthen the arts community. It is up to the local institutions and local artists to together come up with programs geared towards promoting and showcasing local art as well as national/international art and to support these programs on both ends.

Commercial galleries need to be balanced by non-profits, museums and alternative spaces/events in order to showcase as many different and diverse types of art as possible. We need art that speaks to the public and matches people's sofas as much as we need art that responds to past movements and speaks of other things happening nationally and internationally or art that is otherwise challenging and provocative. Many people without an educational background in art have difficulty understanding or appreciating modern and contemporary art and feel alienated by it. These people then can become apathetic - they do not even want to try to learn about what is going on in the arts and thusly do not feel a huge need to support the arts or arts education (in either politics or patronage). So we need to have venues that the casual observer feels that they can go in and find something that they like without feeling confronted in order to encourage support for the arts within the community as a whole. In the meantime, we also need art that builds upon past works/movements and/or challenges people to see things in new ways in order to educate and raise awareness within the arts community.

Artists also need to support one another and not just see one another as rivals. There will always be competition between artists but there needs to be a sense of collaboration as well. Some artists realize this and support one another while others do not. It is important that we, as artists, expose ourselves to as much art as possible in order to raise our awareness of what else is going on (both locally and nationally/internationally) and to support one another within the arts community, not just for networking purposes. I feel it is also good that we as artists expose ourselves to as many different kinds of art as possible whether or not we necessarily agree with it in order to raise our awareness and to challenge ourselves and our own artmaking.

The art scene should be a celebration of diversity more than anything in my opinion, and anyone should be able to find something that appeals to and/or challenges them, whether that be a local or international artist, a piece that matches their sofa or an artwork that represents a growing trend or something raises their awareness of an issue. The arts community should encourage and foster all sorts of growth while doing as much as possible to raise the community's awareness of what is actually going on in the arts because all too often events can go unnoticed.

I am predominantly responding to the topics that were focused on primarily in the forum, "The Responsibilities of Commercial Art Galleries", "The Plight of Local Artists" and "The Effect of Institutions". The manifesto provides, in my opinion, a rather biased selection of questions that encourage confrontation, one implication of which is that we should strive to create a quality art environment by fostering programs that get St. Louis recognized as being relevant on a national scale so that we might appear in Art News, Art Forum or the like and that we should hold the arts community (commercial galleries, artists, collectors, institutions...) accountable for shortcomings in this regard, but it is rather likely that this is just my misinterpretation of the key ideas presented based on the debate that ensued at the forum itself.

I will not deny the importance of this task (acquiring a national/international presence) but I do not think that it alone will lend itself to a thriving arts community because it does not address the need for better support, outreach and publicity within the community as a whole. Many of the truly thriving arts communities that I have traveled to are as inclusive as possible and encourage both local and non-local artists working in a wide variety of media and with a wide range of concepts by providing a variety of polished and alternative exhibition spaces and by well-publicizing arts events that occur. Some such arts communities are significantly smaller than our own and yet are stronger than one might otherwise expect, perhaps not so much in regards to being noted in Art News but more so in regards to community support and diversity within the arts exhibited. I will cite Springfield, MO and Carbondale, IL as some such examples. And many larger cities, such as Chicago, foster growth and development in multiple levels of art, offering opportunities to local and non-local artists alike while simultaneously educating the public and encouraging their involvement in the arts.

While I cannot deny the importance of programming designed to raise awareness within the community of the scope of the art world beyond the local scene, I fear that to restrict our views solely to becoming acclaimed in the national/international art world may actually serve to further alienate the public as a whole, the casual observers who do not necessarily understand or appreciate modern art movements and feel confronted by contemporary art. We need to recognize the importance of diversity in the local art scene and provide a wide range of opportunities for local artists if we want to encourage artists to come here from other parts of the world and, even more importantly, if we want them to stay."


From St. Louis artist & art educator David Lang:

"These are complex issues raised by the public forum and I wish Matthew Strauss had framed the discussion a little more cohesively, however, it is the complexity and fluidity of the discussion that makes it interesting.

So far the bulk of the questions and discussion has revolved around the marketing of art as a commodity. The idea of creating a more active/vibrant/supported contemporary art scene in St. Louis is a compelling one, but if the focus is on St. Louis as a marketplace, it necessarily limits what Art can be.

The question we should be asking is whether the marketplace should be the driving force in the contemporary art world, here in St. Louis, or anywhere. In my mind, the marketplace tends toward lowest common denominators, and the examples of the development of the film and music industries can serve as vivid cautionary tales for visual artists. One can see how difficult it is for truly innovative musicians or filmmakers to get a foothold in the marketplace.

Nato Thompson said at a recent event at the Contemporary, our society is pursuing a war on meaning, and the primary agent of that war is the marketplace. Anything and everything is co-opted for commercial purposes. Regardless of whether you believe this is a bad thing, the continuing commodification of Art necessarily destroys its meaning and limits its expression. If the marketplace is the only driving force in St. Louis, then the most the art scene can aspire to is the provincial (in an
unsophisticated or narrow-minded sense).

As an artist, I have no illusions about the kind of artwork I am interested in producing. I never had an interest in marketing my work for sale and therefore I choose teaching as a way to both support myself and allow me to make Art. As an educator, I have seen the level and quality of art education.

By any objective measure, most art classes operate at an extremely low level of critical thinking (“Students, here is an example, now you make something that looks like this”) and one could argue that this is the result of any society that so heavily commodifies life. A look at the public discourse that follows any controversial art exhibit should make it clear that most people do not have the ability to intelligently discuss Art.

I find the solution to this proffered by Jennifer Weigel in her commentary puzzling: “So we need to have venues that the casual observer feels that they can go in and find something that they like without feeling confronted in order to encourage support for the arts within the community as a whole.” I would argue that this is the exact opposite of what we need. We need to promote and foster art appreciation. The casual viewer will never become more interested in Art when it is does not challenge them to think (and if they do, are they really the audience you want?).

At the same time, work that is more complex and relies on art historical dialogue will frustrate the casual viewer. If you have ever asked a child to do something well beyond their ability, you quickly see how they shut down. Does this mean we should not ask more of the casual viewer? On the contrary, it means that we need ask more and at the same time to give them the tools they need to appreciate and understand artwork that is increasingly complex and challenging. I don’t ask that everyone like a given artist, but instead appreciate what they brings to the dialectic that is Art, or even just recognize that Art is a dialectic.

So now the question becomes: what is the best way to educate the masses? The obvious answers are in developing progressive educational programs and increased public support of Art. Our government makes choices all the time about what behaviors, attitudes, and inclinations it should foster in the public, and Art should be a part of that. A heightened focus on public funding could successfully develop art appreciation among the general public.

However, we also need to find ways to directly engaged the public and demystify Art. At my school I am treated like a Shaman. I have powers that allow me to penetrate the ethereal veil that shrouds Art. Artists need to have conversations with the public that elucidate Art. The reality is that the public has a sense that artists are laughing AT them and not with them.

This has to change before more people will become engaged in an art scene, local or otherwise.

As far as big ideas go...what about a Manhattan Project for Art, take all the best and brightest artists, put them in a work camp in Los Alamos and make them create a singular catastrophic work of art.

That’s my two cents anyway."


From St. Louis artist & gallery owner Philip Hitchcock, PHD Gallery:

"At first, I felt completely alienated by Strauss' indictment of the "commercial" gallery scene in St. Louis. As a relative newcomer to the scene I thought. "Who is this guy anyway?" I guess as far as the art scene goes, he's king of the castle. So why does he keep peeing on the carpet?, I asked myself.

To be fair, I have to admit that I personalized his attack. As a new commercial gallery owner, it was hard not to: He used words like "negligent," "provincial," "abuse," betray," "compromised," "defrauding." Yikes.

As troubling as his remarks were to me, Strauss is right about one thing. One way or another, the exhibition of art is about money. Whether the exhibit is for sale or made possible by a generous donation from your mother, it costs money to show and promote art. And for someone like myself who has invested thousands and thousands of dollars into the exhibition of art in St. Louis, it's been a bumpy ride. Let's be clear: If the operating costs of PHD Gallery are fifty thousand dollars a year, that means it must sell $100 thousand dollars in art just to break even, as 50% of all sales are paid to artists- more if the gallery takes a cut in its` commission. I'm not doing this for the money. Nor am I doing the absolute minimum to earn my commission. I spend a sizable sum on marketing and have had good luck getting coverage in the local press.

I returned to St. Louis because I saw something really positive happening in the city. It wasn't just spin for a press release, it was the truth. I wanted to be part of what I saw as a Cultural Renaissance in my hometown. But again, Strauss is right. Many galleries may not be here this time next year. The realities of the commercial marketplace are unforgiving.

Running an art gallery is a balancing act at best. I only speak for myself, but when I look at an artist, I evaluate him or her on three levels.

1) Do I like the artist? Do I like the work? (I'd rather work with nice people than assholes and it's my gallery so it's my aesthetic.)
2) Do I think the work is important or groundbreaking or otherwise challenging?
3) Do I think I can SELL the work.

Unfortunately, it's that third one that often is a deal breaker, but not always. PHD has made a point of showcasing local artists ( some in solo exhibits) including Joe Chesla, Ken Konchel, Rebecca Eilering, David Lancaster, Metra Mitchell, Leslie Holt , and Stan Trampe. And I see no dearth of talent here. I would show more local artists, but guess what? They don't submit work. 90% of the unsolicited submissions I receive are from out of state.

Interested artists visit

Philip Hitchcock
PHD Gallery