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.