A shredded blue canvas by Vaughn Davis, “Freestyle #5,” hangs near the entrance to the “Off Modern” show at the Luminary, 2701 Cherokee St.
From the series exhibited at the Philip Slein Gallery last year, “Freestyle #5” could be read as expressionism tearing into the skin of minimalism.
The group exhibition, which will be on view at the Luminary through March 2, pivots with and against the legacy of modern art – and its tendencies toward abstraction and its belief in artistic and human progress.
“In the 21st century, modernity is our antiquity,” the show handout asserts. “We live with its ruins, which we incorporate into our present, leaving deliberate scars or disguising our age marks.”
Much of this art focuses on cracks in the surfaces of modernity – small transgressions against minimalism and high modernism.
There were, however, other modern traditions.
The expressive subjectivity of “Freestyle” recalls, aside from hip hop, abstract expressionism and under-recognized African American post-war abstraction. The aggressive rips echo Joe Goode’s paintings cut with knives and bullets – as well as the various anti-art and “automatic” gestures of Dada and Surrealism.
In the latter 20th century it became fashionable to argue that modern art was over – replaced by something called “post-modernism.” In post-modernism it was said that no one could really understand the world; all one could do is play with its signs (its texts and images). History was, we were told, over.
Modernism – which in reality was full of conflicting ideas and impulses – was presented as a flat monolith; its emphasis on individual expression and political resistance were both largely ignored (or mischaracterized).
Expressionism, the Epic Theater of Bertolt Brecht, and Surrealism, as examples, never quite fit post-modernism’s reductive version of modern art.
Now post-modernism has itself been discredited. Who can truly argue, with a straight face, after years of war, ongoing racism and economic crisis – and now Donald Trump – that history is over?
Taking It to the Streets
In “Taking It to the Streets,” a group exhibition running Jan. 28 through May 6 at the University of Missouri-St. Louis Gallery 210, modern traditions — expressionism and its political resistance – are remade in our “off-modern” world.
“Taking it to the Streets” features regional artists working in a variety of media. The artists include: Howard Barry, Cbabi Bayoc, Damon Davis, Attilio D’ Agostino, Christine Ilewski, Louis Ingrum, Basil Kincaid, De Andrea Nichols, Chris Phillips, Solomon Thurman, Annetta Vickers-Bentil, and Denise Ward-Brown.
Some of the most brilliant gestures belong to Howard Barry. Just as Vaughn Davis tears into an abstract field, Barry’s marks nearly tear into the newspapers he draws on. If Davis’ work can be read as expression versus contemporary art’s semi-ubiquitous minimalism, Barry’s can be read as asserting the subjective value of the individual against the injustices of contemporary life.
Barry is not the first artist to draw or paint on newspaper. Pablo Picasso and Alberto Giacometti both drew on printed newspaper. Sigmar Polke’s “Against The Two Superpowers” (1971) was comprised of a field of newspapers spray-painted with the image of a protest. This is not to mention the genius of Emory Douglas’ “expressionist agit-prop,” as Amiri Baraka described it, printed in the newspapers of the Black Panther Party.
But Picasso and Giacometti did not necessarily respond to the specific newspapers on which they drew. Polke used newspapers as an almost symbolic stand-in for the media-in-general. And while Douglas’ work brilliantly showed the artist’s hand in tandem with photographic collage, the final product was intended to be mass produced.
Barry’s drawings – of historic civil rights images and as images of the present-day Black Lives Matter struggle – are in a feverishly present conversation with their surface. But they are also unique artifacts. Barry draws on copies of the St. Louis American – responding to the onslaught of racist American tragedies. The title of each drawing highlights this dynamism: “Another Killing,” “Another Vigil,” “Don’t Shoot,” “Enough” and “Gone Too Soon.”
In an art world that tends to overly fetishize technology, Barry’s use of less-than-archival newspaper brings a weight to the images drawn on them. The newspaper industry itself is struggling and may pass from this world to the next; but so are we all (some sooner than others). Here is a radical temporality – an assertion of mortality against the false idea that history, and its oppressions, are over.
Likewise, Barry’s expressive hand-made drawings underscore that the stories contained in the papers are about real people, real tragedies, real struggles, real triumphs and very real defeats. The hand-made and the mechanically reproduced form a mutually reinforcing dyad.
A truly brilliant moment comes as Barry’s drawings are aggregated – as they are in the display at Gallery 210 – as a crowd, a carnival, a festival (or funeral march) of human resistance.
Howard Barry hits multiple notes: a chaotic and democratic combination of images, the importance of the subjective artist’s hand, the existential tragedy that surrounds great art – from Michelangelo’s “Pieta” to Max Beckmann’s “Departure” – and the central social injustices that condition everything (including art).
Similar concerns are woven into the “Hands Up” installation and collaboration between Damon Davis and Basil Kincaid. In part this could seem like a continuation of Davis’ “All Hands on Deck” series. But “All Hands on Deck” came with the rising tide of the Black Lives Matter response to the murders of Michael Brown (and far too many others). “Hands Up” is more funerary. The hands literally and figuratively rise from soil.
Are the bodies that belong to these hands dead or alive? If they are dead who is being haunted? How much blood and sacrifice will be needed to bring them justice? And from whom?