Contemporary artists often struggle with how to engage “political” questions. One tendency is to embrace a pseudo-documentary approach. While this is sometimes useful, it often falters as “art.”
The best work rises above documentary. There are brilliant video artists, but not all “political artwork” needs to be a video. Installations, sculptures and paintings often do a better job of putting the “art” in “political art.”
The Contemporary Art Museum’s “Urban Planning: Art and the City 1967-2017” – a group exhibition featuring 24 artists – is an uneven show. On one hand it includes art that falls too much into documentary – these pieces contain interesting (even vital) information – but fail to seduce. They are steeped in a conceptual art tradition that emphasizes definition over narrative. The better works in “Urban Planning” show us the stories of people who comprise “the city.”
The highlight is Abigail DeVille’s “St. Louis Blues,” an installation of swirling debris and objects centered on a wood frame reconstruction of the city’s “Old Courthouse” dome – the site of slave auctions and the Dred Scott case.
The marks of history are profound and permanent – from the 1836 lynching of boatsman Francis McIntosh to the Jefferson Bank protests of the 1960s. “St. Louis Blues” is layered with this in mind, invoking Russian nesting dolls. The “Old Courthouse” is “nested” in a barbed wire fence and a “loop of train tracks and cars” carrying bones. Within the dome is a cage. All is displaced and part of a unified whole.
DeVille’s dome recalls Arte Povera’s Mario Merz. Merz combined the igloo, which he saw as a perfect yet impossibly balanced structure, with materials and text referencing the conflicts of 1960s.
Merz’s igloo sculpture – “Che Fare?” (“What Is to Be Done?”) – interrogated the possibility of political alternatives. Merz wanted to believe in a “better world” – he was part of the resistance to Mussolini during WWII – but questioned the notion of “automatic progress,” as well as the idea small groups could solve the problems of post-war Italian life. He connected this problem to his sculpture – natural and “man-made” materials, the “automatic” and “activist,” balanced and imbalanced.
“St. Louis Blues” conjures similar questions.
Abstraction at Bruno David
If a documentary impulse permeates the Contemporary Art Museum, abstraction reigns in Bruno David Gallery’s current exhibitions. The gallery is at 7513 Clayton Blvd. in Clayton.
Michael Byron’s “Framed Abstractions,” geometric and gestural, are gorgeous painting skins, seemingly searching for new bodies.
Byron’s “Morph(ine)” pulsates between the calm and movement implied by its fused title.
Judy Child’s “Revelations,” ultra-monochromatic white paintings, turn inward.
Robert Rauschenberg’s original “White Paintings” (1951) reflected the shadows of the world beyond the canvas, much like John Cage’s blank musical composition “4’33” (1952), captured the ambient noise of the music hall.
Child’s paintings are more like the static sculpted by digital sound artists. She manipulates and cracks their surfaces. They are literally thoughtful with titles like “Beyond Words” and “Lost in Thought,” but also distressed.
Traditional paintings were mimetic “windows.” Abstraction made paintings objects in the world. Jackson Pollock, for example, was in dialogue with (and against) the post-war rise of mass consumer culture. What worlds are these paintings talking to?
Bunny Burson’s “And Still I Rise” provides a partial answer. Confetti from the Jarvis Center – the site of Hillary Clinton’s would-be victory celebration – swirls in a glass box labeled with text adapted from Maya Angelou.
The election of Donald Trump was a disaster for women, LGBTQ people, people of color, immigrants, the working-class and poor, but Clinton’s centrism failed to fully mobilize these communities. Millions of Obama voters stayed home on election day because they just didn’t see Clinton’s rise as their own.
This criticism aside, Burson’s work indicates, beyond the gallery, something isn’t right.
Experimental Art In A Post-Industrial River Town
Eighteen miles away in a working-class town, the Granite City Art and Design District opened its 10th exhibition on May 13.
Along a mostly abandoned downtown block, parallel to the old factory, artists exhibit sculptures, paintings, photographs and assemblages in storefronts and vacant lots.
The cubes are barely white, and the work is in clear dialogue (intentional or not) with everything around it. Next to a greenhouse someone grills food. In front of a building, a child carnival barker gives notices of his father’s photographs upstairs, Adam Newsham’s candid portraits and urban landscapes inspired by the great street photographers of the 1960s.
A spiraling sculpture, Carlie Trosclair’s “Revolver” made of wallpaper and wood, frames the old factory. There is a small forest of Sage Dawson’s “protest signs.” In storefronts there are works by Nick Schleicher and Conor Murphy.
At the Granite City Art and Design District, it feels like art isn’t totally separate from “everyday life” and, at least for one night, art is really part of “the city.”
• The Contemporary Art Museum’s “Urban Planning: Art and the City” continues through Aug. 13.
• Judy Child’s “Revelations” and Michael Byron’s “Framed Abstractions” will be exhibited through June 17 at Bruno David Gallery.
• Bunny Burson’s “And Still I Rise” (also at Bruno David) is on display through Aug. 12. For more information about this and other events at the Granite City Art and Design District, visit gcadd.org.