The Book of Huth

Artist Caroline Huth constructs imaginary memories

In its fourth year, Venus Envy showed encouraging signs of maturity. The annual exhibition of women artists, which emerges with spring at the Lemp Brewery, has been since its inception a good party, but you didn't go there to look seriously at art. It's not that there hasn't been a lot to look at -- you probably couldn't find a way to cover a former brewery with more art -- but there hasn't been much to compel you to look for too long. Aside from one or two entries every year, the Venus Envy survey has had more social than artistic impact. St. Louisans with an interest in art get excited when they see themselves together in a large space. They feel less lonely, less isolated. The art really doesn't have to be good. And when art doesn't have to be good, it usually isn't.

It hasn't helped that walking into Venus Envy has felt like entering a time warp -- into, say, an exhibition of late-'70s/early-'80s issues art, work that prides itself on social consciousness and awareness and is celebrated by like-minded patrons and artists but fails to change anybody's mind. Venus Envyalso has been known for being generously inclusive, meaning that if you're a woman artist, you've had a pretty good shot at getting in.

This year, however, it was worth passing up the long beer lines to get into the exhibition space and check out the art. Clothes hung from a coat rack, featuring dresses decorated with images of pickles and dolls, the costumes protected by a stiff laminate-type material. Not far from this display, a gaggle of enviers (or enviests?) congregated around a group of woven objects in square box frames. The delicate, spidery designs, created by Catherine Cathers, who was Venus Envy's curator this year, are called "Clit Cozies."

Video came into play in a big way this year, with a large screen behind the bandstand reflecting images of a tall woman in a bright-yellow dress dancing the funky chicken, or, at other times, in nun's garb flashing a pair of black-stockinged legs, and other assorted images that had something to do, possibly, with women's sexuality, but it was more fun to watch than it was to think.

As expansive as the Lemp Brewery complex is, it was hard to get around the throngs to see the art, or smell the art. You had to get in line for the olfactory experience of a wall installation offering various aromas. The work itself wasn't all that interesting, but it was entertaining to watch members of the art crowd, one after another, lean over containers, sniff and move on to the next. Odd that in an old brewery, smelling would be such a novelty.

But where the crush of people was greatest was in front of a group of wall collages, 35 works in 9-by-9-inch wooden frames. You had to stake out space to spend time with them. The collages were not unusual in terms of their material -- buttons, red plastic hearts, lockets, metal birds, old postcards, maps, printed and handwritten text -- lots of artists use found objects in their work. But these were uniquely, even preciously composed. Preciousness is generally a quality to avoid in art-making, but these works -- devoid of accidental tears or mark-making -- were cleanly and precisely made so that they carried emotional and intellectual weight. The Italian text of a canto from The Divine Comedy, on fragile paper fading at the edges, a small pink ribbon and a feather obscuring the verse -- simple as it seemed, it was no less evocative of the big themes: time, history, memory, loss, redemption. The black-and-white photo of a frame house on a dirt road, a copper nail through it; a fringe of old wallpaper, gas-rationing coupons, a poem called "The Poplar Field": These are the sort of images you want to gaze and gaze upon, as children do, inventing narratives, exploring mysteries.

The Venus Envy crowd hung around these all night, and at an economical 50 bucks a pop, they sold like hotcakes.

A week after the event, the artist, Caroline Huth, is still spinning from the response her work received. Venus Envywas her first exhibition ever. Huth (an Old German name that rhymes with Ruth) works a 9-to-5 graphic-design job at Phoenix Creative. A Washington University grad, she stayed on the commercial side of art education, purposely avoiding the fine-arts department. She admits that the choices she makes creating imagery are more naïve than studied, so she's surprised when told -- as one man at the exhibition did in response to her work -- "Never before have I seen an artist put her heart on her sleeve so openly."

"I'm just putting stuff together," she laughs. "I just glue stuff down."

The basement of Huth's University City home, which serves as her studio, is as cluttered and ramshackle as anybody's. Huth apologizes for the disarray. Not unlike her work, Huth is slender, even diminutive, yet strong. She has short reddish-brown hair, and this evening she is dressed in a sleeveless black shirt and black pants. She frequently flashes an engaging, pretty smile. Her excitement about her materials is infectious. She turns to one shoebox crammed with old black-and-white photos: "I found all of these photographs, a whole family's collection of photos, when I was living on the Hill. They were in an alley in a Dumpster, and I literally went in up to my elbows to pull them out."

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