Wasted Space

St. Louis University restores a beautiful building to display terrible art

Nowhere is this more evident than in the third-floor gallery. Amid a large collection of the paintings by local Ed Boccia -- who studied with Max Beckmann and went on to produce paintings that are, at best, Beckmann lite -- in a quaint window cabinet is a collection of porcelain figurines. Ballerinas, Kate Hepburn in her Lion in Winter costume, a pretty maiden holding a bunny, Noah catching a dove, a white elephant, unicorns, children on a sled, boys playing marbles, a raccoon, freshly hatched chicks, beavers frolicking, Indians saying "How" and John Paul II: the kind of stuff Grandma Pinkcheeks collected and offered to give you but you had the good sense to suggest, 'Oh, why don't you give it to SLU?'

Upbeat throughout her tour of the museum, in view of the porcelain collection, Boileau moves abruptly to another gallery. "Let's get out of here," she mutters.

It's not that there aren't treasures within the four-story museum. An entire gallery is given to the work of master woodcutter Tom Huck. Huck depicts Americana at its most grotesque. "Chili Dogs, Chicks and Monster Trucks," for example, features a bare-breasted babe popping out of an oversized truck named Kong. Fans in the bleachers leer, some wearing King Kong masks -- at least, you hope they're masks.

The recognition given Huck is much deserved. His prints are filled with curious imagery, although they are the devil to read as exhibited here: nine prints, one right next to the other on one wall. Once again, it's unfortunate how the gods of excess rule at the SLU museum.

A collection of eighteenth-century santos, wooden carvings of various saints, appropriately fills one gallery, as do depictions of the Madonna in another. A needlepoint portrayal of the Madonna, in golds and greens, is one of the loveliest works in the museum and is displayed on a wall of its own.

But juxtaposed as these galleries are with the kitsch and soft porn of "Ojo Caliente Goddesses" and "Defiance," your artistic taste will be deadened by the time you find the works of true merit.

Whatever will visitors to the city think when they encounter this museum? Maybe it can be marketed as a house of bad taste.

Or it can serve as a lesson in aesthetics. Visit the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, just down the street, for an example of the sublime use of space.

Visit the SLU Art Museum and discover the meaning of wasted space.

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