SLU of Despond

And Biondi's sculpture park is ugly, too

Two deer burst from under the footbridge. The fawn, still spotted in mid-July, runs close to the ground like a greyhound until it leaps on springy limbs and bounds into the abundant foliage.

The other, either a more quickly maturing twin or the fawn's mother, has more stealthily fled into the enveloping woods.

This has all happened in seconds, in a few rapid beats of the heart.

The figurative style of representation Biondi favors is alarmingly akin to that of fascist sculpture from the 1930s and '40s .
Jennifer Silverberg
The figurative style of representation Biondi favors is alarmingly akin to that of fascist sculpture from the 1930s and '40s .

And just as suddenly, anger rises in this grove of woods where a recently dried creekbed has kept those deer cool in the Missouri heat.

The 350 acres of St. Louis University's Henry Lay Sculpture Park, set in the hills near Louisiana, Missouri, offers as lovely a pastoral walk as you could find in this region, thickly foliated with dense forest and rampant Virginia creeper.

The art imposed here, however, inspires the anger.

Stop with the bad art. It's one thing to restore a nineteenth-century French-revival mansion and fill it with schlock, as SLU President Lawrence Biondi has done with the St. Louis University Museum of Art [Silva, "Wasted Space," June 26]; it's another thing to afflict the natural landscape with kitsch, which is all Biondi seems to know or appreciate. Although the park's promotional material suggests that a relationship between art and nature is to be explored here, the PR is not to be taken seriously. Lay Sculpture Park has the aesthetic impact of Dutch elm disease on the landscape it invades.

The facility is yet to be completed, but looking at what Biondi has wrought on SLUMA and the way he's decorated his own campus, it's ludicrous to use the term "work in progress" with regard to the sculpture park, for there's little hope of progress here. Already there are the twin brick pillars, emblematic of an entrance to Biondi's midtown estate, but out here on Highway UU they are an ugly marker of an ego that spreads all the way into northeast Missouri. Already there is a cluster of utilitarian huts to serve as studios and residences for artists. Of course, the big house -- a palatial creation of brick and glass where, it can be assumed, Biondi will stay and entertain donors -- cannot be seen from the artist quarters down below.

Still under construction is Story Woods, but "Emilie" is in place. Clad in a sundress, conversing with turtles that cling to her arm and bosom, the bronze woman kneels across from an open book that reads, "Follow the trail and as you walk maybe you could think up your own story about this special place."

OK.

Pass the man on the very high chair, chin in hand, contemplating an open book; pass the dog with a tree limb in its mouth; pass the man pulling a cart with a horse in the driver's seat; pass the McElwee Cemetery, circa 1831; pass through the woods to a clearing where two bold male figures squat.

"Father loves the figure," the RFT was told when Biondi's taste in art was last examined. The figures he loves are creepily pornographic -- sleek nymphets and six-packed, generously endowed males.

But Biondi's love of the figure is even spookier in view of these male figures with their hammerlike forearms, their thick thighs and calves, their simian heads. The figurative style of representation Biondi favors is alarmingly akin to that of fascist sculpture from the 1930s and '40s -- the overwhelming pronouncement of the vital body, the body as a monument of ideology, the body as an expression of the triumph of the will.

It's enough to ruin any nature walk. The best that can be said is that at least Biondi didn't build a golf course.

Three turbaned Mongols stand on a small island in a reservoir, incongruous with their surroundings. They look both shocked and lost.

In the woods, broken limbs and twigs hang, dangling in midair, held by tough curls of wild grapevine. It's something you often see in the woods, if you've an eye for it. In another sculpture park, not far from St. Louis, Richard Hunt's stainless-steel "Linked Forms" hangs in the trees. Hunt has done more than weld material; he has synthesized cultured material and natural form. He's seen how broken branches hang in the air, and he's found a means to engage that form, then enter the natural landscape and add to it human-made materials. The work is so subtly suggestive and memorable that years after one first sees it at Laumeier Sculpture Park, it suddenly comes to mind in the Missouri woods, as if nature mimics art -- which would please Oscar Wilde.

Laumeier, since its inception, has commissioned artists who think seriously about culture and nature. Mary Miss, Beverly Pepper, Jackie Ferrara, Dan Graham -- the works of these artists are all about the relationship between the human-made form and the naturally evolved form.

There's little evidence of such thought out here in Biondi's sculpture park.

And it's infuriating. It's infuriating because 350 acres of Missouri woodland and meadow that isn't being turned into another golf course or another housing development with a name like Eagle's Claw Estates or Deer Lick Village demands responsible stewardship. It must be taken seriously. Biondi ignores at least a quarter-century of art history, in which issues of culture and environment have been addressed, to recline comfortably within his own bad taste. The result is yet another environmental stain, produced -- as such scars across the environment are -- by judgment made in ignorance. Judgment made in ignorance is what bad taste is.

Aesthetics is not an effete game. Aesthetic judgment is moral judgment, as the poet Jorie Graham has said. The planet gets uglier and uglier because of the choices made by Biondi and people like him.


Comings and goings: Speaking of purveyors of bad taste, Porter Arneill -- the Regional Arts Commission administrator who saw the People Project through to its forgettable demise last summer -- has taken a job in Kansas City as public arts administrator. We suspect that within a year, Arneill will provide fodder for St. Louisans, some sort of "fun" -- his favorite word when referring to the People Project-- public-art fiasco that we can use to lampoon our rival city to the west.

Betsy Millard, who has had the chutzpah to bring provocative exhibitions to the Forum for Contemporary Art, has left her post as director of the renamed Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis to devote more time to her husband, the teacher and photographer John Hilgert, who has been living with cancer for some time. It is regrettable to see Millard leave just as the Contemporary's new facility is being built next door to the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, but she remains an advisor and volunteer. Millard is one of those who takes matters of art and life seriously, as reflected in her actions.

In case you were preoccupied by the new Nelly CD, you might not have heard that Itzhak Perlman will become music advisor to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. The Post-Dispatch made this front-page news, with comparisons to the trade that brought Mark McGwire to the Cardinals.

Perlman is, for sure, a fortunate choice. Affable, charming, well liked and respected by the musicians and -- unlike former conductor Hans Vonk -- extremely PR-savvy, Perlman will enliven SLSO's concert season and attract more subscribers and donors, as well as talented new musicians, or so it is hoped.

The P-D's coverage of Perlman's signing, however, reflected the event itself less than it did the character of the city. St. Louis' inferiority complex reveals itself again, the subtext being, "Why would anyone like Perlman choose us?"

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