By Anne Valente
By Lindsay Toler
By Ray Downs
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By RFT Staff
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At age five Aaron Moses Nornberg was making sculptures from scraps of trash, like the red wax that surrounds a wheel of Gouda. When Aaron was a third-grader, his parents, self-described hippies, allowed him to pierce his ears. At Wydown Middle School in Clayton, the irrepressible teen was hell-bent on changing his name to Moses just Moses.
Flash-forward a decade and imagine the 23-year-old St. Louis artist, brash as a red rooster, headlining a one-man demonstration in front of the Whitney Museum of American Art on New York City's Madison Avenue.
"I love that story," Moses says.
Where: Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, 3750 Washington Boulevard.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.
How much: $5 adults; $3 seniors. Free for children and students. Free for all visitors all day Wednesday and Saturday, and after 5 p.m. on Thursday.
Contact: 314-535-4660 or www.contemporarystl.org.
The genesis of the grievance dates back to late 1998. Moses was in his dorm room at Reed College, a liberal artsy-craftsy institution in Portland, Oregon, when a friend put on "A Better Tomorrow" by the Wu-Tang Clan. It had been some time since the young man had listened to rap, and, for whatever reason, the song struck a revelatory chord.
"Wu-Tang has this lyric where he's sitting in a lab smoking blunts and looking at a flag," says Moses, tapping his long, thin fingers on the stick-shift of his '89 Honda unmistakable with its "RED SEA" vanity plate. "He's saying red is for the Bloods, blue is for the Crips, white is for the cops and the stars are for the kids that died in the streets.
"I thought, shit, man, that's a picture."
Moses became entranced by the notion of forging a four-by-six-foot American flag, a sculpture crafted entirely from bullet shells 23,000 shells, to be precise.
"Not military-grade," Moses clarifies, "not the kind you use in war, but nine-millimeters, the kind we shoot each other with.
"I wanted [the flag] to talk about gang warfare, and Columbine," he explains, referring to the 1999 shooting rampage that left twelve students dead at a Littleton, Colorado, high school. "But it was very open-ended. I wanted the flag to ask people a question."
For more than a year, Moses picked over police firing ranges and made numerous inquiries with artillery stores. On December 31, 1999, Moses hit the mother lode in Imperial, when he came upon a 300-pound cache of chrome and copper casings at the former Catfish Guns store.
"Everyone's talking about the world going to end, and I'm buying five-gallon buckets full of bullet shells with a MasterCard from a guy with a nine-millimeter on one hip, a cell phone on the other and a laptop in front of him," he remembers with a chuckle. "It seemed like a weird thing to be doing on the eve of the millennium."
After nearly two years of tedious labor, Moses finally completed Bullet Flag and submitted it to the Whitney Biennial, arguably the nation's most prestigious contemporary art exhibition.
It was a long shot all right, considering he had no art dealer backing him and nothing to show on his résumé, save for four small gallery shows. But then, Moses is not one to adhere to the imperious protocols of the art establishment.
"He's in a hurry," says Dion Dion, executive director of Art St. Louis. "He likes to leap over steps."
As Riverfront Times art critic Ivy Cooper put it: "I've never talked to a St. Louis artist who's so ambitious, and at such a young age."
The biennial jury was unimpressed and sent Moses a brief letter rejecting Bullet Flag.
"I was pissed," he grumbles.
Plenty of artists might have brooded for a bit, then vowed to try again but not the cocksure Moses. Instead, he plotted revenge.
The day before the 2002 Whitney Biennial opened, Moses packed a suitcase with his one-and-only suit, a pinstriped Gianfranco Ferri. He left his bright, airy Clayton abode on North Bemiston Avenue, where he lives with his parents, and hopped an evening plane for New York City.
"On opening night, when all the 'expensive' people showed up, I arrived in my really nice suit with my backpack full of postcards stamped: 'Rejected from the Whitney Biennial 2002,'" recalls Moses, his coffee-colored eyes ablaze.
Bounding up and down Madison Avenue in front of the venerable Whitney Museum of American Art, Moses yelled, "Come see some rejected art." All the while, he waved the postcards, which on the flip side contained a photo of Bullet Flag.
"I'm heckling the whole line, harassing everyone," Moses goes on, his trademark silver hoop earrings jiggling as his story unfolds. "There were a bunch of artists standing there that were like, 'Screw you, you're just trying to get fame off everyone else's fame,' which wasn't what I was about. I just wanted to be heard. I said to everybody: 'You tell me, was this a rightful rejection?'"
A museum security guard tried to evict him from the sidewalk, but Moses refused to budge and worked the line of waiting guests for hours, leaving postcards with anyone who would take them. Finally, a fellow artist motioned Moses inside the museum presumably to stifle him.
"Oh no, you're tricking me," he recalls thinking. "I'm not going into your show just so I'll stop doing what I'm doing. This is my show now!"
Later, Moses would add to his résumé: "Rejected, Performance in front of Whitney Museum."