Total Exhibitionist

Matthew Strauss has audacious plans to remake the city's art scene.

On the first Monday of last month, in a cardboard box behind a nondescript building on the cusp of the city's emerging "Grove" district, lay a chronicle of the Rabelaisian biker culture that flourished from Southern California to the Dakotas during the go-go 1970s and '80s. Witness Outlaw Biker, a tabloid testament to the deleterious effects of methamphetamines, misogyny and Nazism. The magazine's glossy pages hold such biker-bunny specimens as "Georgeanne," whose feathered-blond good looks landed her the soft-lighted nude centerfold spread as "Ms. Outlaw Biker October 1986."

A few pages in, readers encounter an article titled "Cocaine: Mystical, Magical White Lady," whose subtitle reads: "If coke is a joke, I'm waiting for the next line," and goes on to inform readers that: "Cocaine can increase the intensity of orgasms in both men, and women."

Outlaw Biker is by no means the sole artifact in this collection of late twentieth-century biker erotica. It's accompanied by magazines like Easy Riders, Biker Lifestyle and Iron Horse. Some carry advertisements for biker gloves, which can be shipped with your choice of either swastika patches or confederate flags. Others have sections called "Asstrology" and "From the Walls." But each is loaded with pictures of biker babes — many nude — in varying states of humiliation.

Jennifer Silverberg
Isn't she lovely: Matt Strauss at home with his collection of 
biker erotica.
Jennifer Silverberg
Isn't she lovely: Matt Strauss at home with his collection of biker erotica.

"I love the sexual futility of these women," says St. Louis artist Matthew Strauss, who's been collecting the magazines for the past year. The 33-year-old Strauss plans someday to turn his collection of biker smut into a series of silkscreen prints. He wants to place atop a table an image of, say, "Asabelle Chickenlips," a partially clad brunette whose teased-out hair and round tinted glasses lend her the look of an obese Janis Joplin.

"That's all you'd need," says Strauss. "Just Chickenlips on a table. You can't improve on that."

Dressed casually in a T-shirt, khaki shorts and green Adidas flip-flops, Strauss is standing in the middle of his newly minted studio. A yawning space of white walls and 15-foot ceilings, Strauss' 2,400-square-foot studio is filled with freestanding tables, models, paint, magazines and canvases. One movable cart is loaded with nothing but paint brushes; the opposite wall is stacked deep with large canvases, remainders from Strauss' Dead Languages show, which garnered him a win at the prestigious 2006 Great Rivers Biennial.

Bearded, bespectacled, with a mussed shock of dark brown hair and eyes to match, Strauss is not a large man. He fuels his slight frame with a seemingly endless supply of Coca-Cola. As he pads around his new studio, Strauss looks very much the part of the artist ensconced in his work. But if his series of biker erotica from the millennial sunset is ever to appear, it will have to wait. Strauss is busy these days meeting with fumigators and city building inspectors. His free time is spent visiting artist studios, fielding press inquiries and drawing up invitations for the September 16 opening of his latest brainchild, White Flag Projects.

"I haven't had a chance to work on my own artwork for almost a year," says Strauss, leafing through a copy of Biker Lifestyle. "I've been working twenty-hour days for the past twelve months just to get White Flag up and running."

Strauss is hoping that White Flag, a not-for-profit, 2,000-square-foot gallery, will fill a void in the St. Louis art scene: an exhibition space that lies somewhere between the city's commercial galleries and its museums.

"It became really evident to me what the needs were here," Strauss says, recalling that he was unable to find a venue for an artwork of his called American Vulgar, which he describes as "a survey of 150 years of American vulgarity as seen through pin-back buttons."

Strauss continues: "If you look at the commercial galleries, they all have reasonably ambitious programs, but they're not that big, and they really aren't able to do shows that are not particularly saleable. They'll do some progressive unsaleable shows, but at the same time, they all do unthinkably bad shows for whatever mercantile reasons. What I began to realize was that since the Forum for Contemporary Art had evolved into the Contemporary [Art Museum St. Louis] with a new building, a new name and a much bigger budget, suddenly there was nothing above the commercial galleries and below the museums where artists could exhibit their more experimental work."

White Flag is Strauss' response. The space is located behind a humdrum façade on Manchester Avenue, just east of Kingshighway; Strauss has spent more than $500,000 in property and renovation costs to turn the gallery into a magnificent, museum-quality expanse illuminated by north-facing skylights and uninterrupted by the concrete pillars so common in many older spaces. His studio, described by fellow artist Kim Humphries as "a dream studio," is in the back of the building. Strauss has built a second-floor library where gallery guests can peruse his collection of art journals, biographies and coffee-table books. But Strauss' favorite detail is the fun-house mirror he had specially made for the bathroom. Why? You go to White Flag to see the art, not to be seen.

Strauss kept mum on his plans for most of the year, until last month when he sent out a picture postcard of the space with no return address and the cryptic message: "White Flag Projects: the new alternative for contemporary art in st. louis..."

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