Total Exhibitionist

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

A relative latecomer to the visual arts, it did not take long for Strauss to gain access to some of the city's top galleries. After studying literature during a college career that "ended with a whimper at Webster," Strauss planned to take a stab at a career in fiction writing. But even as he was sending out applications for graduate programs in creative writing, he secretly wanted to paint.

He devised a plan to apply to the most competitive creative writing programs. That way, when he was rejected he'd have an excuse to give up writing and start painting.

He then photographs them and turns them into giant 
Jennifer Silverberg
He then photographs them and turns them into giant silkscreens.
Bill Smith sets one of his sculptures for White Flag's 
inaugural show.
Jennifer Silverberg
Bill Smith sets one of his sculptures for White Flag's inaugural show.

"It totally backfired," Strauss recalls. "I got into all of them. I was fucked. I went along with it, but then, literally two weeks before I was supposed to go, I just put the tickets in a drawer and said I'm not going. It was bad news, because my paintings were really bad at the time. People thought I was nuts."

Over the next few years Strauss concentrated on his painting. Though he never went to art school, he grew close with sculptor Ernest Trova, a family friend. Then in 1999 Strauss' father, Leon, died of congestive heart failure, an event that would have a profound effect on Strauss and his art.

"The primitive nature of all the medicine became very apparent. At one point he died, and they brought him back to life because they didn't have the [do not resuscitate] order," says Strauss. "It was horrific. It was one of those mind-bending experiences, and when I got back in the studio I was making very different work."

Strauss' work took a turn for the morbid. He began on a haunting series of graceful, ghost-like images set off against black backgrounds. He also began making small models from found objects that he would later photograph and turn into massive silkscreen prints. Those prints — depicting a menacing series of life-size wheelchairs, a huge triptych of an animal pelt close-up and an evocative portrait of his father immediately after his death — became the subject of Strauss' first major show. Held in 2002 at the now-defunct Elliot Smith Contemporary Art Gallery, the show was embraced coolly by local critics.

"This isn't a happy, uplifting scene. No bright flowers or ocean blues, just the despair and agony of someone — or something — tortured," wrote a bemused Jeff Daniels, then-art critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "I guess it's now up to Strauss, the artist and the doctor, to conjure up one of those bizarre gadgets as a cure."

It would not be the last time that a critic would step out of a show scratching his head at Strauss' highly intellectualized pictures.

"It's complicated. It's very complicated," explains the artist. "The fact is I'm doing what a relevant artist has to do: I'm bending and distorting the media to make something new. There are very radical and destructive things that are going on there. But that's lost on a lot of my detractors, and it's certainly lost on some people it shouldn't be lost on. But they refuse to talk to me about it. They refuse to ask me questions and assume that they are somehow mentally gifted enough that they can perceive all things without any additional context being provided to them."

Critical success or not, Strauss was now a bona fide player on the St. Louis art scene. In the intervening years, he's continued to craft his symbol-laden models, which he later photographs and turns into enormous silkscreens. When Elliot Smith Contemporary Art finally shuttered in early 2005, the Bruno David Gallery began representing Strauss.

"I got pretty good shows right off the bat, and people would say it's just because he's the son of prominent people," recalls Strauss. "But then I won the Great Rivers thing — and you can't blame that on local politics. It's all being judged by people from California and Ohio."

Along with local artists Jason Wallace Triefenbach and Moses, Strauss was selected from 174 entrants as a winner of the Great Rivers Biennial 2006. Coming with a $15,000 prize and a joint exhibit at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, the Biennial is intended to benefit emerging artists and is easily the most important show in town for a young artist. Jointly sponsored by the Contemporary and the Gateway Foundation, this year's Biennial featured judges from the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City; the University of California, Los Angeles, Hammer Museum; and the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio.

"It stimulated a lot of healthy jealously. People were curious who was selected, and then when it was announced, there was a lot of talk that was critical of the people who were selected: 'Why were they selected? I could do this,' or, 'Why wasn't I selected?' They took it personally," says Shannon Fitzgerald, chief curator at the Contemporary. "But in this Biennial the definition of 'emerging' fit all three of these artists. Their work is still very experimental: They're pushing, they're learning."

Writing in the Biennial's exhibition guide, Fitzgerald compared Strauss' work to the Northern European vanitas tradition, in which artists used highly symbolic imagery to express the ultimate triumph of death and the futility of worldly goods.

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