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"The symbolic and fleeting quality of the traditional still life vanitas painting provides the conceptual framework in which Strauss is able to explore notions of futility, failure, and obsolescence," writes Fitzgerald. "Obsessed with the idea of death as the only absolute truth, Strauss updates the vanitas genre with a new iconography of the absurd that represents the passage of life, art, Modernism a sort of post-everything aesthetic."
St. Louis Post-Dispatch art critic David Bonetti was less impressed: "His work is filled with ideas, too many ideas, if you ask me. After having seen his work over three years, I remain puzzled by it, impressed by its fastidiousness, unmoved by what it has to say. His work is clogged; it needs a plunger taken to it."
What should have been a triumph for Strauss was soon tainted by Bonetti's negative assessment, other artists' griping about the jury's selection and what he saw as the public's clear preference for Moses, a young artist whose work included a 1992 Chevy Blazer painted black and covered with speakers.
"I got a lot of really negative feedback, but what really shocked me was the level of love for that truck. It really changed my worldview slightly. Moses' work has a lot of style; my work has a lot of substance. There was no debating over which side of that equation won," says Strauss, who gave an angry artist lecture where he defended his work and took the Biennial-going public to task for what he considered its fatuous approach to fine art.
"I was pissed off. You can't walk through this exhibit, look at everything for 30 seconds and think, 'Oh, I don't get it.' But people were saying terrible things. My paintings are pretentious, they're over-thought, they're impenetrable, and they're dark and they're morbid, which is OK, but they meant it all in a pejorative way. The pretentious one stung me because that shit was the most honest, heartfelt shit I could make. If it was pretentious, that's because I am pretentious. That stuff was straight."
I'm kind of obsessed with futility," Strauss says, tucking into a bowl of barbecued pork and vermicelli noodles. "It really has informed everything I've done for a long time. All those paintings from the Biennial were about the hopelessness of trying to communicate through art. That's why the show was called Dead Languages. A dead language is something that only scholars can understand and that you can no longer communicate with."
It's the sort of statement Strauss is wont to pronounce each time he talks about his work. His emphasis on painting's futility might make him seem like an unlikely candidate to be spearheading a project like White Flag, which Strauss hopes will stimulate conversation and critical thinking through art.
Then again, Strauss was just looking for a studio when he first set out in the spring of 2005. He'd only recently submitted his work to the Great Rivers jury and was looking for a place that could accommodate his needs. The 6,000-square-foot space was plenty large enough for his studio, and he briefly thought about making the building a live/work space.
But then he won the Great Rivers Biennial, and his plans shifted.
"It changed everything: For one thing, you've now got the best show you're going to get in town, so there's nothing more to work for here," says Strauss. "But it also made me feel like maybe there was less to [art] work for me personally in town, and maybe I could work on other things. A lot of people reach the same conclusion, but their answer is not to make it better here. Their answer is to leave St. Louis. There's a lot of validity to that, but once I decided that I was not going to leave St. Louis, I knew I had to make it better here."
He was planning to do significant renovation to the building, and it was essential that he owned it outright, a feat accomplished by a "founding gift" from his mother. His plans grew, and he decided that White Flag should be a nonprofit gallery that drew artists from across the nation. To that end, Strauss plans to take out full-color ads in national art journals advertising gallery shows.
"I always planned to do something, but never anything as ambitious as this turned out to be," he says. "But part of the fun of the name White Flag is this giving up on having other people get things going that you want to see going. I just gave up on the idea that anyone else was going to do it."
Strauss may own the building outright, but he's renovated it at his own expense, and as a nonprofit White Flag will have to hustle for government grants and private donations.
"Frankly, I'm losing my ass on this thing. My credit cards are all maxed out. It's a financial disaster for me," he says. "We're going to hit up all the usual local and national suspects from the Regional Arts Commission to the National Endowment for the Arts but if two or three significant private donors don't show up, this place will only be around for two or three years. Right now we're funded through about March."