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.
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."
Bullet Flag now languishes, wrapped inside plastic and plywood, inside Moses' midtown studio. He failed to sell it for $25,000, and now the 27-year-old sculptor considers the piece merely a rough draft and plans a larger version.
Moses is known in the St. Louis art world as an audacious self-marketer, with an ego as hubristic as his name and his art. "What do you do with somebody who wants to be something?" he answers his critics. "I think if you talked to the Michael Jordans of the world, all of them always thought they would be somebody."
Moses is always reaching for the high notes. He thrives on excess and moves on overdrive. To woo a girl, he'll bake a mountainous chocolate-chip cookie cake, enough for twenty. At an auto scrap yard, he'll gravitate to a double-decker bus. Last year when he won the most prestigious prize for a St. Louis artist $15,000 and a ten-week exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis he threw his hands in the air and cried to a fellow artist, "Fifteen thousand? I want million-dollar budgets!"
No matter how many times Moses hears an art dealer, curator or critic remark that perhaps no St. Louis artist besides Ernest Trova can making a living from his art, Moses grimaces and vows, "Fuck that. I am going to."
Moses was barely three years old the night his father nearly shot him with a .357 Magnum.
Jeff Nornberg was working at Red Crown Liquor, the family package store and bar in Madison, Illinois. It was February 20, 1981, and the Nornbergs were digging into a cake to celebrate Dad's 37th birthday. Just then, Curtis, an employee Nornberg planned to fire the next morning, burst in and demanded to charge some beer to his account.
Nornberg sacked him on the spot, and Curtis punched him in the nose.
"I went up under my arm and grabbed my gun, and he saw me and turned to run, and pow!" Jeff Nornberg recounts. "Everyone was screaming and dropping beer on the floor, and it was all fucked up. And there was Moses sitting up on the bar in the direct line of fire. I thought I'd shot him."
The Nornbergs closed Red Crown Liquor in 1986, but the shop maintains mythic status in family lore. It was a place where black steelworkers nicknamed Roach, Bull and Superman smoked Kools and listened to hip-hop, where lovers' quarrels played out in the aisles, where it wasn't unheard-of to watch a woman drop her skirt in exchange for a half-pint of whiskey.
"The kids were there for all this weird shit," remembers Nornberg, who, with his frizzy brown ponytail, looks a decade younger than his 62 years. "They saw a different side of life."
Moses and his sister, Vanessa, never felt they fit in, growing up in a working-class clan on the unincorporated fringes of Creve Coeur, yet attending public schools in Clayton and spending weekends at the liquor store.
When the Nornbergs got into the home-building business, they sometimes let Moses play hooky so he could follow his father around construction sites, stuffing his pockets with nails and staples to create miniature sculptures. His foraging interests were likely passed down from his great Aunt Charlotte, a Ph.D. in physiology who studied salivary glands at the University of Alabama School of Medicine.
"We'd go to visit her every summer," recalls Vanessa, "and she'd take us to garage sales and flea markets, and we watched her barter for the most amazing little treasures, with all these trinkets she'd stashed in her purse."
The youngest Nornberg became Moses his freshman year at Reed. (He uses his full name on legal documents.)
"I thought it was awesome," says Jeff Nornberg, describing his and his wife Rita's delight with Howard Fast's historical novel Moses, Prince of Egypt. "When we had him, Moses was the natural name. But you can't name your child Moses, just like you can't name your child Jesus. You can't do that because people are going to fuck with him."
As a gangly teen, Moses says, he was often ridiculed for his loud clothing, his ponytail, and the earrings and leather bracelets he wore. Some classmates also made fun of his slight lisp. Adopting the Moses moniker, he says, "was a way of starting anew, a way of creating a new identity, and a powerful one at that. I was trying to be somebody else."
Motoring through life as Moses, concedes the former Aaron Nornberg, does have its disquieting moments not to mention having to endure jokes about burning bushes and parting seas.
While waiting tables at a Lafayette Square restaurant, he'd introduce himself as Moses to patrons who would often reply: "Oh, hi, I'm Jesus."
"The funniest thing is, a lot people ask me how to spell it," Moses says with a grin.
"I've had a lot of people in the art world tell me I'm shooting myself going by one name. They think it's retarded. Or they interpret it as arrogant. It's not like I think I'm somebody fucking special."
At Reed College, a place he characterizes as "full of castoffs and misfits," Moses thought of art as "a horrible career choice" and initially studied Greek and Latin. He changed his mind in his sophomore year after seeing a Robert Rauschenberg retrospective at New York's Guggenheim Museum.
"I felt like this guy was in the room," Moses recalls. "He's so irreverent and against the idea of uppity art. And he was 85 years old and still making beautiful things. I felt like you could be who you wanted to be as an artist and still succeed. I wanted to quit school, put all my money in the stock market and just make art. But my parents wouldn't let me."
Moses was something of a vexing student. "He needed a lot more space than we could provide in the classrooms and his senior studio, which, to his annoyance, he had to share with another student the first semester," Michael Knutson, Moses' advisor, writes in an e-mail.
"He produced so much labor-intensive, large-scale work for his thesis that he insisted on showing in a gallery on campus by himself, rather than with the other nine seniors in a warehouse space we'd rented off campus."
Allows Moses: "A lot of them did think I was an asshole." Indeed, his days at Reed College were not exactly filled with collegial camaraderie. "Nobody really dug me. I wasn't making friends, and they weren't asking me to be in shows with them. The same thing happens in St. Louis.
"But I really get off making this shit," he continues. "It turns me on. It makes me feel alive.
"Say I'm at a show, standing by a piece of mine and another artist walks by, and I say, 'Isn't this cool?' I'm tripping out on something, I'm dancing around. I'm happy. To me, it feels good. That just pisses people off. They don't get that I'm not saying my stuff is better than theirs."
Moses cultivates the image of "the rogue artist," observes Shannon Fitzgerald, chief curator at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. Moses says his influences include Marcel Duchamp, cofounder of Dadaism, and graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. He dismisses any comparisons Fitzgerald draws between his own work and that of contemporary mixed-media artists Christian Marclay or Tom Sachs.
"No one's doing what I do," Moses insists. "And if they are, it's because they're copying me."
Moses' studio could be a hardware store or a lumberyard, cluttered with power tools, planks of wood and boxes of subwoofers that fill the metal shelves near the door, where the boombox is always blaring.
The night his friend at Reed turned him onto Wu-Tang Clan, Moses put away the rock music and began listening exclusively to rap and hip-hop artists.
"They were painting images of pop culture I loved that," he says.
The music sent Moses off on a five-year expedition to create "The Audiophile Series," large-scale sculptures made from turntables, subwoofers, LPs and stereo receivers an alchemy of 50 years' worth of consumer electronics. He envisioned the series would archive and venerate contemporary hip-hop, DJ and street culture.
"I wanted people like 50 Cent to look at me and say, 'This dude is different, but he's down.'"
Each installation required chopping, breaking down and repackaging. The largest of them all is Soundboard, a 1,500-pound collage of 182 gray stereo equalizers, all enjoined in a steel frame.
For Two Turntables and a Microphone, Moses cut 1,500 record sleeves and installed them in a shelf to create a faux record collection. For Boombox he removed the guts of 51 old subwoofers to reduce their depth before installing them in a shallow wooden box. The condensing of the objects fosters an element of trompe l'oeil, or tricking the viewer into seeing something that isn't there.
Moses took six-by-seven-foot photographs of shiny 1980s-era boomboxes and called them Public Broadcasting System, and for Revolution 2.0 he framed and painted twenty turntables white.
The collection's centerpiece is American Dream: We Like the Cars That Go BOOM! Playing with the recent trend of "pimping rides," Moses bought a black '92 Chevy Blazer, stripped the engine, recast the windows in fiberglass and embedded 300 speakers in the body.
He also commissioned popular St. Louis hip-hop DJ Crucial to make a music track composed entirely of bass notes emanating from the truck's interior. Moses finished the piece by fitting the wheels with gleaming silver rims.
"You don't have to love art to be like, 'Hey, that's cool,'" Moses says of the piece.
The laborious series was nearly three-quarters finished last summer, but Moses wasn't sure if he wanted to keep going.
"I've had a lot of people with a lot of money come into the studio, look at my work, pat me on the back and say, 'Great job, keep it up.' There hasn't been much recognition in terms of 'Geez, how do you pay for this? Can we help you?'"
"There's no market in St. Louis for the large-scale conceptual type of work that Moses is doing," explains Tom Bussmann, co-owner of Philip Slein Gallery.
Elaborates Dion Dion of Art St. Louis: "There's the cost of his work and being able to display it. The amplifier piece he exhibited with us, even though it was large, was still in the possible range of being sold, like to somebody with a downtown loft. But the price was a problem. He wanted $10,000.
"Now, that's not outside the realm of selling in other geographic areas of the United States. But on a practical level, I suggested to him that he exhibit some smaller pieces here, that they could be his bread and butter."
Moses tried that in 2001 while working in New York City, pulling a variety of stunts to get noticed by the boldface names in the art world. One morning he walked into a staff meeting at the Mary Boone Gallery, trained his eyes on Mary Boone herself and said, "Hi, I'm Moses. I know you're the most provocative art dealer in New York, and I think I'm the most provocative artist you've never met."
Moses had made up his mind that Boone, a blue-chip broker, should represent him. A flight of fancy, to be sure, but he'd sent off so many slides to other dealers and grant-giving committees and he was fed up with rejection from people who'd never even laid eyes on him.
"I'd inspect the slides when they came back and look for fingerprints, to see if they had been touched," says Moses. "I was really doubtful. I decided the only way you're going to get somewhere is to have some personal contact with the people in power."
Moses proceeded to press his portfolio on Boone, only to have the clearly miffed dealer instruct him to send it by courier. He did just that, and she sent it back, unopened.
Moses returned to St. Louis in October 2001 but couldn't get a gallery to represent him, even with a handwritten letter of recommendation from famed artist Richard Serra, who Moses met while doing odd jobs at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts.
He tried to get his work seen by potential collectors by contacting wealthy Reed alumni, such as Steve Jobs of Apple Inc.
Desperate for money, Moses went so far as to ask the National Rifle Association to sell posters of "Bullet Flag." Again, nothing panned out. And by last summer, says his father, "Moses was clearly depressed. He quit going to the studio."
In a last-ditch attempt to raise the needed funds to finish "Audiophile," Moses applied for the Great Rivers Biennial, a competition co-sponsored by the Contemporary Art Museum and the Gateway Foundation, where he had lost once before. This time he took a different approach. Using Photoshop software, Moses superimposed images of his sculptures hanging on the Contemporary's walls.
"It was a bold maneuver," says juror Elizabeth Dunbar, curator at Kansas City's Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. "But it certainly did give us a sense of what the work looked like."
Along with Matthew Strauss and Jason Wallace Triefenbach, Moses won the Great Rivers Biennial.
"He was super-excited, completely elated, but also he had this well-of-course-it-happened-I-deserved-it attitude," remembers Vanessa Nornberg. "At the same time there was still wonder, and disbelief."
"I cried," says Moses.
The day after getting the news, Moses went back to work, spending every last penny of the $15,000 to finish "The Audiophile Series." At the evening opening on January 20, Moses says he felt "a sense of awe and jaw-dropping" as he watched visitors enter the Contemporary and gaze upon his nine immense works, which fill the first gallery.
Fellow artists praised the pieces as elegant, sleek and technically impressive. "They're pretty damn well-crafted," reports 2004 Biennial winner Kim Humphries. "I got the feeling Moses works his ass off."
"I think he has the potential to be big-league," says RFT art critic Ivy Cooper.
Some within the art intelligentsia, though, were nonplussed that Moses' works were chosen. Post-Dispatch art critic David Bonetti credited Moses for making the strongest visual presentation at the exhibition but also noted that "The Audiophile Series" highlighted Moses' immaturity as an artist.
Susan Cahan, Desmond Lee Endowed Professor of Contemporary Art at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, disagrees. "Moses is translating music into visceral and visual experiences," she says. "It's conceptually very interesting and very powerful."
Says Bruno David, Moses' newly retained art dealer: "I think people who are interested in rap or R&B are not necessarily the kind of people who might come to a contemporary art museum on a Saturday afternoon. And by branching out, using the crossover media that he does, Moses might have a way to reach those people. He's trying to find a way to reach out between two forms of expression music and art."
To Cahan, the series brings to mind minimalist works by Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Ryman, as well as John Cage, the composer. "I would buy a piece if I could afford it. I think it's beautiful."
Moses' suggested prices range from $4,000 for the photographs to more than $100,000 for "Soundboard" and the Blazer.
"It is not an easy sell," acknowledges Bruno David. "The number of people interested in purchasing something like it is very limited, not because of the work itself but the way it's made, the heaviness of it, and the structural demands of hanging it."
Moses, though, is determined to find a way to make money from his first museum exhibition. He's hired superstar St. Louis publicist Jane Higgins to spread the word and hasn't ruled out trying to rent the Blazer to a musician making a rap video.
"People tell me I'm insane to think I'm gonna get $80,000 for that car. Others think I'm right. Think about P. Diddy, Jay-Z, Russell Simmons. Those guys own their own record labels. They have money to spend on corporate art. And I see them as philanthropists. It doesn't seem a stretch for any of them to buy my car and put it on loan at the Whitney."
Whatever happens when his exhibition at the Contemporary closes on March 26 and he's well aware that nothing at all might happen Moses says his next series will be even bigger.
"I've called museums and asked them what their doors look like, and what mechanisms they have to move stuff so I can build my work," says Moses.
"I called the Whitney and asked for their art-handling department, and they were a little sketched out. I said, 'Listen, I just need to find out what kind of mechanisms you have, so that when I build this piece that weighs potentially 5,000 pounds and needs to be lifted onto your walls and through your building, well, I need to find out about how, exactly, that's going to happen.'"
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