Material World 

St. Louis Community College-Forest Park Gallery of Art


Forum for Contemporary Art

In an exhibition of new works at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park, established painter Gary Passanise shows off recent explorations in sculpture. The show is small, just seven untitled pieces. But all of them attest to the diversity of effects that can be attained by a talented artist operating within a limited formal vocabulary.

With Passanise, "limited formal vocabulary" is a compliment. It takes someone with his eye for restraint to know when a form is simple enough to be understood but complex enough to reverberate, then to practice more than one interpretation of it, getting completely new effects.

Passanise does this, for example, with the grid. In one work, the grid appears as a large, free-standing black screen, casting crashing shadow patterns on the floor and wall; in another, the grid is a small wall piece, fragile, made of splintered wood, with an undeniable nostalgia.

Simple forms like grids are often ponderously mathematical, the stuff of minimalists such as Sol LeWitt, whose work never cracks a smile or sheds a tear. But Passanise's forms are anything but minimalist.

Take another example: a freestanding, curved black form that at first evokes Richard Serra's room-sized steel arcs. The comparison to Serra ultimately proves facile. Passanise's work is more romantic than a curve in space. It's an envelope form, pregnant with questions about what could be inside, with a seductive pitch-black surface that softly absorbs sound and light.

Funny thing is, Passanise's materials aren't particularly romantic. That arced envelope is made of asphalt sheathing, a building material. But Passanise somehow transforms his materials, making them mysterious, inviting. I stared at another white "envelope" wall piece for 10 minutes, fascinated with its strange chalky density, never knowing I was looking at something as pedestrian as polystyrene and plaster.

Complex interplays of textures and materials abound in this mesmerizing show. Another wall piece, itself a play on the grid, is made of iron cast from what looks to be a rough Styrofoam mold, highlighted with a rusty yellow color. Stare at this one for a while and resist, if you can, the urge to touch it.

The star of the show might be another floor piece, made of copper mesh molded in an undulating pattern, like a wave frozen in time. Cupped in crests of this "wave" are two lead balls that look like huge black pearls being pitched around in coppery water. This beautiful piece transforms metal into water and light while it casts weird diamond patterns all over the floor.

Passanise is one of St. Louis' greatest artistic assets. Don't miss this chance to see him experiment.

The exhibitions on display at the Forum for Contemporary Art are three of the quietest shows to grace its galleries in recent times. I'm sure many will balk at my calling Cply: The Art of William Copley, featured on the third floor, quiet, but I'll stick to that. Copley (1919-1996) was a painter who, during his life, became well known in some high-art circles and who fell chronologically between surrealism and pop art but never fit comfortably into either category.

Cply (as he was known) made some decidedly weird art. He produced a great variety of paintings, but the ones included in this miniretrospective are mostly observations about gender relations, featuring his characteristic cartoon-style faceless men and women. The women are naked, whereas the men are dressed in suits and hats, but, for the most part, their sexuality is about as explicit as the Teletubbies'.

It's the situations Copley creates that are strange. His paintings often cast the viewer in the role of the voyeur, with views framed as if we're looking through binoculars ("All Alone," 1965); or with glimpses into vaguely disturbing encounters, such as a couple groping in a rolling bordello ("Garment Center," 1983).

The most startling statements in this show are the observations about female sexuality, like "Venus Mound I" (1965), an extreme close-up of a woman's pubic triangle with dim figures emerging from the tuft of hair; and "Il Est Minuit Docteur" (1961), a creepy reflection on a male gynecologist.

Most of the other works are odd images of nudes, decorated with goofy '60s-style colors and patterns. They're lighthearted and leaden at once. But in the end, this little exhibition made me understand why Copley isn't better known. It's not that his work doesn't sit well in any stylistic category. And it's not that his message is ambiguous -- ambiguity in art can be a good thing. Rather, Copley's paintings seem indefinite, neither disturbing enough to outrage nor funny enough to remember for long.

Crack Pots, the exhibition of ceramic teapots from the collection of Donna Moog on the Forum's first floor, actually manages to serve up as much visual voltage as the Copley show. This selection of 24 teapots by a variety of artists is part of an endowment Moog is making to the Wustum Museum in Racine, Wis., so they may not make it back to St. Louis for some time.

The collection includes some wild variations on the teapot, one of humankind's most ancient, basic forms, the vessel that combines function and beauty with an affinity for the human figure that inspired the classic song "I'm a Little Teapot, Short and Stout."

Lots of the pots in this exhibition exploit that connection to the human figure. In particular, pots by Julia Kirilova and Akio Takamori are sassy, curvaceous female forms. And there are other artists, including Adrian Saxe and Paul Dresang, who produce odd fetish pots that are both attractive and repellent.

Because they're fragile, the pots are all placed behind the stern cover of plexiglass, which lends them an air of preciousness that belies their functionality. Still, they are visually delightful, exhibiting an entertaining array of finishes and shapes.

Finally there's Lisa Allen's installation "Use," in the Forum's first-floor bathroom. "Use" immediately struck me as a mildly funny collision of conceptual art and Neo-Geo aesthetics. Let me explain:

In 1970, Hans Haacke produced an installation at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. On the wall, a placard read: "Would the fact that Governor Rockefeller has not denounced President Nixon's Indochina policy be a reason for you not to vote for him in November? If yes, cast your ballot in the left box; if no, cast your ballot in the right box." Those ballot boxes were made of clear plexi, so it was plain to see from the ballots cast that MOMA viewers leaned to the left.

At that high moment of conceptual art, Haacke's work revealed the unspoken political underpinnings of the art world. Allen takes a similar tack at the Forum, not to reveal political leanings but rather to reveal consumer choice. Allen has lined up 11 soap dispensers and 60 soap dishes, each with a different color or kind of soap. It's up to the visitors to choose their soaps. And it's clear which soaps are being used and which are being left alone.

The gulf between Haacke's and Allen's works is indicative of what has become of conceptual art. The "political" is too often rejected in favor of the "personal," to the ultimate detriment of the art. It's not Allen's fault; but her work makes me long for good old-fashioned viewer-participation art that results in information that matters.

If nothing else, Allen's work is more fun to look at than Haacke's was. The dispensers carry soap in the yummy candy colors of the Neo-Geo colorists of the 1980s. And these days in art, visual appeal often saves works that are light (or "lite") on content. Shame.

Gary Passanise's new work is on display at the gallery at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park through April 28. The three Forum exhibitions are on view through May 15.

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