In its fourth year, Venus Envy showed encouraging signs of maturity. The annual exhibition of women artists, which emerges with spring at the Lemp Brewery, has been since its inception a good party, but you didn't go there to look seriously at art. It's not that there hasn't been a lot to look at -- you probably couldn't find a way to cover a former brewery with more art -- but there hasn't been much to compel you to look for too long. Aside from one or two entries every year, the Venus Envy survey has had more social than artistic impact. St. Louisans with an interest in art get excited when they see themselves together in a large space. They feel less lonely, less isolated. The art really doesn't have to be good. And when art doesn't have to be good, it usually isn't.
It hasn't helped that walking into Venus Envy has felt like entering a time warp -- into, say, an exhibition of late-'70s/early-'80s issues art, work that prides itself on social consciousness and awareness and is celebrated by like-minded patrons and artists but fails to change anybody's mind. Venus Envy also has been known for being generously inclusive, meaning that if you're a woman artist, you've had a pretty good shot at getting in.
This year, however, it was worth passing up the long beer lines to get into the exhibition space and check out the art. Clothes hung from a coat rack, featuring dresses decorated with images of pickles and dolls, the costumes protected by a stiff laminate-type material. Not far from this display, a gaggle of enviers (or enviests?) congregated around a group of woven objects in square box frames. The delicate, spidery designs, created by Catherine Cathers, who was Venus Envy's curator this year, are called "Clit Cozies."
Video came into play in a big way this year, with a large screen behind the bandstand reflecting images of a tall woman in a bright-yellow dress dancing the funky chicken, or, at other times, in nun's garb flashing a pair of black-stockinged legs, and other assorted images that had something to do, possibly, with women's sexuality, but it was more fun to watch than it was to think.
As expansive as the Lemp Brewery complex is, it was hard to get around the throngs to see the art, or smell the art. You had to get in line for the olfactory experience of a wall installation offering various aromas. The work itself wasn't all that interesting, but it was entertaining to watch members of the art crowd, one after another, lean over containers, sniff and move on to the next. Odd that in an old brewery, smelling would be such a novelty.
But where the crush of people was greatest was in front of a group of wall collages, 35 works in 9-by-9-inch wooden frames. You had to stake out space to spend time with them. The collages were not unusual in terms of their material -- buttons, red plastic hearts, lockets, metal birds, old postcards, maps, printed and handwritten text -- lots of artists use found objects in their work. But these were uniquely, even preciously composed. Preciousness is generally a quality to avoid in art-making, but these works -- devoid of accidental tears or mark-making -- were cleanly and precisely made so that they carried emotional and intellectual weight. The Italian text of a canto from The Divine Comedy, on fragile paper fading at the edges, a small pink ribbon and a feather obscuring the verse -- simple as it seemed, it was no less evocative of the big themes: time, history, memory, loss, redemption. The black-and-white photo of a frame house on a dirt road, a copper nail through it; a fringe of old wallpaper, gas-rationing coupons, a poem called "The Poplar Field": These are the sort of images you want to gaze and gaze upon, as children do, inventing narratives, exploring mysteries.
The Venus Envy crowd hung around these all night, and at an economical 50 bucks a pop, they sold like hotcakes.
A week after the event, the artist, Caroline Huth, is still spinning from the response her work received. Venus Envy was her first exhibition ever. Huth (an Old German name that rhymes with Ruth) works a 9-to-5 graphic-design job at Phoenix Creative. A Washington University grad, she stayed on the commercial side of art education, purposely avoiding the fine-arts department. She admits that the choices she makes creating imagery are more naïve than studied, so she's surprised when told -- as one man at the exhibition did in response to her work -- "Never before have I seen an artist put her heart on her sleeve so openly."
"I'm just putting stuff together," she laughs. "I just glue stuff down."
The basement of Huth's University City home, which serves as her studio, is as cluttered and ramshackle as anybody's. Huth apologizes for the disarray. Not unlike her work, Huth is slender, even diminutive, yet strong. She has short reddish-brown hair, and this evening she is dressed in a sleeveless black shirt and black pants. She frequently flashes an engaging, pretty smile. Her excitement about her materials is infectious. She turns to one shoebox crammed with old black-and-white photos: "I found all of these photographs, a whole family's collection of photos, when I was living on the Hill. They were in an alley in a Dumpster, and I literally went in up to my elbows to pull them out."
The series of collages evolved out of Huth's love of old materials and her desire to make art that people might actually want to buy. She'd been making handmade cards, but few people are willing to pay more than 2 bucks for a card, no matter how precious the material or how unique the imagery.
Huth considered making collages like commissioned portraits -- a patron could provide the relevant materials and Huth would construct an artful composition. To test this plan, she did something more interesting than her original marketing idea. Huth selected from her found materials -- a photo of a World War II soldier, a small family snapshot, a Victory pin, the number 37 -- and in so doing began constructing an imaginary life.
This early collage looks clumsy in retrospect, but it was the trigger for the more complex work that followed. Huth allows the face of a portrait to be totally obscured or text to be partly covered. A small map of a part of France, the paper so old and fragile it nearly falls apart when handled, she says, is covered by a small, closed notebook, which holds a small locket on top of it. The result is a fidelity to mystery rather than to a biography. Huth constructed imaginary outlines with objects and let the viewer build the narratives. Huth's boxes are like windows into memory, but they are memories of our own making.
A square has been cut in the center of an antique postcard showing a great luxury liner; a small red heart dangles in the empty space, with a line of text as border: "The wires were sent off announcing her happiness."
Huth is from a line not only of artists -- her uncle a carver, her grandmother a sculptor, her great-grandfather a painter -- but of hoarders. Her great-uncle, Huth says, "collected anything. He prided himself on never throwing anything away. He left behind a 55-gallon drum of socks." The great-uncle built for her a wooden supply cabinet with small drawers marked "rubber O rings," "tiny metal arrows," "cigar 5s" (metal cigar bands bearing the number 5), "cicada wings" (which have evaporated, leaving a stain of phosphorescence), "magnetic spunky dogs" (terrier magnets), "Tootsie-Pop wrappers," "hearts," "humidity detectors" (tiny envelopes containing some kind of crushed pink stone with markers for "safe/unsafe").
"Someday I'm going to use these cool old vacuum tubes," she says.
Huth says, "Everything I do is really intimate, and I don't like the idea of making bigger work," but she also says being an artist is about evolving in the next direction and not knowing what that is. She admits she hasn't been in a show before because she's lacked the self-esteem to take the risk, but now she's buoyed by the excitement surrounding Venus Envy.
She doesn't accept the idea that, at $50 per collage, she might have undersold herself: "I wanted people to be able to afford these pieces. I wanted them to go. I want a lot of people to have these pieces. Art should be accessible, affordable." After a beer and more talk about her work around the dinner table, Huth prepares to pack some of the collages and deliver them, shards of imaginary memories at bargain prices.
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