1998: The Year in Art

I am a transplant to St. Louis. Two years ago I moved here from Pittsburgh, where the art "scene" was becoming exciting and progressive, with a great deal of exchange among museums, schools and galleries, and artists both locally and internationally. Believe it or not, Pittsburgh is becoming a mecca of contemporary art.

I admit I was initially disappointed in the art scene in St. Louis. The local art groups seemed insulated, and the larger art venues felt remote. And though I feel (and have been told) that these first impressions are generally on the mark, they haven't mattered much in terms of the art I saw in 1998, a lot of which was rich and memorable.

One show in particular worked its way into my memory banks and stubbornly refuses to leave: William Kentridge's animated drawings "Felix in Exile" (1994) and "The History of the Main Complaint" (1996), featured in the fall at the Forum for Contemporary Art. Kentridge makes images by building up and erasing drawings, and the results are dreamy scenes and forms that melt and morph into one another. They are the perfect vehicles for his political, poetic narratives, which intertwine like threads that often become knotted but never break. Kentridge's work proves that even in the musty old medium of drawing, there is still astounding experimental work to be done.

Though I was initially skeptical, Larry Krone's To All the Girls I've Loved Before completely disarmed me. It definitely ranks as one of the artistic high points of 1998. To all the people who haven't seen it yet, go now -- it's up until Jan. 9 at the Forum for Contemporary Art. Krone's work is a paean to love and loss, delivered in the medium of country music, the lyrics to which are written out in his own hair. It could have been smug and condescending, but it isn't. Instead, it's as witty, poignant and -- forgive me -- genuine as the songs Krone draws on. Thinking back, I'm afraid my original review of the show failed to communicate the sheer visual beauty of these love letters written in hair, the delicacy of the line and color. Give it a very close look.

Action/Performance and the Photo-graph, also at the Forum until Jan. 9, is required viewing for anyone interested in contemporary art, especially the conceptual side of it. This exhibit ranks as one of the better historical surveys of an art movement I saw anywhere this year. But this show is more than a photographic survey. It goes further to suggest that photography is an integral part, even a sine qua non, of action and performance art as it developed from the '50s through the '70s. The exhibit is intellectually demanding, but for viewers with some knowledge of this period in art, it's a gold mine.

And lest anyone think I simply took up residence in the Forum for Contemporary Art, I actually made it to knockout shows at other venues, too. Jennifer Silverberg's Boxed at the Hot Locust Cantina -- photographs of boxers after their bouts -- was delicious. And Thomas Huck's Two Weeks in August: 14 Rural Absurdities, at the St. Louis Community College-Forest Park art gallery, was brilliant. Huck revived the medieval form of the print cycle to reveal the realities and surrealities of life in Potosi, Mo. The results were practically apocalyptic.

Sure, 1998 had its low points, like some mediocre group shows and some exhibits I refused to even see (e.g., Angels from the Vatican). But the good art in St. Louis seems to far outweigh the bad, and in this business that's saying a lot. I'm looking forward to liking St. Louis even more in 1999.

As John Nunley and I moved about the Masterpieces of Central Africa exhibition at the St. Louis Art Museum, choosing specific works to discuss on the basis of the traffic flow of guided schoolchildren, his eyes lit with excitement and wonder at magnificently designed masks and spirit figures carved in wood. Nunley, who helped curate the exhibition, has spent time in places such as Ghana and Sierra Leone, where artists still practice the ancient traditions, where blood is fed to the artist's tools before carving, where the wood itself is negotiated with as a partner in the activity. It's a business thick with the influence of spirits, Nunley told me, so the artist lives at the periphery of the village, at the threshold between community life and the spirit world of the bush.

Upstairs, while the Central Africa show was in the special-exhibition gallery, the work of contemporary artist Charles Long resided in the Currents gallery. As the show downstairs presented a world of strange wonders, so too did the Long exhibition. Cute, shiny green globs were positioned on the floor, a thin green bridge connecting them: "Jack and Jill" was the title. A trio of vibrantly colored biomorphic forms that could have wandered off the animation screen of A Bug's Life tilted nervously in one corner of the space. A simple plastic chair, the kind with the most practical curve for the back and bucket for the rump, had as part of its design a rude eruption of formless material just where the crotch would rest. A small tower rose from the floor; at its summit was the word "Special," rendered in a metallic script you'd find on the side of an old car or the door of an ancient refrigerator.

Each of Long's pieces was unique, each with its own integrity. If anyone ever instructed Long to labor toward a consistent vision or unified style -- the kind of good manners art students are taught -- he didn't listen.

There's a giddy incivility to Long's work. Although much of contemporary art is viewed with dismay by the silent majority, the looks on the faces those who were under-appreciative of the Long exhibition revealed an expression of distressed uncertainty. There seemed to be a total lack of recognition in their eyes, as if they didn't know what they were seeing.

Yet Long's work is very much a part of the everyday. He creates assemblages with "tasteful" end tables and coffee grounds (the grounds constructed into shapes akin to alien life forms). Just as Gus Van Sant contemporizes Psycho by giving the Vera Miles character a Walkman, Long gives the art exhibition its own music with Stereolab for anyone to listen to on headphones.

The juxtaposition of the artwork of central Africa and the sculpture of Charles Long at the Art Museum inadvertently reveals the tension between artist and community that is necessary for great art to happen. Long is as much on the periphery of mainstream contemporary America as is the artist in the Congo in relation to his village. Both live at the threshold between wildness and community, then return from beyond that threshold with strange figures that inspire wonder, horror, excitement, dismay. They create disturbances in the civil life.

As I consider the year in review, I'm mindful of the artist's status as outsider. It's not just a modern convention (as the Central Africa show proves), and despite communitarian claims, it is a status worth preserving -- so long as the distance between art and community does not become too great. Again, it's the tension that's important, which means the cord is not severed but the tether is continually tested.

The art that remains with me from this year (as Ezra Pound wrote, "What thou lovest well remains") had a subversive aspect. There's a risk artists take as they become better citizens -- a blandness that results at the expense of the exceptional, which is why good civic events such as the City Series exhibition and In/Form 5 are memorable in the way public-works projects are. As much as "partnership" has become a buzzword in the arts, there's a contrarian's comfort in a title from an old collection of short stories by the Montana writer William Kittredge: We Are Not in This Together.

So under the aesthetic of subversion as defined by the Central Africa exhibit and Charles Long, add Kara Walker to the list of the year's most memorable art. At the Forum for Contemporary Art, her installation of silhouettes depicted banal, although luscious, representations of antebellum gentility on the surface but on closer viewing showed scenes of violence and oppression of the most gruesome nature. Walker, who is African-American, has caused a storm of controversy among some African-American artists for reproducing stereotypical racist imagery.

This sets her apart as yet another artist who has brought visions from the spirit world that the village is uncertain how to own.

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