Just Your Type

Wassenaar uncovers meaning in fragments of ordinary signs

Cheryl Wassenaar: New Constructions / Regarding Objects / Soo Sunny Park's "Bio-Structure: Metra Geo"

Cheryl Wassenaar: New Constructions
Through August 30 at the Sheldon Art Galleries, 3648 Washington Boulevard, 314-533-9900.

Regarding Objects
Through September 30 at the Sheldon Art Galleries.

Soo Sunny Park's "Bio-Structure: Metra Geo"
Through September 7 at Laumeier Sculpture Park, 12580 Rott Road, 314-821-1209.

Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.

It's the rare artist who can transform detritus from the everyday world into objects of curiosity and wonder. Cheryl Wassenaar does it in every one of her humble works, which are constructed from cast-off commercial signage. These wall-hung pieces are simultaneously quotidian and otherworldly, familiar and strange, their power generating from their refusal to settle into any comfortable category.

Now on view at the Sheldon Art Galleries, Wassenaar's modestly sized works incorporate language, colors and patterns from found signs, combined in such a way that they collide and undercut one another. The effect is one of abstraction -- a fragment of a word or a letter survives, jarred out of its original context and prevented from generating linguistic meaning in the usual way.

Instead, a different kind of meaning is produced -- the associative meaning we glean from typography detail and other visual symbols. When a letter is isolated in one of these works -- say a capital 'R' -- we are left to focus on it as a visual sign: the smooth curve of the tail suggesting grace, the tilt of the letter expressing urgency. Wassenaar's works are reminders that typography itself has the power to communicate independently.

We're clearly knee-deep in semiotics territory here, but the topic was never really exhausted by visual artists anyway, so why not enjoy it? The practice does place Wassenaar in the proud genealogy of artists who have explored language as a visual medium -- Picasso, to be sure, and Conceptual artists, such as Ed Ruscha; Pop artists, such as James Rosenquist; and contemporary artists, such as the late Margaret Kilgallen.

These pieces are also intriguing when their fragmented linguistic signifiers pass over into bold formal abstractions, generating echoes of Russian Suprematism or Bauhaus graphic design. They collapse the distinction between language and form, becoming metalingual. And yet, their physicality stubbornly maintains their rootedness in the everyday world. Here and there paint is chipped, cracked or faded. From certain linguistic fragments we can deduce complete words or phrases, and they are none too metaphysical ("we sell lottery tickets" and "financing," for instance, are much more interesting in fragmented form).

Marcel Duchamp and Robert Rauschenberg exploited found objects that were saturated with signs of use or memory or association; Wassenaar's pieces likewise combine echoes of bygone communiqués, now fractured and defamiliarized. They bring with them an added layer of signification, having been salvaged from dumps and empty lots and given titles that lend them, at least partially, a spatial identity. Their actual titles are tough to figure ("R," "A" or "K-3") but the subtitles indicate street intersections -- "Fifth and Main," "York and Third" and even familiar St. Louis sites such as "Lemp and Cherokee" and "Broadway and 13th."

If you ask yourself how far Wassenaar can take this kind of investigation, the answer is in the works themselves. Each is unique, with slightly different inflections, humorous and sad passages, packed with memories of some other place and time. Wassenaar's sense of visual harmony and discord is so keenly developed, it seems apparent that she could carry this on indefinitely, so rich are the works and the suggestions they make. Kudos to the Sheldon for putting on this small but mighty show, but I can't help but look forward to seeing Wassenaar's works on display in a more flattering setting.

Upstairs, in the Sheldon's Bellwether Gallery of St. Louis Artists, another show is on view, one that suffers less from its setting than from its too-broad thematic. For Regarding Objects, director Olivia Lahs-Gonzales has mined local collections for works that take on the idea of the object, in still life or otherwise. These works are paired up with pieces by St. Louis artists working today, in an attempt to create a dialogue about...things.

It's certainly not that any single work in the show is weak. Indeed, there are some doozies here, and perhaps we should be thankful for any chance to see them on display. From the Sheldon's collection, Wayne Thiebaud's "Lipstick Row" etching from 1970 is a gem, the embodiment of "thingness" (Thiebaud's works are always just what they say they are). And Roy Lichtenstein's bright "Still Life" painting from 1994 is a perfect foil to the murky still lifes by Wallace Herndon Smith from the 1940s exhibited on the opposite wall.

Some of the works by contemporary St. Louis artists more than hold their own. Jason Hoeing's "Desensitizing the Target (Pacification)" (2002) manages to comment on telecommunication, the 9-11 attacks, nostalgia and the infantile side of patriotism, all in a single, interactive work. Catherine Cathers has come up with a stunning video painting, nothing less than a visual deconstruction of a still life, while Christina Shmigel's "Industrial Still Life" (2003) engages the show's theme with her usual wit and ironic use of scale.

Regarding Objects can't maintain its own theme, and no wonder -- that theme is poorly defined, perhaps even ill-conceived, its net cast far too widely. But the exhibition nonetheless manages to show off some fantastic work and is well worth the trip to Sheldon's upstairs galleries.

Soo Sunny Park is the first artist selected for Laumeier's Kranzberg St. Louis Exhibition Series, and if her gallery installation "Bio-Structure: Metra Geo" is any indication of how this series will develop, we're all in luck. Park was evidently given lots of support and latitude, and she was allowed to utterly transform several of the galleries into sites of spatial exploration and adventure.

Park fills the front galleries with models and sketches for her project, which only partly prepare viewers for what they encounter in the back galleries. Two of these spaces are linked by related installations of clear plastic columns, rising up and terminating in Gothic rib vaults. The "architecture" is scaled down, creating a more intimate sense of space than what you find in a Gothic cathedral, and there is a decidedly weird, futuristic sensibility to the transparent, collapsible columns. Things get even stranger in the gallery space where the columns contain floating Styrofoam beads, blown around by invisible fans.

Space is defined entirely differently in the next gallery, where the white, rounded walls are covered in plaster half-domes and lit from behind. The effect is disorienting, as if you were floating in white-hot outer space. Passing through to the final gallery is even more disorienting -- it's almost completely dark, punctuated by a cubic set of filaments stretching diagonally from floor to ceiling.

Park has arranged a remarkable sequence of spaces quite consciously, inviting us to examine our bodily movements through different spatial arrangements and atmospheres of light, line and mass. Structural confidence is somewhat lacking in the installations, but Park's ambitions are high, and "Bio-Structure: Metra Geo" works in the end.

Correction published 8/27/03:
As originally published, an item in this column erroneously implied that the Sheldon Art Galleries maintain a permanent collection. The above version reflects the corrected text.

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