Saint Louis Art Museum’s New Exhibition Celebrates Contemporary Printmaking

Jun 24, 2022 at 7:38 am
click to enlarge SLAM installed Bruce Nauman’s “Pay Attention” alongside Kara Walker’s “The Keys to the Coop.” - Jessica Rogen
Jessica Rogen
SLAM installed Bruce Nauman’s “Pay Attention” alongside Kara Walker’s “The Keys to the Coop.”

Painting, sculpture and installation so often are what we think of when picturing the visual art that lines museum walls. But prints, and other works on paper such as photographs and drawings, are quiet gems that often go underappreciated.

That’s something that the curators at the Saint Louis Art Museum (1 Fine Arts Drive, 314-721-0072) seem to be on the way to changing with their latest exhibition Catching the Moment: Contemporary Art from the Ted L. and Maryanne Ellison Simmons Collection, open from June 26 through September 11.

“There's something about works on paper that are very kind of intimate and personal,” says Elizabeth Wyckoff, SLAM curator of prints, drawings, and photographs. “There's something very tactile, and then they also just tell incredible stories.”

The exhibition also celebrates SLAM’s 2020 acquisition of more than 800 works from Ted L. and Maryanne Ellison Simmons’ private collection, and about 190 of those are on display. The power couple — Ted is a former St. Louis Cardinals player, and Maryanne is a Washington University-trained printer and founder of Wildwood Press — began collecting contemporary art in earnest after acquiring Kiki Smith’s “Finger Bowl” sculpture.

click to enlarge Enrique Chagoya's “Illegal Alien's Guide to Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” - Courtesy Saint Louis Art Museum
Courtesy Saint Louis Art Museum
Enrique Chagoya's “Illegal Alien's Guide to Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

Much of their collection centers on social issues and historical moments, specifically the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the AIDS crisis. Catching the Moment displays three artists in depth — Kiki Smith (West-German-born American, 1954 to present), Enrique Chagoya (Mexican-born American, 1953 to present) and Tom Huck (Farmington-born St. Louisan, 1971 to present) — as well as a smattering of works by the artists’ contemporaries.

Smith, Chagoya and Huck have less name recognition than, say, the printers of olde, your Albrecht Dürers or Roy Lichtensteins (though Smith’s “Wolf Girl” was on Gilmore Girls). But casual museum attendees shouldn’t be scared off. Even without taking a deep dive into the intention behind the pieces in Catching the Moment, the work is fun, even easy, to appreciate with much that’s figurative, pop-culture derived or brightly engaging. You can spot references to Disney, DC and more in Chagoya’s prints, for example.

Though the three main artists work in distinct styles (Smith has, for example, a very fine illustrative quality to her lines compared to the bold strokes of Huck’s woodprints), all their works, and all those in the exhibition, invite close examination. There are many tiny pieces in the catalogue, such as two by Liliana Porter “Disguise” and “The Traveler,” which can’t be appreciated without some peering — a pleasure that taps into a childlike delight in miniature things.

Even the large-scale prints benefit from close viewing. Take Smith’s “Companions,” a folkloric diptych. Sure, looking across the room, you can tell it is Red Riding Hood and the wolf, but much subtlety of texture and linework is lost. Another example is a piece of Huck’s “Snacktime Marcy,” which hangs across from the woodblock it was printed on. Produced from Huck’s St. Louis studio, Evil Prints, it illustrates the story of a recalled doll. Going from the print to its reverse on the woodblock, catching details of the doll biting down on a kid’s hair as a supposed parent prepares a pair of scissors, is just, well, fun.

click to enlarge Tom Huck's triptych "Snacktime Marcy." - Courtesy Saint Louis Art Museum
Courtesy Saint Louis Art Museum
Tom Huck's triptych "Snacktime Marcy."

The curator, Wyckoff, along with Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellow Andrea L. Ferber and Assistant Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs Clare Kobasa, designed each room of the exhibition around a specific theme. There is a gallery named “Metamorphosis,” about art that recasts everyday objects, and another named “Pay Attention,” which includes artwork created in response to politics or explosive world events.

Though Wyckoff politely refuses to name favorites within the exhibition, she did give a nod to the interaction between Bruce Nauman’s “Pay Attention,” a backward print of the text: “Pay attention mother fuckers” and Kara Walker’s “The Keys to the Coop,” which depicts an outline of a woman about to swallow the head of a chicken and alludes to Black American history and slavery.

click to enlarge Jane Hammond's “My Heavens." - Courtesy Saint Louis Art Museum
Courtesy Saint Louis Art Museum
Jane Hammond's “My Heavens."

“We really like putting those two prints together, that very sort of direct text but then a very content-direct textual image,” she says.

In a way, the exhibition also celebrates the act of building an art collection and what that means for artists and art history.

“As a collector, you learn very early that you call yourself a collector, but what you are first is a caretaker, and you don’t get to really own anything,” Ted said in an interview printed in the show’s book. “Your role and responsibility as a collector is to conserve whatever item it is.”

The Simmons thought deeply about how to build their collection so that it was both important and personally meaningful, which is to the benefit of Catching the Moment visitors.

Catching the Moment will be open until September 11. Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and students and $6 for children aged 6 to 12. The exhibition is free on Fridays and anytime for museum members.