Wasted Space

St. Louis University restores a beautiful building to display terrible art

The most offensive work of art in St. Louis can be found on the second floor of the newly opened St. Louis University Museum of Art. A bronze sculpture by David Parvin, it is a life-size realistic representation of a female African slave. In a nod to mixed-media artistic fashion, the artist has bound her wrists with real shackles.

Her floor-length dress has been unbuttoned to expose her centerfold-perfect breasts. Unbuttoned, mind you, not ripped -- the details matter -- and seven buttons, signifying a stripping that had to have taken some time. Her eyes are closed -- defiantly, you're told; the piece is called "Defiance" -- but it's a sensual mask of full lips and fine cheekbones.

Walk around behind her, and what is most alarming is not the scars on her back, evidence of a whipping, but the way the fabric of her dress drapes to reveal the cleavage of her behind.

"Defiance" is the nastiest form of pornography, the kind that veils itself in the cloak of socially conscious fine art (not unlike the atrocious Monster's Ball). There's no moral argument to support the work -- it's not as if a pro-slavery movement is afoot -- so what pervades is the eroticism. Parvin creates a "Brown Sugar" fantasy that comes right out of the "peculiar institution" itself.

What's more alarming is how well "Defiance" fits in with the rest of the museum. The second-floor "Figurative Sculpture Gallery" includes a kitsch representation of a Native American in a headdress holding a peace pipe to the sky -- the kind of stuff you can get out of the Franklin Mint catalog. Schlock artist Michael Atkinson is well represented with four bronze figures of babes and hunks from the health club. "Doug" has square pecs, a six-pack torso and fabulous hair. One hand in his pocket and the other on his thigh direct your gaze to the crotch, a gesture that suggests a pretty-boy hustler at the racquet club.

Gary Mauro's "Nouvella" and "Ojo Caliente Goddesses" are naked nymphs in various forms of lanky, erotic display that beg the question "What sort of Jesuit reads Playboy?"

"Father loves the figure," museum director Nanette Boileau laughs gamely amid the collection that she sure as hell didn't put together.

"Father" is SLU president Lawrence Biondi, who rules over the school like a Medici prince. The Medicis commissioned Michelangelo, however. Biondi tends to the lower-brow.

Boileau, jet-lagged after returning from a visit to Documenta, nonetheless gives the tour of the museum with an effusive spirit. She has shoulder-length blond hair and an open face framed by stylish glasses. Boileau treads lightly on the subject of curatorial decisions.

Biondi, for example, curated the museum's premiere exhibition in the first-floor main gallery: the paintings of an Italian Jesuit priest, Renato Laffranchi. "An exhibition that I supported," says Boileau. The paintings are sunny, colorful; they're apt for Hallmark-card sentiments but, in regards to their religious subject matter, they drain all the drama out of Christ, paradise and sin.

Boileau smiles guardedly when asked about the museum shop adjacent to the main gallery. She's planning to offer more art books, she says. For now, visitors can purchase decorative plates with scenes from Broadway musicals painted on them -- a whole assortment depicting the highlights of South Pacific, "Happy Talk" and such.

She chooses the word "eclectic" in describing the museum collection: "We want to honor people who've donated to the university. We thought it would be good to exhibit what we received."

The SLU Museum of Art, then, reveals what happens to an art institution more bound to pleasing its donors than to exhibiting good art. Although the museum resides in an impeccably restored nineteenth-century French Revival mansion, you might spend more time admiring the wood floors than the art on display.

Generous SLU alum and volunteer Mary Bruemmer shares her fleur-de-lis collection: keys, brooches, coin purses, candles, tie clasps, bracelets -- all bearing the symbol of the school and the city. This is not to be outdone by the Billiken collection in a gallery a few rooms over.

Half of the fourth floor is taken up by the Marion Rumsey Cartier Collection. Marion's main distinction was having a mother who married well -- yes, those Cartiers. Of less distinction is the fact that she and her friends and family painted. The Sunday paintings of the rich and famous have been given to SLU, and Biondi has seen fit to exhibit them, as if doe-eyed portraits of men and women have some sort of significance beyond the name Cartier. A video continuously shows Cartier home movies, which look just like home movies, in one corner of the expansive gallery,

The late patron and collector Morton May doesn't get half-a-floor for his amateur paintings, but he receives a prominent gallery of his own, donated by his wife, Lucia. May painted landscapes depicting the fancy places he traveled to with bold and expressive colors. You hope that he found pleasure in the activity but wish the product was back home, where it belongs.

Boileau refers to the different galleries in terms of who donated the artwork within them: the Yalems, the Aronsons, the Drurys. Some galleries are better than others -- the Drurys donated some fine works on paper by Richard Serra, Jim Dine, Sam Francis and Joan Miró, for example -- but quality isn't the issue here. At the SLU Art Museum, if you got it, flaunt it, and hosannas to the donor.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the third-floor gallery. Amid a large collection of the paintings by local Ed Boccia -- who studied with Max Beckmann and went on to produce paintings that are, at best, Beckmann lite -- in a quaint window cabinet is a collection of porcelain figurines. Ballerinas, Kate Hepburn in her Lion in Winter costume, a pretty maiden holding a bunny, Noah catching a dove, a white elephant, unicorns, children on a sled, boys playing marbles, a raccoon, freshly hatched chicks, beavers frolicking, Indians saying "How" and John Paul II: the kind of stuff Grandma Pinkcheeks collected and offered to give you but you had the good sense to suggest, 'Oh, why don't you give it to SLU?'

Upbeat throughout her tour of the museum, in view of the porcelain collection, Boileau moves abruptly to another gallery. "Let's get out of here," she mutters.

It's not that there aren't treasures within the four-story museum. An entire gallery is given to the work of master woodcutter Tom Huck. Huck depicts Americana at its most grotesque. "Chili Dogs, Chicks and Monster Trucks," for example, features a bare-breasted babe popping out of an oversized truck named Kong. Fans in the bleachers leer, some wearing King Kong masks -- at least, you hope they're masks.

The recognition given Huck is much deserved. His prints are filled with curious imagery, although they are the devil to read as exhibited here: nine prints, one right next to the other on one wall. Once again, it's unfortunate how the gods of excess rule at the SLU museum.

A collection of eighteenth-century santos, wooden carvings of various saints, appropriately fills one gallery, as do depictions of the Madonna in another. A needlepoint portrayal of the Madonna, in golds and greens, is one of the loveliest works in the museum and is displayed on a wall of its own.

But juxtaposed as these galleries are with the kitsch and soft porn of "Ojo Caliente Goddesses" and "Defiance," your artistic taste will be deadened by the time you find the works of true merit.

Whatever will visitors to the city think when they encounter this museum? Maybe it can be marketed as a house of bad taste.

Or it can serve as a lesson in aesthetics. Visit the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, just down the street, for an example of the sublime use of space.

Visit the SLU Art Museum and discover the meaning of wasted space.

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