Total Exhibitionist

Matthew Strauss has audacious plans to remake the city's art scene.

Aug 30, 2006 at 4:00 am
On the first Monday of last month, in a cardboard box behind a nondescript building on the cusp of the city's emerging "Grove" district, lay a chronicle of the Rabelaisian biker culture that flourished from Southern California to the Dakotas during the go-go 1970s and '80s. Witness Outlaw Biker, a tabloid testament to the deleterious effects of methamphetamines, misogyny and Nazism. The magazine's glossy pages hold such biker-bunny specimens as "Georgeanne," whose feathered-blond good looks landed her the soft-lighted nude centerfold spread as "Ms. Outlaw Biker October 1986."

A few pages in, readers encounter an article titled "Cocaine: Mystical, Magical White Lady," whose subtitle reads: "If coke is a joke, I'm waiting for the next line," and goes on to inform readers that: "Cocaine can increase the intensity of orgasms in both men, and women."

Outlaw Biker is by no means the sole artifact in this collection of late twentieth-century biker erotica. It's accompanied by magazines like Easy Riders, Biker Lifestyle and Iron Horse. Some carry advertisements for biker gloves, which can be shipped with your choice of either swastika patches or confederate flags. Others have sections called "Asstrology" and "From the Walls." But each is loaded with pictures of biker babes — many nude — in varying states of humiliation.

"I love the sexual futility of these women," says St. Louis artist Matthew Strauss, who's been collecting the magazines for the past year. The 33-year-old Strauss plans someday to turn his collection of biker smut into a series of silkscreen prints. He wants to place atop a table an image of, say, "Asabelle Chickenlips," a partially clad brunette whose teased-out hair and round tinted glasses lend her the look of an obese Janis Joplin.

"That's all you'd need," says Strauss. "Just Chickenlips on a table. You can't improve on that."

Dressed casually in a T-shirt, khaki shorts and green Adidas flip-flops, Strauss is standing in the middle of his newly minted studio. A yawning space of white walls and 15-foot ceilings, Strauss' 2,400-square-foot studio is filled with freestanding tables, models, paint, magazines and canvases. One movable cart is loaded with nothing but paint brushes; the opposite wall is stacked deep with large canvases, remainders from Strauss' Dead Languages show, which garnered him a win at the prestigious 2006 Great Rivers Biennial.

Bearded, bespectacled, with a mussed shock of dark brown hair and eyes to match, Strauss is not a large man. He fuels his slight frame with a seemingly endless supply of Coca-Cola. As he pads around his new studio, Strauss looks very much the part of the artist ensconced in his work. But if his series of biker erotica from the millennial sunset is ever to appear, it will have to wait. Strauss is busy these days meeting with fumigators and city building inspectors. His free time is spent visiting artist studios, fielding press inquiries and drawing up invitations for the September 16 opening of his latest brainchild, White Flag Projects.

"I haven't had a chance to work on my own artwork for almost a year," says Strauss, leafing through a copy of Biker Lifestyle. "I've been working twenty-hour days for the past twelve months just to get White Flag up and running."

Strauss is hoping that White Flag, a not-for-profit, 2,000-square-foot gallery, will fill a void in the St. Louis art scene: an exhibition space that lies somewhere between the city's commercial galleries and its museums.

"It became really evident to me what the needs were here," Strauss says, recalling that he was unable to find a venue for an artwork of his called American Vulgar, which he describes as "a survey of 150 years of American vulgarity as seen through pin-back buttons."

Strauss continues: "If you look at the commercial galleries, they all have reasonably ambitious programs, but they're not that big, and they really aren't able to do shows that are not particularly saleable. They'll do some progressive unsaleable shows, but at the same time, they all do unthinkably bad shows for whatever mercantile reasons. What I began to realize was that since the Forum for Contemporary Art had evolved into the Contemporary [Art Museum St. Louis] with a new building, a new name and a much bigger budget, suddenly there was nothing above the commercial galleries and below the museums where artists could exhibit their more experimental work."

White Flag is Strauss' response. The space is located behind a humdrum façade on Manchester Avenue, just east of Kingshighway; Strauss has spent more than $500,000 in property and renovation costs to turn the gallery into a magnificent, museum-quality expanse illuminated by north-facing skylights and uninterrupted by the concrete pillars so common in many older spaces. His studio, described by fellow artist Kim Humphries as "a dream studio," is in the back of the building. Strauss has built a second-floor library where gallery guests can peruse his collection of art journals, biographies and coffee-table books. But Strauss' favorite detail is the fun-house mirror he had specially made for the bathroom. Why? You go to White Flag to see the art, not to be seen.

Strauss kept mum on his plans for most of the year, until last month when he sent out a picture postcard of the space with no return address and the cryptic message: "White Flag Projects: the new alternative for contemporary art in st. louis..."

"He's done a fabulous job of marketing it by keeping it a huge secret for so long," says Humphries. "But people don't quite know what he's done yet. People still don't get it. They're not hearing that this guy's poured hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money into this project, and it's at the museum level."

Strauss has big plans for the gallery, including an upcoming show of prominent abstract painters from St. Louis, a show of emerging artists from Los Angeles and an "import/export" show, in which artists from Kansas City will exhibit at White Flag while St. Louis artists display their works at a sister gallery in Kansas City.

"To keep it neutral, and not political, the curator from Kansas City is curating the St. Louis half, and I'm going there and picking the Kansas City half," says Strauss, emphasizing that while he'll be White Flag's director, he won't be curating every show. "I'm not going to run this place like a dictatorship. Outside curation is just absolutely important — getting other people's viewpoints to make this a center of gravity for all kinds of progressive art."

Still, that's a ways off. In the meantime, Strauss has to make sure the building is up to code, paint a few doors and otherwise ready the space before he can really get started running the gallery. But for now, a personal ad in Biker Lifestyle has caught his attention, and he begins to read.

A few days later, O'Fallon, Illinois, artist Bill Smith is atop a ladder, drilling a hole in White Flag's ceiling. A biologist by training, Smith's kinetic sculptures mimic the natural world. Using reed-like wires and branch-like tubes, Smith incorporates syringes, beads, leaves and seedpods to form his intricately rendered mobile sculptures. He animates his delicate creations with wind currents, solenoids and rare earth magnets. Self-contained and delicately balanced, Smith's sculptures remind you of discrete ecosystems whose perpetual movement depends on the proper functioning of each part.

A pale, compact man, the 44-year-old Smith has exhibited his work in Chicago and Montreal. But even though he lives less than 30 minutes away, it's been almost a decade since he last showed his work in a St. Louis gallery.

"[His work] is all based on nature, but it's too complicated for St. Louis galleries," says Strauss, who first heard of Smith's work from an ex-girlfriend. "That's where our very conservative tastes come into play. It's too unsaleable to show in St. Louis."

Until now, that is. Smith's sculptures will be featured as White Flag's inaugural exhibition, titled Bill Smith: Structures and Systems. The show, featuring an artist with a singular style who has shown only rarely in St. Louis, is exactly the sort of exhibition Strauss says he wants White Flag to showcase.

"This is a nonprofit with no eye at all towards what we think is saleable," says Strauss. "Quality and sales are inversely proportionate: The better a piece of art is, the harder it is to sell in St. Louis, and the worse it is, the easier it is to sell."

As the eldest son of prominent St. Louis philanthropists Mary and the late Leon Strauss — perhaps best known for their renovation of Grand Center's Fox Theatre — Strauss' uncompromising aesthetic purism has occasionally prompted other artists in the city to dismiss him as a rich kid who's never had to struggle.

"Whenever someone does something new, people in the art world are always bound to criticize," says Philip Slein, owner of Philip Slein Gallery on Washington Avenue. "Artists are insecure. They get jealous of other artists' success — that's just how the art world is. It's hard to understand from the outside, but the art world is filled with petty jealousies and sniping."

The St. Louis art scene is no exception, and Strauss is often at the receiving end of other artists' resentment. Though griping about Strauss' privileged background and artistic gifts is usually reserved for late nights and private conversations, the sentiment bubbled to the surface in the summer of 2001 after Strauss wrote a letter to the Riverfront Times calling "whores" those artists who participated in the "People Project," a public art project in which corporate-sponsored artists decorated life-size sculptures of people.

"It's easy for rich kids who make art with mom and dad's money to call someone who did the project for the money a whore. I can guarantee you most of the artists didn't make a dime off this if you count time, supplies, gas, etc.," wrote St. Louis painter Sandra Marchewa. "Loosen up, Matthew — be glad you didn't submit to such a 'soulless proposition.' Maybe you should take a break from your own art and search your own soul (it might make your artwork better); you could use it, because you sound just like another boring, self-centered, bitter, whiny spoiled brat — very typical in the art world. Ho-hum."

Five years later, Strauss can recite the letter almost verbatim. "That was on my wall for years," he says. "St. Louis is a player-hatin' town. I'm probably disliked by as many people as like me. I just hope that White Flag doesn't get dragged down by my personal connection to it."

A relative latecomer to the visual arts, it did not take long for Strauss to gain access to some of the city's top galleries. After studying literature during a college career that "ended with a whimper at Webster," Strauss planned to take a stab at a career in fiction writing. But even as he was sending out applications for graduate programs in creative writing, he secretly wanted to paint.

He devised a plan to apply to the most competitive creative writing programs. That way, when he was rejected he'd have an excuse to give up writing and start painting.

"It totally backfired," Strauss recalls. "I got into all of them. I was fucked. I went along with it, but then, literally two weeks before I was supposed to go, I just put the tickets in a drawer and said I'm not going. It was bad news, because my paintings were really bad at the time. People thought I was nuts."

Over the next few years Strauss concentrated on his painting. Though he never went to art school, he grew close with sculptor Ernest Trova, a family friend. Then in 1999 Strauss' father, Leon, died of congestive heart failure, an event that would have a profound effect on Strauss and his art.

"The primitive nature of all the medicine became very apparent. At one point he died, and they brought him back to life because they didn't have the [do not resuscitate] order," says Strauss. "It was horrific. It was one of those mind-bending experiences, and when I got back in the studio I was making very different work."

Strauss' work took a turn for the morbid. He began on a haunting series of graceful, ghost-like images set off against black backgrounds. He also began making small models from found objects that he would later photograph and turn into massive silkscreen prints. Those prints — depicting a menacing series of life-size wheelchairs, a huge triptych of an animal pelt close-up and an evocative portrait of his father immediately after his death — became the subject of Strauss' first major show. Held in 2002 at the now-defunct Elliot Smith Contemporary Art Gallery, the show was embraced coolly by local critics.

"This isn't a happy, uplifting scene. No bright flowers or ocean blues, just the despair and agony of someone — or something — tortured," wrote a bemused Jeff Daniels, then-art critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "I guess it's now up to Strauss, the artist and the doctor, to conjure up one of those bizarre gadgets as a cure."

It would not be the last time that a critic would step out of a show scratching his head at Strauss' highly intellectualized pictures.

"It's complicated. It's very complicated," explains the artist. "The fact is I'm doing what a relevant artist has to do: I'm bending and distorting the media to make something new. There are very radical and destructive things that are going on there. But that's lost on a lot of my detractors, and it's certainly lost on some people it shouldn't be lost on. But they refuse to talk to me about it. They refuse to ask me questions and assume that they are somehow mentally gifted enough that they can perceive all things without any additional context being provided to them."

Critical success or not, Strauss was now a bona fide player on the St. Louis art scene. In the intervening years, he's continued to craft his symbol-laden models, which he later photographs and turns into enormous silkscreens. When Elliot Smith Contemporary Art finally shuttered in early 2005, the Bruno David Gallery began representing Strauss.

"I got pretty good shows right off the bat, and people would say it's just because he's the son of prominent people," recalls Strauss. "But then I won the Great Rivers thing — and you can't blame that on local politics. It's all being judged by people from California and Ohio."

Along with local artists Jason Wallace Triefenbach and Moses, Strauss was selected from 174 entrants as a winner of the Great Rivers Biennial 2006. Coming with a $15,000 prize and a joint exhibit at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, the Biennial is intended to benefit emerging artists and is easily the most important show in town for a young artist. Jointly sponsored by the Contemporary and the Gateway Foundation, this year's Biennial featured judges from the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City; the University of California, Los Angeles, Hammer Museum; and the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio.

"It stimulated a lot of healthy jealously. People were curious who was selected, and then when it was announced, there was a lot of talk that was critical of the people who were selected: 'Why were they selected? I could do this,' or, 'Why wasn't I selected?' They took it personally," says Shannon Fitzgerald, chief curator at the Contemporary. "But in this Biennial the definition of 'emerging' fit all three of these artists. Their work is still very experimental: They're pushing, they're learning."

Writing in the Biennial's exhibition guide, Fitzgerald compared Strauss' work to the Northern European vanitas tradition, in which artists used highly symbolic imagery to express the ultimate triumph of death and the futility of worldly goods.

"The symbolic and fleeting quality of the traditional still life vanitas painting provides the conceptual framework in which Strauss is able to explore notions of futility, failure, and obsolescence," writes Fitzgerald. "Obsessed with the idea of death as the only absolute truth, Strauss updates the vanitas genre with a new iconography of the absurd that represents the passage of life, art, Modernism — a sort of post-everything aesthetic."

St. Louis Post-Dispatch art critic David Bonetti was less impressed: "His work is filled with ideas, too many ideas, if you ask me. After having seen his work over three years, I remain puzzled by it, impressed by its fastidiousness, unmoved by what it has to say. His work is clogged; it needs a plunger taken to it."

What should have been a triumph for Strauss was soon tainted by Bonetti's negative assessment, other artists' griping about the jury's selection and what he saw as the public's clear preference for Moses, a young artist whose work included a 1992 Chevy Blazer painted black and covered with speakers.

"I got a lot of really negative feedback, but what really shocked me was the level of love for that truck. It really changed my worldview slightly. Moses' work has a lot of style; my work has a lot of substance. There was no debating over which side of that equation won," says Strauss, who gave an angry artist lecture where he defended his work and took the Biennial-going public to task for what he considered its fatuous approach to fine art.

"I was pissed off. You can't walk through this exhibit, look at everything for 30 seconds and think, 'Oh, I don't get it.' But people were saying terrible things. My paintings are pretentious, they're over-thought, they're impenetrable, and they're dark and they're morbid, which is OK, but they meant it all in a pejorative way. The pretentious one stung me because that shit was the most honest, heartfelt shit I could make. If it was pretentious, that's because I am pretentious. That stuff was straight."

I'm kind of obsessed with futility," Strauss says, tucking into a bowl of barbecued pork and vermicelli noodles. "It really has informed everything I've done for a long time. All those paintings from the Biennial were about the hopelessness of trying to communicate through art. That's why the show was called Dead Languages. A dead language is something that only scholars can understand and that you can no longer communicate with."

It's the sort of statement Strauss is wont to pronounce each time he talks about his work. His emphasis on painting's futility might make him seem like an unlikely candidate to be spearheading a project like White Flag, which Strauss hopes will stimulate conversation and critical thinking through art.

Then again, Strauss was just looking for a studio when he first set out in the spring of 2005. He'd only recently submitted his work to the Great Rivers jury and was looking for a place that could accommodate his needs. The 6,000-square-foot space was plenty large enough for his studio, and he briefly thought about making the building a live/work space.

But then he won the Great Rivers Biennial, and his plans shifted.

"It changed everything: For one thing, you've now got the best show you're going to get in town, so there's nothing more to work for here," says Strauss. "But it also made me feel like maybe there was less to [art] work for me personally in town, and maybe I could work on other things. A lot of people reach the same conclusion, but their answer is not to make it better here. Their answer is to leave St. Louis. There's a lot of validity to that, but once I decided that I was not going to leave St. Louis, I knew I had to make it better here."

He was planning to do significant renovation to the building, and it was essential that he owned it outright, a feat accomplished by a "founding gift" from his mother. His plans grew, and he decided that White Flag should be a nonprofit gallery that drew artists from across the nation. To that end, Strauss plans to take out full-color ads in national art journals advertising gallery shows.

"I always planned to do something, but never anything as ambitious as this turned out to be," he says. "But part of the fun of the name White Flag is this giving up on having other people get things going that you want to see going. I just gave up on the idea that anyone else was going to do it."

Strauss may own the building outright, but he's renovated it at his own expense, and as a nonprofit White Flag will have to hustle for government grants and private donations.

"Frankly, I'm losing my ass on this thing. My credit cards are all maxed out. It's a financial disaster for me," he says. "We're going to hit up all the usual local and national suspects — from the Regional Arts Commission to the National Endowment for the Arts — but if two or three significant private donors don't show up, this place will only be around for two or three years. Right now we're funded through about March."

In addition to the upcoming shows featuring abstract painters from St. Louis and emerging west-coast artists, Strauss plans for the gallery to host a series of artist lectures that accompany each five-week show. Between shows he plans to give the space over to single-engagement performance-art productions.

"It's going to be a place that's about ideas and intellectual practice and rigor, and I think that's what Matt wants to bring," says Kim Humphries, who himself won the Great Rivers Biennial in 2004. Humphries is also slated to produce a performance art project at White Flag on New Year's Eve.

"It's a fabulous way to include people with the desire and the skills in the community to be active not have to raise money and to be able to bring unique projects to the community. He wants to have a core group of people who hopefully will call this home and pick up some of the challenges," Humphries continues. "Since it's a nonprofit, Matt will not be stepping on any galleries' toes. If something were to sell, Matt has absolutely no commercial interest in it whatsoever, so he's not threatening the gallery system."

The entry of White Flag has people in the city's arts community hoping that St. Louis may be turning a corner for visual arts.

"I'm very excited. Alternative art spaces have come and gone in St. Louis, but to have one that has staying power and that will mature over time is really what we need — a space between the commercial galleries and us, for instance," says the Contemporary's Shannon Fitzgerald.

"There's really been a renaissance in St. Louis arts," adds gallery owner Philip Slein. "I think having a number of different venues makes everyone try harder. We have to walk a fine line between keeping our doors open and showing fine, cutting-edge work. But being a nonprofit? I think that gives you freedom to really focus on ideas."

Strauss says that once his gallery is up and running, he plans to appoint a board of directors that will determine the its focus.

"White Flag is not about my taste. It's about facilitating things that are not going to go on otherwise. That's why we're having so many outside curators coming in," he says. "Four of the things on the schedule I have nothing to do with. I might hate it. It's entirely possible that I'll hate everything in the show."

The gallery will be open two days a week, and Strauss hopes to draw on the expertise of the local arts community to curate shows and determine White Flag's mission.

"The artists that I've brought over have all seen the value in this and been very generous in saying that they'd like to be involved, but ultimately for this place to work the artists are going to have to get over their personal petty bullshit," he says. "There've been a lot of promising starts to things in St. Louis that went nowhere at best, and this might end up being one of them. But if this can't work here, then it can't work anywhere."