Forward Past

New art inspired by old times

"History is bunk" is a distinctly American phrase. Naturally it comes from one of the former captains of industry, Henry Ford, who charted the course of American progress in the 20th century. History places nagging obstacles in the path of American optimism. If history tells the story of an empire's rise, it must also tell about the inevitable fall. History says things fall apart. History says human beings are fallible. History gives people the blues.

History, with its shadow of the Great Depression, lingers only among a dwindling few, who soon will be out of the game. That gray Alan Greenspan can't live forever. These new champions wipe the slate clean of old economic models. Why not escape the gravity of history when the future is as liberating as the sky?

Artists -- at least in the 20th century -- for the most part have been as much a part of the ahistorical drive as any other group. The literary critic Harold Bloom defined the artistic impulse as oedipal, a need to annihilate the forefathers by continually remaking the world in the princely artist's image. "Make it new" became the credo of the 20th century, and with that newness comes a degree of shock. History might be treated with irony or disdain. Marcel Duchamp -- whom American artists exalted as an oracle -- like any anarchic schoolboy painted a moustache across the Mona Lisa and whispered, "She's got a nice ass." The revered image of Washington crossing the Delaware becomes a kind of joke in Larry Rivers' hands. History is dismissed with a Marlon Brando sneer. The past is for squares. The future is for the recklessly hip.

In recent years, however, a growing number of artists have found inspiration by taking action against the dehistorization of America. Since the '80s -- a time of dizzying economic largesse -- many artists have declined the art-star role to become catalysts of community, working as archaeologists, unearthing the past, finding outlines of history that can help define who and where we are. These artists may be found rummaging through the basement of a local historical society more often than in a track-lit gallery.

The artist Mary Miss, for example, has proposed a public space adjacent to the Eagleton Federal Courthouse that is inspired by the history of that area, with a pond where once there was a pond, with that native grasses that once grew there, with the frames of buildings that once stood along the public thoroughfare laid out as memory, as remnant. Miss has said that one of the primary issues of this new era is "our sense of locating ourselves." Where do we find ourselves? What is our place in this place?

A Chicago artist, Michael Piazza, has been involved in these kinds of investigations in his hometown for a number of years. Like many artists, he found himself disenchanted with the intense commodification of art in the '80s and worked to set up nonprofit galleries that presented work that wouldn't normally be seen in commercial spaces. He also became involved with those members of society who have been shunted to the margins, such as youths in the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, known as the Audy House, where Piazza once organized exhibitions of the students' work. He held the openings there so "everyone was locked up -- the gallery owners, the judges, the aldermen. They all had to confront each other. For me, that situation was the ultimate artwork."

He also helped start a working studio for the developmentally disabled, beginning with a blank room and a variety of materials "so whatever people wanted to drift to, it was there." Now some of the people who've emerged from that studio, who used to show only in exhibitions for the developmentally disabled, are appearing in mainstream exhibitions as well.

He's reached that place in his career where friends are asking him, "What about your own work?" -- a question that reflects the shifting definitions of what an artist's work actually is.

Piazza and University of Missouri-St. Louis Gallery 210 director Terry Suhre were classmates some 25 years ago at the University of Illinois. They'd fallen out of touch over the years, until a colleague of Suhre's showed him an article about Piazza's work in an art journal. Suhre was impressed with the work Piazza had done at the Audy House: "Often when the artist comes into these situations, it's coloring-book stuff," Suhre says. ""Here are the kids -- entertain them. Have them do something for a while.' There is very little that is truly collaborative or thought-provoking or taken seriously. Michael got the kids at Audy House into meaningful dialogues about their lives and then guided them into ways of expressing themselves."

Piazza wanted to take his collaborative approaches to artmaking out of Chicago and see how he could adapt them in unfamiliar territory, so Suhre invited him to St. Louis. Piazza's original idea was a project to be called "Connection Corridor," which would refer to I-55, the major artery between Chicago and St. Louis.

But, says Piazza, "things sort of find you sometimes. Natural Bridge Road was right there, which became a metaphor for the whole project."

Adds Suhre, "He found in that name something very poetic and meaningful: the 'bridge' to other communities around here -- how does our university relate to our communities? -- and 'natural,' which implied to him a kind of tumbling back in time. This at one time was not a highly developed urban setting; at one time it was pastoral and rural."

Piazza, with the help of Suhre and two student interns, Amy Silberman and Jeanne Rosen, began a dialogue with the local schools and started gathering information about the Normandy area. This led them to Eleanore Waldt, of the Normandy Area Historical Association, who needs no coaxing to tell a couple of hundred years of Normandy history. "This was one of the earliest and oldest outskirts of the inner city," she explains in her home, which sits adjacent to the expanding UM-St. Louis campus. She tells how the "Wedge" -- the intersection of Natural Bridge, Florissant Road and St. Ann Lane -- was once the starting-off point of the Santa Fe Trail.

Waldt is a font of information, and much of it has made its way into Natural Bridge Road: An Awareness of Place in Gallery 210. She's a storyteller who brings the distant past as near as her voice.

"Benjamin Franklin had met Jean-Baptiste Charles Lucas in France when Franklin was ambassador to France," she begins, "and was so impressed with him he told Thomas Jefferson about him. So Jean-Baptiste came to America and was eventually appointed a commissioner of the Louisiana Purchase lands." Lucas came from Normandy, France, which has given the area its name.

"Jean-Baptiste Charles Lucas' oldest son had a very hot temper like his father," she continues. "He got into a battle royal with Thomas Hart Benton. He called Thomas Hart Benton a plowman and a country bumpkin. Benton challenged him to a duel. So they went out on Bloody Island and they had their duel. Lucas got shot in the throat, and he survived. So Benton said, 'That's fine with me; it's done.' But senior Lucas said, 'Are you going to disgrace the family and walk away from this challenge?' So the son went to Bloody Island again, and this time Benton killed him.

"Naturally there was tremendous animosity between the two families. Benton went on to be governor. But what was so ironic, here's the new college on Lucas land, and one of the very first new buildings was Benton Hall.

"It was a chuckle. But the irony: How dare they?"

These are the stories artists such as Piazza are trying to preserve. Historical narrative is a kind of endangered species unless an artist (and why not an artist?) compels others to pay attention.

"There are so many fascinating stories," Waldt says. "There are people who don't even know the history exists.

"We have become such a complete Dixie Cup society," she exclaims. "You use it, and if it gets in the way, you throw it away. It's like we've got some sort of giant dispenser that our forefathers built, full of Dixie Cups. And when they don't want it anymore and want to build some box with a blue-glass exterior, they pull out the building and throw it away.

"We don't venerate. We throw it away."

Natural Bridge Road: An Awareness of Place is a small act of veneration. Piazza has assembled a mad collection of maps and texts and clippings, scattered across tables in Gallery 210. There is a long list of names of people who live along the road. There are designs for bus kiosks, which will go up soon, by students from Central Visual and Performing Arts High School. One student from the school, Chris Swierk, displays "Time Owl," a photo collage that presents an idea of history, an image of the past that lies beneath the surface of things. There are photocopies of Anne Lucas Hunt's home, the Shelter, now demolished, which can be dispatched into a paper shredder that has been cleverly supplied. There's a water cooler, to represent the springs that once fed this area. There are designs for manhole covers that students created, another way of marking this place as their own. A fine idea, but there's not the money to forge them.

There is also an image from a journal called Central Magazine from July 1874, depicting St. Louis as the center of America, with arteries extending out to Louisville and Norfolk; to Kansas City, Denver and Salt Lake City; to Memphis, Vicksburg and New Orleans.

History, as it can deflate aspirations, can also inspire. Whatever the significance of middle- and high-school students drawing pictures of a 19th-century plank road (which Natural Bridge was), it at least affirms that their world is more than the fleeting present and at least as intriguing as the future. And they might think of placing themselves not at the periphery but at the very center of that world.