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Review: Award-winning artwork explores St. Louis' evolving horizon

From Katie Ford's work
Provided by RAC | 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The 2012 Creative Stimulus Award exhibit at the Regional Arts Commission is titled Within an Evolving Horizon. The horizon found consistently in the artwork, however, is that of the city of St. Louis.

Each artist’s odyssey allowed him or her to capture a personal St. Louis that could not be found on a postcard in the Arch gift shop.

Katie Ford connected swaths of sweaters and quilted fabrics to join two women as they wound around boarded, abandoned St. Louis architecture. Ford’s contributions to the exhibit are photographs of these interactions between women bound to one another and to a city’s decaying structures.

The connective textile tissue between the women is patchwork but purposeful, while the unloved buildings they embrace are half-hazardly patterned by red brick walls, cement sidewalk squares and wood panel covered windows. The woven and stitched materials look warm and alive against the skeletal remains of a discarded St. Louis structure.

Florence Gidez’s contribution is a series of miniature models of Dutchtown buildings. Through Gidez’s careful craftsmanship, ivy-adorned St. Louis brick bungalows shift into a fantasy location that could double as part of Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas set. Gidez’s simplified, stylized assemblages capture an adorableness in buildings that rarely get seen in that light. Like her Dutchtown Bungalows, her clapboard Dutchtown Garage is diminutive in reality. Then, when reduced to a child’s playset size, the impossibly tight, one car garage dimensions are shown as charmingly perfect.

Both Ford and Gidez came to the contest through Angela Malchionno’s Proper Residency program, a winner of a 2012 Critical Mass for the Visual Arts award. Malchionno devotes a section of her living space and an intense stretch of time to the artistic explorations of up-and-coming artists.

She give her resident artists a list of places to explore. The Malchionno tour does not include the Zoo, Brewery or City Museum. She directs her artists to go on neighborhood “walkabouts” to view maritime oddities along the St. Louis riverfront and often overlooked buildings associated with local lore. Her destination scorecard is made up of St. Louis insider information, chockablock with history and intrigue.

Artist Travis Russell’s wily work forces the viewer to see double. Each aspect of his work has a "this, but also that," quality. To construct his large-scale exhibition work, Russell has printed a high tech digital image on aged, flimsy, faded paper. His printed image is black and white. The paper upon which he prints it is laid out in a geometric pattern of pastels, giving the viewer an opportunity to see the photographic image or the graphic design of the paper mosaic.

From the look of this large-scale installment, Russell, as with so many local enthusiasts of the built (and crumbling) environment, is drawn to St. Louis’ “ruin porn.” Ruin porn is a term used to describe urban aesthete’s attraction to architectural decay. Dilapidated houses are such a common sight to St. Louis city dwellers, fetishizing them may be a natural consequence of embracing our hometown.

In Russell’s installation a towering pile of brick and lumber rubble becomes a majestic monument. Like tourists before the Tower of Pisa, Russell places a masked couple, Owl and Pig, in front of his big heap of St. Louis blight. The couple is posed to elicit a wry Midwestern humor linked to Grant Wood’s nonplussed couple in American Gothic.

The award-winning artists’ collaborative 366 brings together three important St. Louis artists: Amy Thompson, Gina Alvarez and Jessica Baran. Thompson, of Paper Boat Letterpress Studio, acted as artistic matchmaker between the daily sky image taken by Alvarez (via cellphone and Instagram) and the daily poem contributed by Baran (via soulsearching).

Thompson united the visual and literary elements of Project 366 (titled after the days in the leap year the artists chronicled) in a Tumblr blog. She then hand printed the united pairing in its entirety with her 1903 letterpress. That entirety, laid out in a grid pattern, covers two large walls of the RAC main gallery. In its gestalt, the many separate pieces (white heavy paper printed with a small square of sky and varying numbers of typed lines) become a single, formalized, minimalist work of art, quite separate from the intricate individual printed day records.

The strange and wondrous stories of St. Louis found on the walls and pedestals throughout the RAC gallery show the city at artists’ angles. The understandings of place within these artworks are honest and accepting, if not celebratory. Like Baran’s daily task of writing something genuine and purposeful, rejecting repetition and artifice, each artist represented within this exhibition has successfully said something not yet said about the ever-evolving horizon of St. Louis.