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Review: Longyear's show is best of year - so far

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 30, 2009 - Is it too early to pronounce the best St. Louis gallery show of 2009? Well, no matter -- in early voting, my choice is Robert Longyear's "A Revisionist's Draft" at Craft Alliance's Grand Center.

Longyear is Community Outreach Manager and Metals Studio Chair at Craft Alliance, but this show is more than just an instance of the Alliance showcasing its own; and it's more than your typical MFA thesis exhibition (Longyear is receiving his degree from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville).

This show is long in the making, the culmination of years of work and engagement -- and it is high time this artist has gotten the kind of exposure the Grand Center gallery affords.

Longyear is on one hand a metalsmith, on the other a jewelry artist, and on the other, he's an urban investigator (or "tourist," to use his term). He's drawn to buildings as metaphors for the system breakdowns -- and as opportunities to learn more about how humans interface with the world through architecture.

This exhibition stems largely from his engagement with the Fourth Baptist Church at 13th and Sullivan Avenue in St. Louis, which burned in 2006 and which he has mined for material -- literal and conceptual -- ever since.

One gallery wall is papered in the church's cancelled checks. Longyear has also re-installed charred pulpits, pew pieces, burnt hymnals, wall frames and other detritus from the building that both revives and transforms its essence.

To all of this, he's added pieces of his own manufacture: small aggregates of concrete and metal that look like starbursts, or the aftereffects of an IED's detonation; spray-painted wall patterns, using trophies as templates; and richly saturated photographs of the church's interior that add yet another dimension to its representation.

Longyear is no mere dabbler in this territory. A resident of North St. Louis' Hyde Park neighborhood, he is steeped in the weird beauty that is revealed in urban decay.

As an artist, he's comparable to Gordon Matta-Clark, who spent his relatively short career developing theories of "Anarchitecture," splitting buildings open, and working in a restaurant co-op called "Food."

Like Matta-Clark, Longyear's work can properly be called deconstructionist, in that it involves disassembly in order to foster critical examination. And like Matta-Clark's work, Longyear's is ongoing, a process that is constantly in flux, much like the built environment itself.

An artist such as Longyear is a rare asset to a community. His work is challenging and honest, a far cry from the "finished" art shown in most fine galleries -- which frankly looks pretty weak by comparison. It's hard to enjoy illusions once you've seen the truth.

Ivy Cooper is an artist and professor of art history at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.