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Review: High quality variety at White Flag

This article first appeared in a St. Louis Beacon, May 19, 2011 - "Impossible Vacation" at White Flag Projects claims to reduce the curatorial role, to free the exhibit from any overriding theme, gimmicky organizational device, or jargon-laden interpretations, and let the works of eight artists speak for themselves.

That sounds all fine and good, but given the fact that contemporary curatorial artspeak is so inscrutable that many of us choose to ignore it anyway, it's not clear how much difference it makes if it's jettisoned altogether.

It's also not clear in what way "Impossible Vacation" differs from any other group show at White Flag, as it rises to the gallery's consistently high standards, includes a very strong roster of emerging and established artists, and offers plenty to look at and think about. Cases in point: two outstanding pieces by New York-based sculptor Virginia Overton, who is known for slyly feminizing, by "upending," the muscular language of Minimalism.

There are fine painted abstractions by Scott Olson and John McAllister, and two mirror pieces by Tony Matelli that mine the literal and metaphorical effects of self-reflection.

Mitzi Pederson's untitled wall work, made of scraps of black velvet, felt and silver reflective paper, pairs up nicely with Thomas Helbig's "Liegende," a glossy black table-top sculpture that's both oddly alluring and scatological (that is, it looks like poo).

Lin May's "Slow Bird" is equally abject, but with a lighter touch: a sculptural study in steel, jute and painted Styrofoam, the bird is consciously naive and "primitivist," evoking the postwar existentialism of Jean Dubuffet and Alberto Giacometti.

But it's Tommy Hartung's video "The Ascent of Man" (2009) that will stay with you when you leave. Hartung has arranged heartrending tableaux of everyday objects -- aquariums, old shoes, dolls -- and animated them using stop-motion. He then pairs these scenes with other film footage, laying a spoken narrative and elegiac music over the top of it all. He's exploring nothing less than the meaning of existence; just how he accomplishes this, using such simple means, defies description and really must be seen.

Ivy Cooper, a professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, is the Beacon art critic.

Ivy Cooper
Ivy Cooper is the Beacon visual arts reviewer and a professor of art at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.