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Reflection: Letters hidden in plain sight generate a moving, transformative exhibition

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 18, 2012 - We live in nasty, contentious times, but what else is new? The last time we had a non-contentious moment was in the mythological paradise of pre-apple Eden, but once the apple was tasted, contentment, peace, simplicity -- all were sacrificed in favor of knowledge, which apparently begets disorder and incivility and things entirely worse: the legacy of Cain, murder.

Cain, of course, was a scapegoat, someone to blame, as was his mother, who took the bite from the apple. Cain's offering of produce was rejected by God as being inferior to Abel’s lamb. Interestingly, were this creation story to be written by a contemporary poet, healthy produce actually might be considered far superior to a lamb, especially if the produce were fresh, local and organic.

Thus Cain would become the good guy and Abel would be an also ran in a contemporary Eden as well as the eternal scapegoat. In our always contentious society, specifics may change, and the reasons for disapproval and for separating good from bad may shift, but the conceptual, human-nature foundation is the same. We are forever on the lookout for someone weaker than we, someone who bites the forbidden apple or brings the inappropriate or tacky present, someone we can, with apparent impunity, despise.

Generally, the truly psychopathological among us are recognized as genuinely evil. When we cull them, we separate them in penal institutions or psychiatric hospitals, or put them to death.

'Escape goats'

Scapegoats are in a different category entirely. These are our fellow human beings onto whose backs and spirits we project or transfer our own sociopathies, and whose souls we deliberately murder. Scapegoats are those for whom we have a "pervasive pattern of disregard.” Generally, although we all are guilty, we recognize scapegoating as an illogical construct, but the general situation continues to obtain, illogical or not. We need them.

Any one of us can come up with a nice, long list of scapegoats, or more properly “escape goats,” meaning something or someone to be driven off, separated from the herd, banished. Blacks are perpetual scapegoats. So are Asians. And disabled people.

Poor people and sometimes even rich people get scapegoated. Homosexuals are favorite targets, and Romany people, too. Butts-of-jokes people such as Poles, the Irish and Southerners – all make us laugh as we hear how many it takes to screw in the light bulb. Yankees don’t escape scapegoating once they enter the south. And despite such evident nobility, Native Americans continue as perpetual scapegoats. Asian Indians are scapegoated, as are Muslims, Russians, all women, dwarfs, the French and the Italians. Blue-collar workers and blue-collar families. Holy Rollers. Roman Catholics. Mormons. Country people. City dwellers: You name it.

The list goes on and on and on until it makes you sick to contemplate it. Members of all of the populations in this off-of-the-top-of-my-head list have been scapegoated. All share two common conditions. They’re alive, and they’re different.

Some groups come to and go from the list, but not Jews. This article, by its nature, is about them, and it is occasioned by an exhibit that opened recently at the Bruno David Gallery in Grand Center. The world should come to see it.

Any work worthy of the name “art” is a concatenation of shapes, forms, ideas, images, metaphor, and intentions. The work in this show at Bruno David, by the artist Bunny Burson of St. Louis, is all of that, but something more. In a group of irrevocably interrelated works she moves from the intensely personal into the broadly metaphysical, and in doing so summons transformative powers, vulnerable only to intransigent bigotry.

In carefully chosen and exquisitely crafted media, the artist presents to us enigmatic maps of the irregular patterns created by blocks and streets and parks of cities, along with studies of the marvelous and entirely more regular geometricity of harlequin patterns.

There are references to commonplace and anodyne pursuits such as bowling, and to symbols of fear and alienation -- locks and doorplates whose names have been eradicated. All of this – places and things taken out of context and transferred into the nourishing womb of abstraction – registers as beauty but also, profoundly so, as powerful enigma, and then, in focus, as declarations of suffering and loss.

The meaning of all of this, the truth of all this, led Burson, appropriately, to call her show “Hidden In Plain Sight.”

The inspirational hallmarks of the show are enlarged pages covered with Sütterlein Schrift – the elegant, distinctive cursive of educated Europeans then and now. Fragments of manuscripts in this handwriting are separated from context, and it is in these prints we discover the soul of the exhibition.

Burson writes about these documents and her art in a statement distinguished by clarity and grace:

“These works,” she wrote, “are both my journey and the embodiment of it. For many years I followed my daughter’s search to learn about my mother’s family. As she was finishing her work, I resolved to begin mine.

“In the initial stages of formulating ideas, I literally stumbled onto what was to become the foundation of my work: a stack of letters dated 1939-41 in German. They had been sent to my mother after her arrival in the United States from her parents, as they fled Germany.

“The letters, hidden in plain sight in our attic for almost 60 years, tell the story. They evoke memories I could never have had ... the names of distant cities my grandparents tried to reach, their guarded and unguarded thoughts, gestures of parental love and the second guessing of choices made.

“As a printmaker," she continued, "I experiment with media, with multiple ways of making work, layering and altering the surface of the paper to convey information but also to provoke uncertainty. In this work I am exposing those layers, digging below to discover what is not evident on the surface. Printmaking media and the surfaces they are printed on provide a platform for building up and uncovering my images.

“Suggestive of a palimpsest, where earlier markings have almost disappeared, the works on vellum and translucent papers create a mysterious past. That past is seen through the prism of the letters and the letters themselves emerge through their temporal context.

“The imagery is composed of fragments, glimpses of both what I imagined and what I ultimately found: keyholes, doorplates, shoes, chessboards and maps. Perhaps the most important discovery was the life and beauty in the writing itself. In repeatedly drawing and printing the lines of script, my hand became one with theirs. Their handwriting became my art.”

Didn't escape

I arrived at the show early on its opening day, and was alone in the gallery except for two women and a man, and the gallery folks. I noticed the older of the two women looked at the pictures absorbed in the awe of revelation. When I understood the historical and political content of this art, and came to understand who the gazing woman was, I began to cry.

I learned that on two separate days in late November and early December 1941 as many as 28,000 Latvian Jews from the Riga ghetto, along with German Jews transported into Latvia, were marched out to the forest of Rumbula, south of Riga, where they were massacred by the Nazi Franz Walter Stahlecker’s Einsatzgruppe A, assisted by local collaborators.

Before the creation of the death camps, this massacre at the Rumbula forest was rivaled only by the mass murder at the Babi Yar ravine at Kiev, where 100,000 Jews died in the months leading up to Rumbula.

The woman looking at the pictures was Burson’s mother.

The letters that informed and generated the art at Bruno David were addressed to her, and were written by her parents as they tried to evade the Nazis.

They failed, and were among the scapegoat thousands who died one day or the other in the 1941 massacre in late November and early December at the Rumbula forest, south of Riga.

The exhibit will be up through June 30 at the Bruno David Gallery, 3721 Washington Blvd. Check the website for hours and other information.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.