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Review: The Good Ship CAM Celebrates 10 Years of Art Exploration

CAM rendering
Courtesy Allied Works Architecture

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: When architect Brad Cloepfil designed the now 10-year-old Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis on Washington Ave., he had both the advantages and disadvantages of that location. It would always be in contrast to Tadao Ando’s Pulitzer building next door. One of the things CAM had going for it was a welcoming image. The panel of windows overlooking Spring Street and the glass entrance allow drivers-by to see the action inside. The open walkway at the building’s entry allows for mulling around the building before and after art openings, music events and parties at the museum.

Architect Brad Cloepfil and CAM chief curator Dominic Molon united to curate the museum’s anniversary exhibition Place is the Space. Because the museum has no permanent collection little remains to recall the many transformations of space that occur with each new exhibit. And yet, the artists engaged in celebrating CAM’s move into double digits found ways to pay homage its 10 years of art adventure.

CAM is an art vessel. And the years have left wrinkles and scars on Cloepfil’s building. Jill Downen celebrates them. Her two-part Beauty Mark recreates the wall damage her 2004 installation The Posture of Place had left and gilds a single crack in the otherwise seamless museum floor. That little gold rivulet conveys perfectly the trust and respect CAM directors have had for the creative explorations of their artists.

Virginia Overton’s installation serves as a confrontation with the building itself. Massive steel pipes break up spaces Overton hopes to draw attention to. Ropes tied to sandbags descend from the pipes and punctuate the space. Downen’s gold leaf fill may be needed for a new crack that formed during the Overton installation, though that may have to wait until the party in 2023.

Sound artist Dominique Petitgand’s Les Liens Invisibles (The Invisible Links) clinched my mental image of the museum as sea travel for landlubbers. Along with many ambiguous noises sounded throughout the museum spaces, Petitgand sends an occasional blast that sounds like a boat’s horn coming through a mist of ten years. I heard this noise first while standing before Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle’s Hütte (hut) and thought the sound was coming from within the structure. Part of the fun of these sound pieces throughout the museum is the way they attach themselves to the viewing experience, so the visual and auditory experiences change each other.

Hütte is a massive black box formed from charred cedar planks. The wood is burnt to near dust so that it looks more like Styrofoam than something organic. It also looks like the Ka’ba, Mecca’s most sacred site. The artist relates the structure to Heidegger’s philosophic pondering on buildings versus dwellings and not upon the one-time dwelling of Abraham/Ibrahim. Either way, it is worth a pilgrimage. Manglano-Ovalle’s Beehive Grid is as white as Hütte is black. The grid is formed by an arrangement of 30 stained white structures that each look like beekeeping hive frames.

German pop artist Thomas Bayrle’s Chrysler Tapete has made the contemporary art rounds since Bayrle first revealed it in 1970. Last year this blue and white Chrysler logo repeated like Seurat’s dots to form a Chrysler two door coupe of the period graced a billboard along the Manhattan High Line park/walkway. The addition of Bayrle to the exhibit grouping gives a nod to the pre-CAM contemporary years as well as to CAM’s role in the larger worldwide artist-evoked discourse on the meaning of life and everything.

The meaning of light is under scrutiny in Anthony McCall’s You and I, Horizontal II. Here, too, is an artist whose origins and fame are far from local. McCall’s installation offers a sensory experience that alters the moment viewers enter it. Light beams projected through hazy mist call for hands to interrupt them. Fill the dark space with children and uninhibited adults and the art is as interactive as anything at the Science Center. Experienced alone, it threatens profound awakenings or at the least a meditative break.

Brett Williams provides a buoyant sound accompaniment for museum-goers as they walk through the hallway. His audio loop, Slow Nature Memory, could be the sound of remembered exhibits tunneling back through time. Williams’ art explorations are consistently fresh. He always manages to upturn the expected. This work, assisted by Kevin Harris, is a pared-down minimalist music, fitting the tone of the anniversary exhibition.

Enter the CAM bathrooms and the auditory art continues. Jessica Baran’s poetry is often in conversation with the work of other word and object artists. In A Direction Is Just Like That (His and Hers, as fits the gender organized public loo) Baran gives voice to the unnerving need to be “normal” that artist Matt Mullican deconstructs in his live art performances. Inspired by Mullican, Baran offers words, spoken by Wonder Koch (Hers) and Peter Stevens (His) to make freshening up at the mirror an even more soul searching venture than usual.

Stephane Schraenen and Carla Arocha have used adhesive vinyl printed with a moiré pattern formation to gift wrap the windows looking out on the museum’s courtyard. The effect is not unlike moving waves of water, a fitting external setting for the Good Ship CAM.

The range of work displays the fearlessness of Cloepfil and Molon in drawing together ambiguous projects that require the viewer’s effortful interpretation to make meaning. Currents of change have moved through Grand Center over the past decade. CAM is both art vessel, set for adventure, and anchor, encouraging further development in an area once known primarily for its blight.