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New CAM exhibit explores racism, white flight and the results of poor urban planning

The artist Agnes Denes stands in the middle of a wheat field she planted in a landfill.
Provided by CAM
Agnes Denes, Wheatfield—A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan, with Agnes Denes Standing in the Field, 1982. Courtesy the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York. Photo: John McGrall.";

Update 05/08 10:01 - This article was updated to include local artist Juan William Chavez's contribution to the show and better reflect Kelly Shindler's curatorial trajectory. 

The Contemporary Art Museum’s CAM’s new exhibit, “Urban Planning: Art and the City 1967–2017,” features images of burning buildings, wheat fields planted on landfills, and whole lot of history.

By combining works by emerging and established artists, the project explores themes of architectural failure, racist housing practices, and the depopulation of St. Louis. 

For artists, the themes are design currents that flow beneath the city’s physical spaces, visiting curator Kelly Shindler said.

“I was really taken and inspired by this phenomenon I have found in which the topic of urban planning in all of its various manifestations and urban development in the United States has created a really rich ground for artistic inquiry to take place in real time,” Shindler said. She is a former CAM associate curator and now a senior specialist at the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage in Philadelphia.

Shindler first became inspired by St. Louis six years ago when she first moved to the city from Chicago.  Although most of the artists in the show aren’t from St. Louis, Shindler used her observations about the city to tease out themes that relate to the city.  The exhibit examines architectural modernism played out in the legacy of the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex, which some of the works, including images and video by local artist Juan William Chavez, address. Other pieces highlight the cultural legacy of the civil rights movement. 

“There were a number of qualities and characteristics about the city that instantly struck me,” she said. “The curious lack of pedestrians in most of the neighborhoods around the city. The beautiful old buildings, many of which were missing windows or doors or had been boarded up with grassy lots right next to them.

“The predominance of car culture here in the city. The very interesting and long history of St. Louis as a city that at its height was built for a million people but whose population has declined since the 1950s and '60s.”

Those themes are stacked against work about the birth of the U.S. interstate highway system and the development of suburban living, which contributed to the city’s declining population and middle-class flight.

As with the work of conceptual artist Agnes Denes, a growing environmental consciousness also impacts various artists’ view of urban spaces.

Shindler said many of the contributors approach the concept of urban design through rehabilitative exercises and “come into landscapes or to tackle the historical record and create a sense of possibility and opportunity where legislation perhaps has failed.”

The show features established artists like Theaster Gates, Gary Simmons andRobert Smithson and unites them with emerging artists like Abigail DeVille

“A love letter to the black community here in St. Louis.”

A CAM installer works to create DeVille's sculpture inspired by the top of the Old Courthouse and constructed out of city detritus.
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
A CAM installer works to create DeVille's sculpture inspired by the top of the Old Courthouse and constructed out of city detritus.

DeVille’s piece, “St. Louis Blues,” recreates the top of the old St. Louis Courthouse in CAM’s back gallery.  The dome-shaped piece will incorporate barbed wire, and detritus from around the city to describe how white settlers forced Native Americans out of the region.

“I’m really interested in the kinds of marks or scars that are left in a landscape and people’s presence like human presence affects the ecology of a place, the feeling, the memory that’s already embedded within the place,” DeVille said.

According to DeVille, the piece symbolizes the mix of justice and injustice delivered from the courthouse.

By incorporating the easily recognizable form of the courthouse dome, she hopes to evoke the connections between St. Louis’s early history with slavery, through the Dred Scott trial, to the legacy of racist attitudes in housing today.

“Even if someone doesn’t know anything about contemporary art, you know what the top of the dome of the courthouse looks like,” she said.   

DeVille's sculpture will include a small train filled with bones, which runs through the piece's primary structure.
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
DeVille's sculpture will include a small train filled with bones, which runs through the piece's primary structure.

The piece also will include barbed wire, symbols from lawn jockies, a small train arranged in an infinity sign, and bones. DeVille said she hopes viewers take with them a sense of historical transgressions. 

“Historical erasure isn’t just “Oops, I forgot!” It’s “Yeah, we did that on purpose. Yeah, we don’t want you here. You’re not as good as everyone else or you’re not the America that we’re talking about when we wrote the constitution or the Declaration of Independence. You’re not the America that we’re talking about when we enforce laws, you’re not the America that we actually, genuinely, think about when we think about the ‘United States of America.’” 

As part of the piece, DeVille will screen a music video she created for the group The Hawt Plates in her space. 

If you go:

What:Urban Planning: Art and the City 1967–2017

When: May 5 – Aug. 13

Where: Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis

Follow Willis on Twitter: @WillisRArnold

The show opens tonight alongside the exhibits Kaws: Far Far Down and Color Key: Ellie Balk, Addoley Dzegede, Amy Reidel.

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