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Tim Portlock’s ‘Nickels From Heaven’ Isn’t Dystopian — It’s Reality

Dusty Kessler
Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis

Tim Portlock is a recipient of the 2020 Great Rivers Biennial Arts Award Program, which highlights emerging and mid-career artists in the St. Louis region. The honor comes with a $20,000 stipend and exhibit at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.

His “Nickels from Heaven” show consists of huge digital installations at the museum. They carry a dystopian aura, but “the work is not science fiction or futuristic,” Portlock explained. “It’s actually describing what's happening now.”

Abandoned, neglected and torn-down buildings are contrasted with distinct skyscrapers, condos and topiary trees on rooftops. Many local sites are portrayed in the installations, such as the Lewis & Clark Tower landmark, reiterating how the region hasn’t been immune from the woes of gentrification.

“Each building sort of represents a different idea about how society is organized. [By] tearing them down [and] building them up, people are asserting or tearing down different ideas about what kind of social model we should be living in,” he told St. Louis on the Air.

Tim Portlock: Nickels from Heaven

Portlock joined host Sarah Fenske on Friday’s program to delve into how he used aesthetic conventions from 19th-century American landscape paintings to illustrate his themes about America’s identity. He used 3-D animation software and drones to scan and digitally create each building.

“I'm contrasting sort of the sublime elements of 19th century American landscape painting. So that's one of the sort of Hallmark elements — sublime skies and showing how the landscape is blessed by God,” he explained.

“And then also, there's a reoccurrence of the notion of what the landscape is: Is it a wilderness? Is it an ordered space? And so those are the things I kind of incorporate into the imagery that I have.”

Related Event
What: “Nickels from Heaven” by Tim Portlock
When: Through Feb. 21
Where: Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (3750 Washington Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63108)

What: CAM-STL’s Virtual First Friday Featuring Tim Portlock
When: Feb. 5
Where: Online

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.