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Photograph by Sage Dawson
Sage Dawson's "Everywhere Around Us" and Jessica Caponigro's "Untitled (Hematite II)," part of "Bad Habits (Remember Me)," at beverly
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Photograph by Sage Dawson
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Photograph by Allison Lacher
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Photograph by Allison Lacher
What defines a habit, good or bad, is doing something more than once. And “Bad Habits (Remember Me),” currently on view at beverly, is the second chapter in a curatorial conversation that began earlier this year. Fort gondo Assistant Director, artist Cole Lu (whose own terrific work in neon was recently on view as part of “Concept/Focus” at The Luminary), collaborated this past January with Springfield, Illinois-based artist and curator Allison Lacher of DEMO Project (among other things!) for “You Are Looking Good, a Real Good Looker,” at the Chicago Artists Coalition. Now, they’ve reunited the same group of artists in St. Louis for a bookending exhibit.
“Almost every piece in this gallery are new pieces, made specifically for the show,” Lu says. “And it’s very different from what they showed in Chicago for the first version, so this second iteration is made specifically for St. Louis, which I thought was really beautiful.”
Though the work itself isn’t repeated, repetition—or, rather, as Lacher says, "iteration, something that needs to be said again"— is a central theme, and one that begins before you even enter the gallery. Jessica Caponigro’s “Untitled (Hematite II)”, a honeycomb of hexagons hand-painted directly on the panes of the storefront window, is visible to passersby on the street. Hung directly outside the front door and working in concert with “Hematite” is Sage Dawson’s “Everywhere Around Us,” a literal red flag collagraphed with an intricate pattern of boxes, rectangles and asterisk stars that feels like a fairy-tale flying carpet reimagined as flag and mounted to a pole. (Dawson's Chicago piece was also a flag; they are central to her new project, STNDRD, which is currently housed inside The Luminary.) Once you enter the gallery, Caponigro’s piece reveals itself in full: a half-dozen nearly identical houseplants are lined up under the front sill, interspersed with slender lengths of pine wood, held in place by chunks of quartz and hematite. The lacy shadows thrown by the painted latticework become part of the piece, too. Dawson’s flag, blown by the wind and casting its own shadows, introduces a bright shock of color from the edge of the windows, amplifying the installation (and vice versa).
“It was my experience working with Jessica and Sage—separately, but simultaneously—that led to thinking about their practice in relation to one another (overlaps and departures!) and ultimately this consideration spawned the idea to pursue an exchange between the two cities,” Lacher says. “Given that context, I think it’s important to note that it is their work, together, that greets the audience in ‘Bad Habits (Remember Me).’ Side by side, and on the face of the structure itself, they both relied on existing architectural elements to develop their work. They are distinctly separate works but they also exist together in a cozy—even friendly—crossover. They do not appear as competing works. I am delighted to see how their work unfolded independent of one another to exist on the facade, together. In this, I see both the spirit of the show and the potential outcomes ahead that result from bringing these two cities together.” (Dawson and Caponigro are now discussing a future collaboration, which Lacher says is a “dream outcome.”)
“For me, when I took St. Louis artists to Chicago in January, I wanted to bring a diversity of artists, the consideration of aesthetic and inclusion are both crucial for the curatorial decision, ” Lu says. “Besides the aesthetic of each artist’s work, I tried to consider gender—in this case, literally half male and half female—as well as the queer inclusion and inclusion of people of color. I also wanted to battle this problem of ageism in art, which sometimes reflect on the conventional understanding of successful equals quality, and I wanted to disregard the traditional hierarchy. Michael Byron is considered more established in the group of St. Louis artists, but very different from a conventionally established artist, his work is always growing, and he delivered a whole new composition for this exhibition, a three-dimensional collage on site. When I first approached Lily Randall, she just received her BFA for couple months and was just getting started her life as an artist, fresh out of school. I saw her piece in a pop-up exhibition that Steph Zimmerman curated a year ago, and I was amazed by her performance, intuition and aesthetic, I was like, ‘Oh! She’s a genius,’” Lu says.
Randall’s performance piece is video-looped on a flat-panel TV mounted to the wall at the back of the gallery. The artist stands at the edge of a mezzanine at the bright, glassy St. Louis Galleria, repeating the phrase I am so sick of feeling this way. (This is also the title of the piece.) A cameraperson shooting from across the mezzanine catches the puzzled reactions from shoppers and mall-walkers; most act as if Randall is not even there, though one lawyerly-looking guy stops to see if she’s OK. Towards the end of the piece, a mall cop approaches and awkwardly stands beside her as she repeats her mantra, waiting for another security guard to stroll down the way for backup. It’s all very unsettling, though we are also thrown off balance with humorous touches like the tasteful, distorted piano music ricocheting through the cavernous space, as well as a bright, perky ad that can be seen at the edge of the frame at the beginning of the piece, which excitedly proclaims, Proud to be exceptional!
Deborah Alma Wheeler, a sculptress based in Metro East, has constructed another very sly and humorous piece: a pair of praying hands detached from a religious icon, dipped in black rubber. “She was in a show [Nervous Laughter] last year with Brett Williams at Gallery 210 at UMSL,” Lu says. “That’s where I noticed her work. The piece she showed in that exhibition ultimately became the piece we decided to show in Chicago; it was titled ‘Privilege,’ a public fountain with a plaque on top of it written ‘Homosexual Only.’ For her latest endeavor ‘Self-Love’ in this exhibition, the gesture in the realm of sexuality and queer politics delivered a certain witty critique of inequities, modes of oppression, but also sparked an extensive power of self-love to compress the boundaries of acceptable self-amused behavior.”
The largest and most assertive piece in the exhibit is a wooden sculpture titled “Ideal Form,” by Chicago-based arts collective Hideous Beast (AKA Josh Ippel and Charlie Roderick), which seems to be breaking right through the gallery ceiling and floor. Lacher says the pair more often create performance-based works, and often ponder the theme of survival. “Their work in the show echoes the design of Brancusi’s ‘Endless Column’ while relying on the stacked design of a plyo box used for Cross-fit,” she explains. The concept, she says, is post-apocalypse physical fitness. (In their artists’ statement, the pair also cite Piero Manzoni’s ‘Base Magica,’ which allowed anyone to step on to a pedestal and become a work of art.)
Catty-corner across the gallery is Brandon Anschultz’s “Bashful Blue Violet and Green Painting (Blush Pink Frame),” which, at least at first, appears to be another sculpture.“It is also a painting, depends on your perspective, ” Lu explains. “If you look from the side”—she pauses and points to a sneaky pink squiggle at the top joint of the form—“you can see the painting. It’s a very shy painting, just as the title explains.” A viewer who is willing to engage that bashful quality and check out the painting from its inconvenient side (the side facing the wall) is rewarded with quiet but joyful bursts and swirls of color meticulously painted on the back of the column. Just to the right, Michael Byron’s “A Trip to Hanover, 2016,” pairs a mixed media assemblage with a real cake under a glass dessert dome. The framed piece combines painting with collage, including a large red dot and a blown-up cover from Der Spiegel illustrated with two babies in bunny suits. The cake, which sits on a tiny red plinth mirroring the red dot, makes for an additional canvas, and is printed with the visage of an artist’s grandmother from an old photograph; the whole setup is wonderfully strange, like a set piece from a Bohumil Hrabal novel, or a Cold War altar to numbers stations.
Next to Byron’s piece is Jeffrey Michael Austin’s “I thought I had more than this,” made from drywall, wood, and staples. Though constructed of materials that one could easily pick up at Home Depot during a mundane Saturday errand run, it is one of the most emotionally intense pieces in the show—a chunk of drywall that feels like it’s been ripped out of a wall by force, walked and stomped on and perhaps even gnawed on by wild animals. The phrase I THOUGHT I HAD MORE THAN THIS is frantically spelled out in staples. “Jeff created this work on impulse,” Lacher says. “He’s interested in empathy and works that relay a connection to the everyday, and with the phrase ‘I thought I had more than this’ in mind, he grabbed a piece of drywall scrap from his studio and his staple gun. He went in to the attempt fully believing that he had enough staples loaded in his gun to spell out the entire phrase. He said the whole thing took ‘about 2 min.’ and that he didn’t really consider the work to be a piece until it was all over. There is an emotional charge to the work, and one that is particularly well aligned with the Lily Randall video.”
Next to Randall’s video, and cleverly placed near the floor—like Anschultz’s painting, it asks the viewer to engage with it by squatting down low to view it—is “Mutual Dealings,” by Rafael Vera, in collaboration with his wife, Rachel Fenker-Vera. Like Byron and Austin, Vera uses everyday materials, but uses them in a way that gives them a weird, otherworldly resonance. Lacher says he often creates work that's very emotionally charged, and that references domesticity. “Rafael makes work about relationships, and his work in the show is intimate in both scale and placement,” Lacher says. “The box form on the right is akin to a dryer vent, and this work is the inaugural collaboration between Rafael and his wife, who is a metalsmith. When asked about the work, Rafael states that ‘It's about my wife, but she doesn't know it!’”
On the next wall is a two-panel print by Lyndon Barrois, Jr., who recently showed very different work at The Luminary as part of Arts.Black’s “Empowerpoint.” For that show, he created a video piece and an Instagram feed titled “Beverly Hills PoC,” which recasts Eddie Murphy’s Axel Foley as a young Black artist trying to build an art career in Los Angeles. Lu says this piece, titled “Trust in Me (Hypstronaut)” is Barrois’ newest work; it pairs a portrait of snake-hypnotized Mowgli from Disney’s 1967 animated feature The Jungle Book a vertiginous shot of outer space, a juxtaposition that encompasses cheeky humor, the existential sublime, and pointed social critique. "The portrait is a drawing with toner pigment, which is used to print photographs, and it pairs that with a printed photograph of a nebula," Lu says. "From artist’s conceptual framework, the juxtaposition is about the seduction of constructed imagery, and this piece is one of the works in a series that pairs Mowgli with other repetitive images of objects with each of its symbolic meaning—watches (time), flower (love), fashion show seating (style), etc. It is also artist’s intention that Mowgli is a person of color, navigating a jungle of allies and predators that take advantages of his gifts and vulnerabilities.“
Snow Yunxue Fu’s “Pool,” a digital video piece that lays flat on the floor, also feels like a small corner of outer space has invaded the gallery, but it is much more abstract, matter-of-fact, and mathematical. Housed in a white wooden box, an ever-morphing video loop of colorful lines and shapes (Metrological readouts? Digital models of physics equations? Alien signals?) jitter, morph, and swirl. Architecture is a very prominent consideration in her work, Lacher says. "She'll place her work in relation to architecture—at CAC, I remember her very deliberately placing her piece in relationship to a vent, which I thought was a very curious and interesting thing to observe. So when she's not creating the architecture, she's responding to it, and perhaps with this, we can consider this box form to be part of the conversation she's having in relationship to architecture. I know that her work also hinges on the impossibility of access to these landscapes that she is creating. So as a viewer, we see the dimensionality of her animation; there's an audio component that's ambient running water sounds. We hear the familiarity of that, but there is that tension due to the impossibility of accessing the experience physically."
Andy Roche’s “Play Seat,” like Barrois’ “Hypstronaut,” also invokes life-not-on-Earth, with influences from science fiction and fantasy, as well as a strange experience he had recently interacting with a young child—the child was able to recognize his own image on a Smartphone, but not in a mirror; the experience evoked Lacan’s mirror theory, though Lacher says while Roche might conceive a piece with theory in mind, it doesn’t much enter into the making of the piece. “With this drawing there was no preparatory drawing, no under-drawing, et cetera,” Lacher says. “He created the work intuitively and depicted a figure—perhaps a child—catching its own reflection in the windshield of ‘a strange place-y thing’—which is designed in a way that looks a lot like the ‘play seat’ of a child. The object is a fantasy object in a place with unreal physics; he was thinking about the origin of fantasy and a connection to fantasy vs. alienation to self—an idea that fantasy exists in both objects and our own reflections.”
While you’re at beverly, go next door to fort gondo to see "JE Baker: FOR." Artist Jennifer Baker, who served as G-CADD’s curatorial resident during the 2015-16 season, has recently left for Kansas City; though she says she will make return visits to St. Louis, the show has a bittersweet, slightly terminal feel to it, which simply adds to its power. Baker’s work is concerned with the passage of time, and the pieces in this stark, beautiful show definitely feel like objects dredged up from a shipwreck after years of being lost. Lu points out that these pieces show a terrific mastery of both form and materials, and that the body and how it indicates sea as part of the underlying theme, as revealed by the titles: “Finless” (which alludes to the harvesting of shark fins), “Nightwater,” “Spill,” and “A Flensing Plan.” (Anyone who read Judy Blume’s Blubber in elementary school will know what flensing is, but if not, weak-stomached as this author is, I’ll send you to the Wikipedia entry.) Lu says that even the placement of the plinth, which holds “Finless,” “Of Disappearing,” “Nightwater,” “Spill,” was very deliberate in that way. "It's like the body without organs in waves of the ocean," Lu says, pointing out the different tiers. "The piece titled Finless is the piece that reminds me of this notion in myth that the seventh wave is always the tallest that makes the biggest impact. And 'FOR' with its fragmental bodies, is almost like a certain kind of assemblage, with numbers of 'things' and pieces gathered into a single context. And this assemblage can bring about any number of 'effects' for viewers—aesthetic, melancholic, productive, destructive, consumptive, devotion et ecetera.” Like the seventh wave, "FOR," is subtle, sublime, magical.
“Bad Habits (Remember Me),” and “JE Baker: For,” both run through November 13. Gallery hours are Saturday noon to 4 p.m. and by appointment. You can also see it next Friday, November 11, when Dana Levin and Monica Youn read as part of the fort gondo poetry series. Beverly is located at 3155 Cherokee; fort gondo is located at 3151 Cherokee. For more information, visit fortgondo.com.