It’s the first of May, which means that it’s May Day, International Worker’s Day, and you may as well watch the Bee Gees perform this. It also means that lots of art spaces and museums are getting ready to open their first round of summer shows. In solidarity, I present to you my (rather long) shortlist of what’s on in St. Louis in the coming weeks.
The River Between Us
Laumeier Sculpture Park
April 13–August 25, 2013
A symbiotic traveling exhibition coorganized with Longue Vue House and Gardens in New Orleans, The River Between Us is the latest in a series of projects at Laumeier that explore the theme of place. This time, the mighty Mississippi provides the inspiration for the show, which will feature both new commissions and historical documents. Featured artists include Ken Lum, Allan McCollum, and Alec Soth, among many others.
Rudely Interrupted Evening with Mr. Manners
May 3-5, 2013
Local guerilla curatorial collective The Transients stage shows in recently vacated commercial spaces. Their newest project takes place in the old downtown YMCA, which piques my interest. This weekend-long series of events includes collaborative videos and screenings, a brunchtime screening featuring a twenty-one-gun salute (!), and a performative event by the Archeospiritist Study and Consortion Initiative Illinois (!!).
Andrew James: Without the zeroes and ones,
the big and the huge don’t mean dick (v.1)
Isolation Room/Gallery Kit
May 3–June 1, 2013
Worth going just for the title—and the fact that Andrew James also runs St. Louis’s excellent Good Citizen Gallery—this show at the petite apartment gallery Isolation Room features a new kinetic object by the artist that, notes curator Daniel McGrath, “scoots on wheels like a Minecraft translation of an intravenous drip.”
Contemporary German Art: Selections from the Permanent Collection
2013 MFA Thesis Exhibition
Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University
May 3–September 7, 2013
The Kemper showcases highlights from its formidable collection of contemporary German art, including works by Thomas Bayrle, Isa Genzken, Charline von Heyl, Sergei Jensen, Wolfgang Tillmans, and others. Also on view is the latest MFA Thesis show of work by twenty-three new grads.
Mike Newton: Contact
Fort Gondo Compound for the Arts
May 4–June 1, 2013
I’ve sang Fort Gondo’s praises elsewhere on this site. Its latest exhibition curated by new director Jessica Baran features several videos by New York-based artist Mike Newton that draw inspiration from the question of how to represent and understand interpersonal communication, particularly as it relates to eye contact.
Whole City: St. Louis
Luminary Center for the Arts
May 4–25, 2013
The latest in a series of guest-curated exhibitions collectively titled How to Build a World That Won’t Fall Apart, this show by Minneapolis design studio Works Progress takes the form of an intensive short-term residency that seeks to better understand the cultural landscape of St. Louis. Starting with the question “what makes us whole?” the interviews and conversations that they conduct in the city will be made manifest into an exhibition and free newspaper.
White Flag Projects
May 4–June 10, 2013
In typical White Flag fashion, the curatorial conceit remains a mystery, but I’m listing this for Peter Hujar’s photo of Susan Sontag alone.
Donald Judd: The Colored Works
Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts
May 10, 2013–January 4, 2014
Former Chinati Foundation director Marianne Stockebrand curates the first show focused exclusively on Donald Judd’s works in color. Everything in the show was made late in his career between 1984–1992. Modern Art Notes’ Tyler Green will speak with Stockebrand on the occasion of the show at the Pulitzer on May 11. Not to be missed.
Hiraki Sawa: Migration
Saint Louis Art Museum
May 3–September 8, 2013
Japanese artist Hiraki Sawa presents a new animation in the latest in SLAM’s ongoing New Media Series curated by Tricia Paik.
East Building Expansion
Technically opening on June 29, this long-awaited expansion gives the museum’s substantial collection of modern and contemporary art room to breathe. The inaugural hang will feature much of its strong postwar holdings of works by Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Anselm Kiefer, and others, as well as an art historical overview of work by the Abstract Expressionists, Minimalists, and more contemporary artists such as Kiki Smith and Julie Mehretu. The expansion also marks the premiere of Stone Sea, a new site-specific commission by Andy Goldsworthy.
Bad at Sports
April 24–May 5, 2013
Kerry James Marshall
May 24–July 7, 2013
Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis
In a stunning turn of events, CAM has an exhibition by Bad at Sports up right now. Duncan and Richard recap their road trip to STL here, and interviews with many of the curators and organizers behind these very shows will be released soon. CAM’s summer season opens with solo shows by Lari Pittman, Mika Taanila, and Kerry James Marshall on May 24.
The ghost of Pruitt-Igoe looms large in St. Louis. The 33-building public housing complex, designed by Minoru Yamasaki (who was also the architect of the World Trade Center) and completed in 1954, has long fascinated architectural historians and enthusiasts alike. Designed in accordance with Le Corbusier’s utopian “Towers in the Park” vision, its demolition began less than twenty years later in 1972 as the site fell prey to dried-up funding, mismanagement, and subsequent decrepitude and crime. According to architectural theorist Charles Jencks writing in 1977, the notorious demise of Pruitt-Igoe, captured on film and televised widely at the time, marked the day that “modern architecture died.” Today, the site exists as a giant scar in the St. Louis landscape, fifty-seven acres of urban forest just north of downtown. It is an emotional scar too, a reminder of how modernist ideals and public policy failed not only the individuals and families who lived in the towers but also, to some degree, the city at large. In fact, the decline of Pruitt-Igoe coincided with the exodus to the burgeoning St. Louis suburbs that began in the 1960s; today, 89% of the metropolitan population of 2.8 million lives outside the city limits (compared with roughly 75% in 1972), according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
I think about Pruitt-Igoe a lot because I live in its aftermath. I see it in the blocks of boarded-up houses on Jefferson Avenue that I pass every day on the way to and from work. Similar houses can be found all over the city, a side effect of a population (and a tax base) that continues to decline forty years later. I also think about Pruitt-Igoe when I’m at work at the Contemporary Art Museum in the neighborhood of Grand Center. An established cultural district, Grand Center nonetheless still faces lingering assumptions that it is a rough part of town, situated as it is near the Delmar Divide that bisects the north and south sides of the city — the north side being home, not coincidentally, to the large footprint called Pruitt-Igoe.
The story of Pruitt-Igoe is by now well known and documented so I won’t go into detail here (and recommend the terrific 2011 documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth for that). What I’m interested in is the force field-like appeal of the complex, particularly images of its punctum-style demolition, for contemporary artists. Through video and installation to social practice, a number of artists are continually circling back to Pruitt-Igoe for inspiration. Using a small cross-section of familiar artworks as case studies, I’ll explore what it is about the site that offers such rich fodder for art practice today.
French artist Cyprien Gaillard’s Pruitt-Igoe Falls (2009) is perhaps the best-known example. This silent seven-minute video depicts fixed-frame footage of the 2008 demolition of a building in the Sighthill housing project in Glasgow, Scotland. Halfway through the video, the image morphs into a shot of Niagara Falls at night as seen from the American side. In the piece, Pruitt-Igoe is relegated to an allusion as well as a sobering precedent for the shortcomings of contemporary public housing. The name also serves a semantic purpose, offering a way to connect the image of Pruitt-Igoe’s collapse—and, by extension, the collapse of High Modernism—to other spectacles, such as Niagara Falls and the recent phenomenon of ruin porn (i.e. anything about Detroit). Though barely perceptible in Gaillard’s footage, the tiny figures in the foreground of the Sighthill frame reinforce this notion, their camera flashes punctuating the image as they snap photographs of the crumbling building. Gaillard’s video thus reenacts Pruitt-Igoe’s unforgettable demise in a highly cynical fashion, trapping it in the endless cycle of the loop, where it can be repeatedly gawked at for sheer entertainment.
Pruitt-Igoe has also surfaced in several of Michael Rakowitz’s artworks, such as his recent room-sized installation at dOCUMENTA(13) titled What Dust Will Rise? (2012) and, most extensively, in Dull Roar (2005). The latter recasts the towers as inflatable pop-ups, akin to a commercial blow-up mattress you might have in your own home. In the installation, they are surrounded by a 360-degree wooden viewing platform that allows the viewer to fully circumnavigate the balloon-like buildings as they continually inflate and deflate on a timed cycle. Rakowitz, like Gaillard, captures the image of Pruitt-Igoe’s destruction in a simulated mise en abyme that points to the implicit spectacle of that moment. Interested in the idea that parts of the rubble were allegedly used to construct new mansions in the nearby suburb of Ladue (which, according to Rakowitz, was the most expensive neighborhood in the U.S. at the time Pruitt-Igoe fell), he also made several related drawings depicting these mansions propped atop the rubble. The inflatable aspect of his project is particularly acrid and pithy, reducing the complexities of the story to an amusing one-liner. Nonetheless, Rakowitz unflinchingly gets to the point, demonstrating how the destruction of Pruitt-Igoe was but one symptom in a larger enactment of domestic housing policy designed to exclude poor, non-white citizens from the American dream.
While these two projects pinpoint the demolition of the buildings as the penultimate moment, Juan William Chavez is interested in everything that happens after — the potential of Pruitt-Igoe now. For several years, Chavez, who was born in Lima, Peru, but grew up and currently lives in St. Louis, has been making a series of artworks about the physical site where the complex once stood. Together these comprise what he calls a “living proposal” in an attempt to better understand what Pruitt-Igoe might mean today. After first setting foot on the grounds in 2010, he took a series of photographs and made a film about what he saw – dense vegetation and a healthy bee sanctuary. The bees have become key players in his inquiry; as he explains it, the former Pruitt-Igoe complex has been replaced by an indigenous insect community that can actually thrive on the site. Along with his partner, Kiersten Torrez, he opened a space near Pruitt-Igoe called the Northside Workshop. They have taken up beekeeping and planted an edible garden, and they work with local students, artists, and community organizers to create programming that explores the active potential of the Pruitt-Igoe footprint. Chavez’s work on Pruitt-Igoe brings additional dimensions of the story into relief. Through his efforts, I’ve been introduced to other stakeholders who are similarly committed to the site’s rehabilitation, such as St. Louis architectural historian Michael Allen and former Pruitt-Igoe resident and journalist Sylvester Brown, who launched an after-school project for at-risk high school students to grow local sweet potatoes and market their product. (The actual land is not completely up for grabs, however. Local developer Paul McKee purchased a two-year option on the site that expires next year.) Chavez’s work is therefore symbolic but also pragmatic, aimed at building awareness and galvanizing community action to transform the Pruitt-Igoe grounds into a dynamic and truly democratic public space.
I asked Juan about Pruitt-Igoe’s appeal to contemporary artists and he reminded me of the scene in Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi featuring images of the complex immediately before and during the actual demolition. The film traces the outline of the decaying buildings both inside and out. By this point, the complex is little more than a ghost town and Philip Glass’s haunting score turns it into something out of a horror movie. Juan describes this image of a crumbling Pruitt-Igoe as an “epic moment” analogous to moments in early cinema in which we experience time directly, as in the Lumière Brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895) or Thomas Edison’s Electrocuting an Elephant (1903). It is also evocative of something more contemporarily mediated on a global scale, like the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. This visual register of Pruitt-Igoe’s demise, coupled with Charles Jencks’s aforementioned comment about its implication in the death of architectural modernism, imbue it with a mythic pathos that still holds sway today. So what, then, can artists like Gaillard, Rakowitz, and Chavez communicate to us about Pruitt-Igoe? A sober memory? A case of what not to do? Pruitt-Igoe is all of these things. It may be a graveyard but it is also a garden. And perhaps art can sustain it in ways that housing and economic policies couldn’t.
February 6, 2013 · Print This Article
It’s a freezing afternoon on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and I’m sitting in the kitchen of Galen Gondolfi and Jessica Baran. We are surrounded by their marvelous collection of chrome toasters, heart-shaped cake pans, and other vintage housewares. Joining us briefly is Toronto-based artist Benjamin Edelberg, whose two-person exhibition alongside St. Louis artist Brandon Anschultz, All That Heaven Allows (curated by Baran), opened downstairs at Fort Gondo Compound for the Arts two nights before. Gathered to talk shop, we pause for a moment to watch Gondolfi and Baran’s dog Benny attempt to peel a clementine—one of his many talents, they tell me.
Benny is one of four dogs owned by the couple, who live above Fort Gondo (known to many simply as “Gondo”), the eponymous St. Louis venue Gondolfi started in 2002. In fact, it was initially intended to be a dog shelter. When he bought the building, he knew he wanted to open the street-level space with some sort of community-based mission, but the prospect of creating a home for cast-off canines failed to come to fruition. Rather, it evolved into an art space after Gondolfi and friends Mike Schuh, Bevin Fahey-Vornberg, and Dave Early began staging flash mob-like events across the city as the artist collective “named” Untitled. Soon they hosted an event in the space that attracted nearly 400 people. The performances continued. Ergo Fort Gondo.
The venue is situated at the western end of Cherokee Street, now an established St. Louis arts district home to antique stores, art spaces, cafes, bars, print shops, and a record store, as well as the epicenter of the city’s Mexican community. Real estate remains plentiful and cheap, and Gondolfi, who owns several buildings on Cherokee, is credited with jump-starting much of the neighborhood’s revitalization. Besides founding Fort Gondo, his contribution includes other short-lived creative endeavors such as the “laptop-free” coffee shop Typo and a gallery that exhibited only female artists named Beverly (2005-2007), after Gondolfi’s mother. Within a year of his arrival, he became president of the Benton Park West Neighborhood Association and subsequently ran for alderman in his ward in 2007 (losing to a 12-year incumbent by a mere 76 votes).
But when he moved here in the early 2000s, he was one of three people living on the block. The neighborhood was essentially vacant. Gondolfi gets admittedly “maudlin and nostalgic” about Gondo’s early years, even though he experienced two break-ins within 48 hours of receiving the keys. But such a ghost town-like atmosphere also offered him carte blanche to get weird. He tells me how the building next door had suffered a fire so he would host events in its shell, turning it into a venue called Burn Out. There were vacant lots on either side, so he installed his entire bedroom in one of them and asked people to get into bed with him. Later on he and Early, his business partner, started Radio Cherokee, a “proletarian speakeasy” that presented hundreds of shows between 2002-2006 (including a basement gallery called Low Art and an exterior billboard venue named High Art). The joint was electricity-free; bands played off of extension cords. The entire block, Gondolfi recalls, “was like a playground. Nobody cared about the rules at that point. Gondo was incredibly cavalier and renegade in those early days.”
Gondo soon became a regular part of Gondolfi’s creative life and eventually Baran’s as well (they married in 2011 after meeting through Gondo-related programming; she also exhibited at Beverly). Though the space is synonymous with Gondolfi, he is quick to point out that countless numbers of people have been involved. “It is not an extension of me, but rather it has been a group effort all along. Gondo has been one 10-year running group show, if I think about it. So many people have come back to do other shows…Gondo is part of my life but is not an extension of myself. It’s never been the top priority in my life but has always been there. In some ways it’s like a cockroach—it never dies. I merely essentially paid the mortgage and that allowed whatever chaos to ensue.”
That chaos has come to include a vibrant “program of non-programming,” as Baran puts it: more than 500 intergenerational exhibitions, rock shows, poetry readings, town meetings, political fundraisers, religious services, birthday parties, yard sales, weddings, and other various and sundry happenings. Countless now-established local and national artists have presented their work at Gondo, including four who went on to win the Great Rivers Biennial, the preeminent local artist competition organized by the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (full disclosure: my employer). Even with all this activity, I’m surprised to learn that over 100 keys to the space are currently in circulation. “Do you have one?” Gondolfi immediately asks me (he made three new copies that day). The couple readily welcomes the “mi casa es su casa” vibe engendered by both the space and their apartment. Yet occasionally the open-door policy can be taken a little too literally. Likening Gondo to the spontaneous anything-goes (and potentially depraved) ethos of a bathhouse, Gondolfi notes that a mysterious visitor used their shower the other night. But more lamentable to him is the fact that three rubber duckies from their extensive collection are now missing.
The snacks keep coming. Gondolfi turns off a few lights in the kitchen to avoid blowing a fuse while running the microwave. Over burnt popcorn, the conversation shifts from reflective to anticipatory. The space celebrated its 10th anniversary last year with a series of exhibitions he collectively called “Identity Crisis.” He invited people that had participated in the history of the space—“friends and foes alike” who had shown in the gallery or been instrumental in some way—back to do something new. Ten years is a long time for any art space, and Gondolfi, who also holds down a full-time job as Chief Communications Officer of Justine PETERSEN, a national microlending agency based in St. Louis, is admittedly tired. Following a year of intense self-scrutiny, he has recently demoted himself from proprietor to facilities manager.
Meanwhile Baran, who co-organizes Gondo’s poetry series with poet Jennifer Kronovet, is assuming full reign. A poet, curator, and professional art critic, she was also Assistant Director of White Flag Projects from 2008-2012, providing incalculable grist to the respected contemporary art space during its formative years. Ever self-effacing, Gondolfi jokes that, “I ushered Gondo through the Cro-Magnon era and with Jessica taking over we’re going to start walking upright.” Baran is in the midst of planning a new exhibition program, and they are now awaiting formal 501(c)3 status. Gondolfi, meanwhile, sees his new freedom as an opportunity to possibly pursue animal rights work, or else conceive of his own idyllic artist commune in nearby Illinois, a la The Poor Farm or Mildred’s Lane.
“Fort Gondo has always been pro-failure,” Gondolfi made a point of telling me early in our conversation. He readily confesses that, “a lot of abysmal art has been shown here. Sometimes I can’t look at the walls when I come home at night.” But that’s because the spirit of the space has heretofore been less about discerning taste or aesthetic than about democratic and abundant opportunity. While this may change under Baran’s leadership, Gondo’s mission will always privilege creative over material capital. It revels in the freedom to fail, emboldened by the production and presentation of culture on its own terms. Sure, this may be a privileged way to operate but it’s also very St. Louis, the entrepreneurial land of beer barons, newspaper magnates, and other founder-driven entities. Where it’s possible for a once anarchic community center-cum-established art space to continually fail better.