Art of the Layover

But what’s this? There is a counterplot to the degradation of his soul. Airline layovers are not supposed to be uplifting and enlightening. They are an ingenious plot devised by one of Lucifer’s legions, designed to rob travelers of any good feeling, peace, or sense of accomplishment that they might find through the experience of travel. Victims of layover are a sad lot, easily spotted at the airport. They stand forlorn like forgotten baggage praying vainly to be claimed by the next departing flight, or they walk with aching feet, searching covetously for any available place to rest, all the while having their senses assaulted by whining kids and a thousand strangers shouting into cell phones as the leftover odors from TGI Friday’s grease pit clog the recycled air in the air ducts.

It can happen to almost anyone. That poor schmuck from Ames, Iowa, for example. With the great deal that he found on Priceline, he’ll be able to visit both the Costa Brava and the new Guggenheim in Bilbao during winter break. He’ll also be diabolically stuck at Lambert Airport for ten hours en route between Des Moines and Barcelona. After six hours of pacing zombie-like between Starbucks and the public toilets, he’ll wish himself back at school, his anger envy increasing each time another group of lucky travelers is herded through the airline gangway doors. Someone is laughing at the thought of his soul sinking incrementally as the hours pass.

But what’s this? There is a counterplot to the degradation of his soul. Just as our protagonist, Jason, steps onto the concourse, a stranger in a light gray raincoat hands him a folded sheet of paper and nods beatifically at him before drifting off without a word. Unfolded, the paper greets him by name and indicates that the following directions are provided for his own benefit and that it would be wise to follow their guidance. It is an itinerary of galleries and museums in the area, precisely calculated to grant the greatest variety and highest quality of art appreciation within the exact amount of time of the layover. Jason weighs the risk of accepting gifts from strangers against the prospect of ten hours of sitting in an airport. He looks at his watch and walks out of the terminal, straight to the queue of cabs.

The golden figure of a headless woman greets him as the cab pulls up the drive of Laumeier Sculpture Park. Making arrangements with the driver to meet him in an hour, Jason gets out and looks around at the wooded expanse of gently sloping hills. Intuition tells him to wander aimlessly on the grounds, saving the museum building for later. On his ramble he meets a group of dignified poets in the woods, pauses to shield his eyes against the rainbowed brilliance of reflected sun, and midfield, is held at bay by the magnificence of Big Red. Tearing himself away, he turns eastward, taking a path that runs through dense woods. Blowing puffs of white breath into icy air, he thanks fortune for this good turn of events, just before magically encountering a tiny portion of Brigadoon—or Scotland, at the very least.

Time being of the essence, he heads back toward the educational buildings, but on the way he must pass through a prism over a dry creek. Forty-five serried vessels suspend his progress, as he cannot determine their intent. Are they open coffins, or crucibles for transformation? They are both mute and immutable. Leaving them reluctantly, our Everyman presses on for the next destination.

SLAMmed Against the Wall

Knowing a little something about art, Jason is aware that St. Louis Art Museum is famous for its collections of 20th Century German and Oceanic art. Luck being on his side this day, the museum’s special exhibit is actually titled German Art Now. Not content to rest on the strength of its Beckman collection—isn’t there always Beckman?—this new exhibit highlights Gerhard Richter, Georg Baselitz, Joseph Beuys, and Anselm Kiefer, along with ten other German artists who have made their mark in the decades from the ‘60s up to the 21st century. It occurs to Jason that this show is significant because it makes the public cognizant of important elements in the museum’s permanent collection that might otherwise be missed.

Were Jason to speak with SLAM’s director of communications, Kay Porter, he would learn that one of the points in the strategic plan for the museum focuses on building upon its already well-known strengths. She would inform him that one of the exhibits scheduled for 2004 will showcase the tribal art of New Ireland, an island that holds one of the incredibly diverse and artistically rich cultures to be discovered in the Oceanic collections of the museum.

On the lower level, Jason gets lost in the archipelago of Nesia—Polynesia, Micronesia, Indonesia—before hunger kicks in like a homing device. It leads him to a pleasant restaurant looking out onto a sculpture garden. After a light lunch, he hops into his cab and is at the Craft Alliance in less than 10 minutes.

Art vs. Craft
Standing outside in the cold, Jason peers through the floor-to-ceiling windows at the ceramic artists working inside. Some of them appear to be students, but that’s to be expected of a place that for 40 years has made education in fine craft a key element of its raisson d’etre. The other points in the crown of this institution are the exhibition of contemporary crafts from artists worldwide, and promoting the recognition of craft as a vital cooperative between art and functional objects. Teapots, jewelry, ethnic crafts, textiles, utilitarian objects—all are found throughout the history of humans’ creativity, and all are given their rightful due at Craft Alliance.

Stepping into the gallery, Jason encounters the essence of fine craft in the exhibit Function Follows Form, Artist-Made Furniture. The works are obviously useful, but the innovation of the designs make them artistic interpretations of usually mundane objects. It’s evident that the makers of these pieces are true artists, and Jason wonders why so many painters give over the act that their medium is the only real form of art—that all crafts are inferior simply because they serve a purpose.

In the Little Gallery, he pores over the artworks in the glass case. The pieces are labeled as jewelry, but really they are a collection of incredibly strong structures…only on a small scale. They are literally wearable art, and Jason leaves the gallery with a silver wire sculpture whose elliptical shapes and open-air interior convey to him flight through the skies. He does not have a recipient in mind when he makes the purchase; he simply wants to own this piece that conveys great space with such pithiness. It is his lucky talisman, a token of the unexpected treasures of St. Louis. He checks his list with anticipation; the Burberryed stranger hasn’t steered him wrong yet. He directs the cabbie to 917 Locust.

Local Flavor

In the third floor gallery of Art St. Louis, Jason discovers the work of regional artists. He takes in the paintings, fiber-art, drawings, constructions—all by the hands of people living in the area. Thinking of his hometown’s affinity for landscapes and oil paintings, he relishes the chance to taste the sensibility of local artists. It’s a smorgasbord of styles with no one particular type taking precedence, but at least it gives an idea of the diverse sensibilities within this working group. The pieces for the most part tend toward the traditional methods of communication through art—representation, symbolism, metaphor, rhythm. And there’s nothing wrong with that; Jason notes gratefully that few, if any, veer towards shock value or “on the edge” trends. There are countless ways to convey the breadth of human perceptions without culling the residue of New York’s last gallery season. He smiles at the apropos title of an ASL co-presentation, “Contemporary Pop: Vulgarity into Sophistication.”

Big Fish
In the light-filled galleries of Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, Jason is floored by the works included in A Fiction of Authenticity: Contemporary Africa Abroad. He is extremely lucky to be here today, since this is the final day for the show. He could watch Ingrid Mwangi’s video installation for hours, but there are too many other important works that he wants to see in his allotted time. As he stands before the kaleidoscopic works of Mary Evans, a pretty brunette walks briskly through the gallery. She pauses long enough to ask him if he enjoys the show. He nods, saying that he had no idea St. Louis held such a major venue for contemporary art. The woman glows at his words. She introduces herself as Susan, telling him that five or six years ago, the board for the Forum (as it was formerly known) decided that a new space was essential if it was to grow into the remarkable institution that the directors envisioned. She enthusiastically describes the new director, Paul Ha, as a great find for the Contemporary.

“We caught him at the right time. He had just left his position at Yale, and we were searching for someone whose vision complemented the Contemporary’s plans for the future He personally sees and meets with 900 artists a year, and he has a great eye for artists that are upcoming figures in the directions of new art.”

When Jason comments about the impressive lists of exhibitions and forums that are scheduled for the coming months, Susan suggests that it is part of the overarching goal for the museum, “If you’re going to throw your hat in the ring, it might as well be the international ring.”

She directs him to the offices for printed material that he can take with him. Upstairs, one of the administrative staff offers him a folder filled with info on recent changes and upcoming events at the Contemp.

“That really nice woman downstairs—the one named Susan—does she work here with you?” asks Jason. The girl at the desk looks at him, her eyes slightly widening. “You mean Susan Sherman? You might say she works here; she’s the president of the board of Directors.”

Jason looks at his watch, thanks the woman, and rushes out to the cab. He has enough time to make it to the airport for check-in, but he doesn’t want to cut it too close. His mood is satisfied as he thinks with gratitude what a happy turn of events have occurred today. While he still looks forward to the rest of his trip, he’s seen enough of St. Louis to realize that it’s worth a trip just to have more time with the art sites that he has already seen. He imagines the other treasures just waiting to be discovered.


Take Your Own Trip

Jason’s schedule looked rather like this:
9 a.m.: Leave airport for Laumeier Sculpture Park
10:30 a.m.: Leave for St. Louis Art Museum
1:30 p.m.: Leave for the Craft Alliance
2:45 p.m.: Leave for Art St. Louis
3:45 p.m.: Leave for Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis
5 p.m.: Leave for Lambert International Airport

The sculptures described/alluded to in the Laumeier section were as follows: Public Goddess, 1992, Beverly Pepper; Three Women Poets (Walking), 1975, Ernest Trova; Sun Field, 1991, Dale Eldred; The Way, 1972-80, Alexander Liberman; Cromlech Glen, 1985-90, Beverly Pepper; Triangular Bridge Over Water, 1990, Dan Graham; Untitled, 1988-89, Ursula Von Rydingsvard.

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