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Great Rivers Biennial 2006

Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis
(January 20–March 26, 2006)

Life in Black and White

It’s easy to get caught up in the hipness of the Contemp: It draws a young crowd, hosting popular Select Nights every first Thursday of the month, and its rising star of importance in the art world brings in both serious and novice collectors who want to catch the next new talent of the region.

While the last Biennial was a portrait of diversity, this year’s model is a study in black-and-white. Surprisingly, though the selected artists are as disparate as one could find in a three-man show, the overall effect is dichromatic, especially when encountering the first two galleries.

Moses might not converse with God through a burning bush, but he seems to have formed a bronze calf of his own in honor of hip-hop. The works in his exhibitAudiophile reference a wide range of dichotomies: music vs. volume, substance vs. style, influence vs. appropriation, the past vs. the current, appreciation vs. consumerism. In a conversation with the artist, Moses evinced a dedication to both his past and to the here and now, which is evident in his work. The most glaringly hard to miss piece in his repertoire isAmerican Dream: We Like Cars That Go BOOM! Then again, it’s pretty hard to ignore a Chevy Blazer that sports three hundred speakers on its exterior; if for no other reason than the craft employed to smoothly blanket an entire vehicle in an obsessive sound system, this is an arresting piece. The throbbing bass that emanates from this work is felt in the throat and in the bones.

Moses’ quieter works hold up against their noisier companions. Two Turntables and a Microphone gives a formal pause, both visually and contemplatively. Shelving fragments of 1,500 LPs, plus the indicated turntables and dangling microphone, the collection pays homage to any classicist’s obsession, as well as the naissance of hip-hop itself.

Moving on to the gallery housing Matthew Strauss’ work, the dissimilarity between artists is striking. Whereas Moses focuses on technology and the present culture, Strauss’Dead Language addresses the futility of art history (in general) and painting as an art form (in particular). The irony is that he puts forth his exceptions in the form of screen-printed paintings. His method of questioning contains several degrees of separation: The artist constructs tableaux of metaphorical empiricism (making requisite a certain literary/cultural grounding for those who hope to decipher his visual puzzles), then silkscreening digital images onto large canvasses and further painting on the prints. It begs the question: Is it irony or hypocrisy that drives an artist to create works that mock art history and criticism, yet in themselves are extremely worldly and well read (i.e., a triptych that narrates the imprisonment of the pro-fascist poet Ezra Pound in Pisa)?

Rounding the corner and rounding out the trio, Jason Wallace Triefenbach’s exhibition is the most colorful component of this year’s Biennial, in more than the literal sense. Given its multimedia composition,Hero, Compromised (Autobiographical Fiction/Narrative Medley) is, of the three, the most time-demanding of its audience. It’s not the sort of exhibit one can breeze through quickly, assuming that the intent of the artist has been completely understood. Triefenbach doesn’t let one off so easily: There are videos to watch, performances to absorb, songs to hear, symbols to comprehend. This is a big-ass piece that pits the Protagonist Everyman’s fear of living in obscurity against the vacuuming draw of pop culture. In addition to the physical reference points of searching and identity-exploration, such as tents and crates spilling useless (empty) cans of Busch beer, the artist provides signifiers that indicate an attempt to escape from the consequences of indifference. Who would not be thus moved when seeing a video that catches the artist singing his mating call to an overblown image of Jackie O., whilst banging cast aluminum antlers together, as rutting deer are wont to do? If the ideas purportedly embedded within this exhibition, such as cultural consumerism and political ideologies, truly address “Everyman,” then perhaps would they not be better expressed in a work a bit less self-referential ? Unlike Strauss’ sly insider jokes meant for the historically and culturally informed, Triefenbach seems to enjoy frustrating his audience with allusions that require more intimate knowledge of the artist than he is willing to give.

Peter Pranschke: My Disaster Box
Fort Gondo Compound for the Arts
(January 13–29, 2006)

Keepin'  It Real

No more than a ten-minute drive south of the Contemp, on the forever-soon-to-be-gentrified Cherokee Street, there can be found Fort Gondo. The antithesis of upscale chic, this unassuming storefront gallery has hosted surprisingly strong exhibitions of unknowns and outside-the-mainstream art. Although a few of the shows have displayed more of a do-it-yourself mentality in lieu of experience and discipline, director/proprietor Galen Gondolfi has hit a high note with his recent hosting of artist Peter Pranschke’s detritus.

Papering the gallery walls with the former contents of his “Disaster Box” (or “wastebasket,” to the less poetically inclined), Pranschke laid bare his soul with the insouciant courage of youth. Which artist but the bravest would actually allow strangers to examine his incomplete ideas and rejected efforts? What person would take himself sounseriously that he would use his own serious illness and dialysis sessions as fodder for comic drawings?

Has it yet been mentioned the drawings and doodles are funny? His characters range from crudely drawn blobs to rapturously muscled comix heroes, yet they all are at the pointed end of Pranschke’s wit. From dryly amusing to laugh-out-loud hilarious, the continuous flow of mental streaming recalls a prankish James Joyce given over to sketching in the margins of his own life, only with the saving grace of a self-deprecating perspective. Friends, family, patrons, and the artist himself all take turns under his skewed microscope—what better way to be immortalized than to be made into a cartoon character?

Quite literally, almost a thousand artworks litter the walls, without apparent design or curatorial fussings to mar the exuberant effect. The so-called “Price Book” is a take-home work of art in itself; it explains the six steps necessary in “How to Buy a Piece of Art!” with the artist and buyer starring as equal protagonists. The prices for these sublimely apropos drawings range from $25 to $1. Talk about making art for the proletariat.

Besides his previous exhibits at Mad Art and the U. City library gallery, Pranschke has designed this year’s poster for the Laumeier Art Fair. It is not beyond comprehension that some time in the future, he will be one of the artists celebrated at the Contemporary. Let’s hope that he manages to continue keeping it real.


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