Matthew Strauss, Unbearable is a self-consciously witty exhibition title, and one that discloses a precarious state of mind. Read different ways, it comes off as a description of the self or, alternately, as a job title. Either he is unbearable or his position is. Making the joke about oneself before anyone else can is a lasting tenet of the jester–bristling but effective. Perhaps a similar impulse as renaming PSTL “Paula Cooper” by adhering the famed gallery’s name to the window of a self-proclaimed window gallery. Strauss is nothing if not bold, willing to take chances where few else will.
The show’s brief description remarks that the exhibition “balanc[es] comparative anxieties of art historical futility and autobiographical lament.” On the gallery guide, this statement changes ever so slightly to “Matthew Strauss, Unbearable confuses anxieties of personal narrative and art history.” For PSTL read PAULA COOPER. For PERSONAL NARRATIVE read AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL LAMENT. For ART HISTORY read ART HISTORICAL FUTILITY.
Strauss’s artistic practice is as singular as his curatorial work, but it exists in the interstices of a professionalized career arc. Strauss will only show his work on the request of friends, never seeking out his own opportunities. He has built such an imposing reputation as a director and curator that external expectations carve out a narrow terrain in which to pursue an artistic practice. When, as a curator, you present some of the best contemporary artists in the world, what does it mean when you return to the studio? How does one begin to evaluate one’s own work in relation? His last solo show was at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis as a part of the 2006 Great Rivers Biennial and happens to parallel the ascent of White Flag as one of the most distinctive contemporary art spaces of the last 10 years. Of note is the fact that White Flag was initially meant to serve as Strauss’s studio and only later evolved into the gallery. What I’m saying is that it is complicated. Also, that his work stands up to the complexity.
The exhibition itself is mannered, witty and expectedly intentional. It consists of five discrete pieces: the previously mentioned vinyl lettering, an unstretched canvas covering the bulk of one wall, an assemblage from The Hague School entitled The Gray School, an untitled assemblage consisting of a rough wooden beam and the backing of a metal frame, and two printed pages from the Errata of a catalogue. The contextual clues mostly leave the viewer perplexed, offering subtle philosophical positions without resolution. The unstretched canvas, entitled Green Door, drapes over an actual door, rendering it useless; Untitled, the metal assemblage hung on a wooden post, stands before the “green door,” vaguely suggestive of a face—two eyes, twisted grimace, dingily mirrored, staring at a supposed door, waiting.
It is Erratum, however, that offers the most fertile insight into the interaction of personal narrative and art historical melancholy. Errata is a publishing term for a list of errors and corrections to a previous manuscript. It always happens after the fact, few ever read it, and it lends itself to an eternal fidgeting with imperfection, suggesting that a further revision is necessary, or at least possible. A perfectionist has an obsessive tic to fix everything, from an off-balance install to the art historical understanding of one’s work. An errata is an endless list. Errors are everywhere, only some feel the need to correct them all. Ambition is unbearable, as is its opposite. The practice of an artist is unbearable, as is its absence. Criticism, too, is unbearable in its near-constant misses, missives, and misinterpretations, yet the lack of criticism is just an error with no errata. The exhibition exists on a precipice. As the final show at PSTL, it is an autobiographical lament that becomes representative, the grimace of an artist and gallery space facing the footnotes and revisions of art and history.
Images courtesy of the artist and PSTL.
James McAnally is the executive editor and co-founder of Temporary Art Review. A graduate of Washington University, James McAnally is a founder, Co-Director, and Curator of The Luminary Center for the Arts, a nonprofit artist resourcing organization based in St. Louis. In his personal practice, he works as part of the artistic collaborative US English.