Great Rivers Biennial 2012 at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis

[uds-billboard name=”greatrivers”]Last summer, as the curatorial intern at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, I remember getting a frantic call from David Johnson. He was out of town and was trying to have a mail service deliver his Great Rivers Biennial 2012 submission but because of construction, the museum, the mail service insisted, appeared to be closed.  After several calls back and forth between the museum, Johnson, and the mail service, his submission was finally and successfully delivered. Good thing, too.  David Johnson, along with Asma Kazmi and Mel Trad were the three winners of the fifth Great Rivers Biennial at CAM, an honor that includes a substantial financial award along with an exhibition to mid-career artists living and working in the St. Louis region.  After organizing all the submissions, they quickly left my hands and went into those of the Assistant Curator at CAM, Kelly Shindler, and then to outside judges: Lisa Dorin of The Art Institute of Chicago, Jeffery Grove of the Dallas Museum of Art and Lydia Yee of the Barbican Art Gallery, London, who chose the three winners from over 120 entries.  Johnson, Kazmi, and Trad then had about nine months to work with the extremely astute and detail-oriented Shindler, to put together the show.  Although their work is quite divergent in terms of media and thematics, the art presented is all in some way tied to the cultural, educational, and everyday experiences in St. Louis, while also engaging substantially with larger, all-encompassing themes.

Johnson’s work, thirty-five, 4×5 photographs, is the most strongly tied to the museum as both a physical space and cultural institution.  His photography has the investigative, voyeuristic feel of photographer Louise Lawler, but is decidedly modernistic in style and documentary in feel rather than stingingly critical of the art world.  Johnson is fascinated by interiors and the strange potentiality of seemingly familiar spaces. He spent the Fall of 2011 and the beginning of 2012 investigating offices at CAM, the homes of the museum’s board of directors, and the spaces associated with them, looking for the relationship between formal qualities and unnoticed ‘lost’ items like indents left on rugs from furniture, cracks on walls, and the aesthetics of desk or room displays.  Johnson’s sensibility goes beyond the walls of the museum and donor homes though and is part of much larger conversations regarding documentation, authorship, ownership, and the history and contemporary state of photography.
Mel Trad’s sculptural, object-based exhibit works with the subtleties of word, image, material and gesture.  Trad’s pared-down sculptures often use found materials from the city of St. Louis, as in Untitled (bondage), a Giacometti-esque steel form which speaks to the violence of the act of altering the industrial material into an art form and the act of physical bondage itself.  Particularly with Trad’s work, be sure to pick up a gallery guide and take note of titles as they add to a definitively more nuanced understanding of her work  and allow for associations not necessarily immediately evident.  Untitled (reclining nude) for example, a sculpture of a large, knotted up material, arching upward and then back down again, is presented on the floor; the title immediately opens up art historical associations not necessarily immediately evident when first viewing the form. Trad also presents two pedestals with nothing on them, acting as more than just a nod to minimalism, but also as a keystone into her investigation of found material, art world culture, negative gesture, and production processes.  Everything is important for Trad – presentation, material, form – her work requires the most time spent and contemplation to catch her very nuanced and thoughtful practice.
Asma Kazmi’s installation is concerned with a relational art practice, in which she presents drawings and writings made by three participants she met and worked with at an adult literacy program in St. Louis.  Interested in learning and sharing process, Kazmi presents a video showing the three participants – Nichole, Larry, and John – creating writings and drawings meant to allow them the freedom and space to explore self-expression without the sole use of words, as well as hundreds of their actual ink on paper works.  The experience of being in a room, surrounded by these drawings and not being able to easily decode them is powerful: a sense of illiteracy hits the privileged viewer and perhaps mirrors some of the daily challenges of the growingly literate participants themselves. Kazmi is quick to acknowledge the participants and is aware of the power dynamics of having her own name associated with their products, wanting the problematics of that to be open to discussion.  This is a refreshing and important gesture that acknowledges the falsified mentality that great art, or any art, must be made by a single, heroic,  artist – a mentality that plagues an art world much more complex than this.
The three artists are truly a case in point in the prevalence, and near necessity, of the merging of the local and the global as well as how diverse the realm of contemporary art has become.  Seeing the process come full circle as a visitor (I am no longer associated with the museum), is really a testament to the strength of a city, artists, participants, and institutions working together to give St. Louis the artistic backbone it needs and deserves.
Great Rivers Biennial 2012 at The Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis featuring David Johnson: institutional etiquette and strange overtones, Asma Kazmi: Between Word and Image, and Mel Trad continues through 12 August 2012 at 3750 Washington Blvd, St. Louis, MO. Visit for more information.

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