Matthew Strauss, Unbearable at PSTL[uds-billboard name=”PSTL”]PSTL, the long-standing alternative gallery outpost on the Western edge of Grand Center, is closing its doors with a solo show by White Flag Projects founder Matthew Strauss. The show has already seen its final day. This review is tacked on the end like an erratum added to a catalogue, pointing out errors no one noticed, offering correctives, or just observations. It is an exercise of art historical futility, necessary to no one but the editor and other stray obsessives.
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.
I’m not sure how an art blog that features multiple posts on the Occupy movement — particularly the division of Occupy that targets “the culture of injustice and corruption in art institutions” — finds it in keeping with its ethos to praise such an artist and exhibit as this one. Everything about “Matthew Strauss, Unbearable” (let alone White Flag Projects) is the 1%, and to so excessively applaud it reflects both a double-standard and a suspect (read: ingratiating) agenda. And why the gallery itself — a locally-supportive small business — should be so deliberately described as being on the cusp of Grand Center rather than the Northside is further testament to its questionable message.
As a non-commercial, volunteer site, we have always been committed to an unbiased view on projects that may otherwise not receive coverage, separate from questions of funding and influence. That is why we are proud to present a comprehensive view of Occupy Museums, but also why we choose to cover a small alternative gallery’s final show as honestly as we can. Strauss’s exhibition was a strong and appropriate final show for PSTL. They choose to present his work for artistic reasons and we choose to review it for critical reasons. PSTL is, in fact, part of Grand Center as they say themselves that their location is “1/2 block west of the Contemporary Art Museum Saint Louis, Pulitzer Foundation, Sheldon Art Galleries and the Bruno David Gallery” and they are deservedly lauded for being continually supportive of local artists.
I appreciate that you are willing to question this context and strive for transparency, but this site and this review have no agenda beyond exploring the work of artists and arts organizations through meaningful criticism and dialogue.
I guess relevance in art can only be achieved by those in the 99%. Maybe you would prefer he sit in a dorm room and surround himself in wood.
The statement that Strauss has curated “some of the best contemporary artists in the world” sounds like hype.
I think it is worth exploring the notion of relevant art being made by those in the top 1% of society. Let’s discuss the importance of honesty in the process of both the making and critiquing of art. First, there is no point in artists pretending to ignore socioeconomic conditions. Like it or not, more than anything else, these conditions define our behavior. Because of this, the 1% already face an uphill battle in terms of producing art that is socially or historically relevant. To engage in an honest degree of self-reflection, an artist like Strauss must stab himself in the throat and question the very essence of his existence – something very few in his position are willing to do. Instead, he works extremely hard to ignore an undeniable injustice in the world by playing the same types of tongue-in-cheek games all too often perpetuated by the ruling class of artistic elites – and those pretending to be elites, of course. For relevant art to be made by the 1%, it must start with self-reflection.
As for the work featured by Strauss, to say it is mediocre at best would be a scorn upon the honesty to which I have placed the most sacred of significance. This work is profoundly inauthentic and extends no further than the pathetic dimension contemporary cliche. There is probably a very good reason why Strauss only shows it to his friends. I know this sounds harsh, but without truth there IS NO relevance.
James: I know your heart is in the right place. I believe in you. Continue to seek the truth my friend.
K. Kramer: Wood?
Ignorance like this is why St. Louis hemorrhages talent.
Thank you for a well thought-out critique. While we disagree on the relevance and quality of this work in particular, I appreciate your desire to seek out a dialogue of self-reflection, societal-reflection, and authenticity. If you are interested in exploring the notion of relevant art being made by the 1%, we would happily provide a platform for that research.
That is an understandable observation, but I would affirm my original statement. For one, the comment was not in relation to Strauss or his work, simply the reality of an artist who is more recognized as a curator returning to the studio to make his own work and the psychological complexities of that–which is not unique to Strauss, but is relevant to this show and body of work. The statement is clearly subjective, but I would personally consider Chris Burden and Stephen Prina (both currently on view at White Flag) to be “among the best contemporary artists in the world.”
A musing of art historical futility that leads to me feeling fidgety.
James, I’m heartened to hear you affirm your non-hypeman status.
Gosh, Carl, it is amazing that my ignorance is such a powerful force that it has actually created a talent hemorrhage. Technically speaking, how large of a tampon do you reckon we would need to stop and or reverse the talent exodus? More importantly, how can we win Mr. Strauss back from Billyburg? Perhaps an honorary degree from Fontbonne? – Muhal