Years ago, an opening reception of the IN/FORM exhibition at the Lemp Brewery featured the ceremonial burning of an installation piece. While the flames rose, the crowd cheered -- after all, everyone loves a fire. St. Louis firefighters capped off the "performance piece" by dousing the burning structure with water, to the continued delight of onlookers. The firefighters then put away their equipment and joined the other festivities at the reception.
It's probably important to know such things about the early history of IN/FORM. It helps if you want to understand this year's exhibition, IN/FORM 6. The IN/FORM institution got its start in November 1990, when a group of local artists banded together and organized a show in the Lemp complex in Benton Park. At the time, the very fate of the Lemp Brewery hung in the balance, and IN/FORM drew a weird energy from the tenuous character of the space. Early IN/FORM exhibitions were free-form affairs, with performance art mixed with conceptual and more traditional pieces. The burning installation perfectly symbolizes IN/FORM's early rawness and insouciance.
Now, the Lemp complex is under new ownership, with definite plans for revitalization and development. And IN/FORM 6, which officially opened to the public on Nov. 1, seems to be on steadier ground as well. It's a solid survey of what 34 of the best area artists are up to. Compared with IN/FORM's early history, there's something slightly more staid about this year's exhibition. It appears that IN/FORM has finally come of age. But that doesn't mean it has jettisoned all of its earlier edge.
IN/FORM 6 was technically launched days before the opening, with a $35-per-ticket artists' preview -- very snazzy, with impressive finger food. But the real news at the preview was the Devil's Night Iron Pour, a free event held in the lot directly outside the building housing IN/FORM 6. The iron pour was where the action was -- it evoked the early communal, even unpredictable, spirit of IN/FORM.
The iron pour was multimedia and multisensory, an event that invited improvisation and free participation. It was organized by Andrew Marsh, an unabashed and self-proclaimed "metal head" and graduate student in sculpture at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. Marsh can't contain his enthusiasm for performance metal casting of this kind. He was heavily involved in organizing the 22nd annual iron pour at SIUE, in honor of retiring sculpture professor Tom Gipe, which was held the morning of Oct. 28. Ever resourceful, Marsh decided to schedule a second iron pour for that evening at IN/FORM in an effort to extend the celebration and to introduce St. Louis to the kind of performance casting currently associated with SIUE's sculpture program.
The IN/FORM Devil's Night Iron Pour involved lighting a furnace raised on an elaborate, elevated platform, melting hundreds of pounds of iron and pouring it into sculptural molds supplied by the dozens of participants from around the region and country. But this simple description hardly captures the atmosphere of this iron pour, which was underscored by music and amplified ambient sounds and dramatically lit by stage lighting and the red-orange glow of the furnace's fire. The event was visual, aural, olfactory -- and thoroughly mesmerizing.
As temporal and transient as the iron pour itself was, it left behind material evidence of its success, which has been temporarily arranged inside the IN/FORM 6 galleries, at the entrance to the exhibition proper. On view is the steel furnace platform designed by Marsh himself, which incorporates a downright scary version of the Jolly Roger skull-and-crossbones that became the symbol of the iron pour. Arranged around the platform is a selection of objects cast during the performance, all designed by various artists who participated in the pour. The objects range from a cast-iron bowling pin and rubber ducky, to abstract pieces, to plaques that commemorate the iron pour itself. One piece is displayed along with fragments of its mold, whose singed and blackened interior bears witness to the heat of the metal in its molten state.
These objects alone can't evoke all the power, noise and heat of the iron pour, but they symbolize the event's performance character and communal basis. Though they are only on temporary display, they make a welcome addition to IN/FORM 6, which contains on the whole much quieter, contemplative works in a variety of media.
The always-reliable Tim Liddy is represented by the two large works "Blight" and "Serengeti," which combine high-art references (to Artemisia Gentileschi and Jacques-Louis David) with low-culture found objects (bullet-riddled road signs, commercial icons). With every work, Liddy seems to get better at making rich, complexly layered commentary.
One of the exhibition's more brilliant niches pairs sculptural installations by Ron Leax and Kurt Perschke. Each artist takes medical science as his jumping-off point, to varying degrees of disturbance. Their works conjure up nightmare visions of morgues and hospitals as they might appear in purgatory -- contaminated, outdated, devoted more to the dead than to the living. As chilling as the works are, they are also the most fully realized and compelling sculptural statements in this show. That's saying a lot in an exhibition rife with strong sculpture, including great works by Denise Ward-Brown, Steve Yusko and Julia Dougherty.
The show contains a nicely balanced mix of hand-wrought, earthy works and high-tech, glossy pieces. Jeri Au's ceramic work is small in scale but brings with it a monumental, time-worn quality. Reynold Behrend's heavily worked paintings on maps bring Richard Diebenkorn and Jasper Johns to mind. The photographs by David Casper are absolute eye-candy. Matt O'Shea's series of digital prints shows off his unerring eye for depicting architecture. A highlight of the show is Bill Kohn's enormous painting of an Indian cityscape, which treats the primary forms of architecture in a way that would have pleased Le Corbusier.
IN/FORM 6 is a beautifully curated show. But as good as this art is, it all becomes better when placed against the backdrop of the Lemp Brewery buildings, with their imposing brick walls, copious windows, cathedral-height ceilings and exposed, twisted innards of piping and ductwork. These are the kinds of spaces that can make an exhibition. The complex is an enormous asset to the city's arts community.
And yet it was with a pang of (admittedly nostalgic) regret that I observed the events surrounding IN/FORM 6, particularly the iron pour. The Lemp Brewery, once a site of productive labor and industry for the city, has become the site of labor in a strictly aestheticized form. During the opening days of the exhibition, the furnace was burning, the workers were working and productivity was once again high at the Lemp Brewery complex -- and all of it was made possible, in part, by the death of a former cornerstone of the St. Louis economy. Most people celebrate art's ability to revitalize former sites of industry. Few acknowledge that art can also obscure history by aestheticizing it. So visit IN/FORM 6 with an eye to the history of the site. It pays off.