Arts & Culture » Arts

Inside Out

Shmigel evokes our gutted past without dewy-eyed nostalgia


On my way to see Currents 87: Christina Shmigel at the St. Louis Art Museum, I made a point of taking a good, long look at Richard Serra's steel construction "Joplin," on display in the museum's grand hall. "Joplin" consists of two enormous planes and a roll of steel that appear to balance precariously against one another. On this day, a young man had wedged himself into the triangular space at the sculpture's juncture. This sight was somehow unnerving.

Unlike Serra's steel-and-lead sculptures of the late 1960s, the individual elements of "Joplin" are welded securely together. But the piece nonetheless gains a great deal of power from the visual suggestion that it might fall apart any second. (Inevitably, too, this brings to mind all the old stories about Serra's pieces maiming and crushing workers who were trying to install them.) Works such as "Joplin" invite viewer interaction, but the payoff sometimes comes with a slight psychological threat.

Shmigel's sculptural installation upstairs makes some remarkable connections with Serra's work despite being its complete visual opposite. Shmigel's multipart work, titled "The Logic of Attachment," sends thin bars of steel pipe zigzagging throughout the gallery, suspended from walls, stretching from floor to ceiling and lying across the parquet floor. Intermittently the pipes meet one another in an elbow joint or pass through one of the dozens of miniature tank forms suspended within the structure or perched atop small towers. The gallery seems alive with the sinewy, steely gray lines of this small-scale industrial landscape.

"The Logic of Attachment" is anything but threatening; in fact, viewers pose more danger to it than it could ever pose to viewers. Yet it invites interaction in the form of exploration. Moving through and around its fragile architecture reveals surprising details, such as the delicacy of the metal joints, or the melancholy of the gaping hole on an unjoined pipe. Shmigel forged and fabricated the tank forms herself, and their patinas show off subtle, beautiful colors and patterns.

The installation is absorbing, to be sure. But unlike most paintings and sculptures on display in museums, it refuses to ignore its surroundings; on the contrary, it engages actively with its context. Its simulation of decay and abandonment carries on a conversation with the two large Anselm Kiefer works visible in adjoining galleries. Parts of the piping frame empty spaces on the gallery wall, evoking the memory of art that once hung there. And though its decayed industrial character might contrast jarringly with the museum's Beaux Arts refinement, "The Logic of Attachment" is every bit as much a reminder of St. Louis' past -- and present -- as the museum itself.

Serra excels in this type of operation. It's rooted in minimalist sculpture of the 1960s that dispensed with pedestals and representational form to foreground sculptural shape while heightening the awareness of physical context. "Joplin" charges the space around it with the energy of heavy steel caught in a delicate balancing act. "Twain," in downtown St. Louis, engages in a physical dialog with the Mississippi River and the Gateway Arch as it metaphorically engages St. Louis history, Mark Twain and bygone industry. Although Shmigel works in a completely different mode than Serra, it's worth pointing out that both artists achieve an extraordinary level of complexity in this regard.

Because she works with referential forms, Shmigel's works are replete with more literal associations and allusions than Serra's. Parts of her installation bear uncanny similarities to parts of the human body (and in an interview with curator Robin Clark, Shmigel notes that these parts often share names: elbows, nipples, couplings, etc.). "The Logic of Attachment" can be read as a miniature industrial landscape, invited into the rarefied atmosphere of the museum. Or it can be seen as turning the inside out -- plumbing pipes and other normally concealed structural innards are eviscerated and made available for viewing.

Far from industrial chic, Shmigel's forms contain some of the visual shock of a gutted building. Her structures are naked, skeletal, alone and vulnerable, like many of the abandoned factories and industrial sites that fill this city. Also like them, Shmigel's forms contain the poetics of the past without any dewy-eyed nostalgia. "The Logic of Attachment" wants to tell us something about the past and the present, attachment and loss, and how we see the built environment. We'll all be better off if we listen.

Another St. Louis artist, Judy Child, explores the structure of paintings in a show titled Judy Child: New Work at Elliot Smith Contemporary Art. These modestly sized works are the result of a set of procedures the artist refers to as "circuitry" -- but the finished works display a spontaneity that belies the ponderous process.

Child begins by painting flowers, stars, broad waves and arcs with a brush or palette knife loaded with multiple colors onto saturated backgrounds on paper. The painted forms are joyous but controlled, some with a psychedelic brilliance, some punctuated with drips and splotches à la Jackson Pollock.

She then digitally photographs these essentially finished paintings. The photos are printed out, cut up and reassembled as a collage, which is used as a model for cutting up and reassembling the paintings. The pieces of the collage "puzzle" don't fit perfectly together, so the edges are irregular and the seams clearly visible within the painting. The effect is reminiscent of a crazy quilt or random collision of bright shards and swatches.

The process allows for all kinds of delightful surprises, as in "Candescence," in which gold and watermelon-pink forms crash into one another over a sea of dark eggplant purple. Child's new work employs wonderful, bold colors, sometimes to shocking effect (see the lipstick red and turquoise of "Red Circuit"). At times, color provides the bridge between separate collage elements -- in "Green Dimension," droplets of green on one segment appear to have leaped over from an adjoining piece.

Child expresses an interest in textile arts and African and oceanic imagery; the influence is evident here in the unbridled use of color and the plastic treatment of the paintings. The works also call to mind the great paintings that came out of the Pattern and Decoration movement of the 1970s, in particular Miriam Schapiro's joyous fabric and paint collages.

In a 1999 exhibit at Elliot Smith, Child showed wonderful large-scale paintings on canvas in lovely, thinned-out candy colors. Forms in those paintings were similar to microbes, amoebae and other amorphous beings. There's nothing thin or amorphous about these new works -- they seem to explode from their shadow-box frames. All nine of these paintings are juicy visual treats.

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