But no matter how great the thematic differences between the winners of the Great Rivers Biennial 2008, Corey Escoto, Michelle Oosterbaan and Juan William Chávez share one thing in common: Each is profoundly rooted in drawing.
"Their practices are so varied. They're each interested in very different issues and their relationship to drawing is very different as well," says Laura Fried, the new assistant curator at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. "But all three are serious draftsmen. Hopefully visitors will draw their own connections."
Jointly sponsored by the Contemporary and the Gateway Foundation, the Great Rivers Biennial was formed in 2004 with the hope of exposing promising local artists to the broader art world, and, by the same token, exposing the broader art world to the promising artists of St. Louis. Now in its third exhibition, the biennial — this year judged by Cheryl Brutvan (curator of contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston), Lilian Tone (an assistant curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York) and Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson (director and chief curator of the Aspen Art Museum) — has quickly become the region's most important juried exhibition. With increased importance has come deeper pockets: This year's winners will receive $20,000 apiece, up from $15,000 in 2006.
"The best thing a contemporary art museum can do for its local artists is to show them and give them money," says Paul Ha, the Contemporary's director. "Our goal is to get [the prize money] to where an artist can actually leave their job for a year."
In years past the biennial has featured everything from a speaker-studded Chevy Blazer to oil paintings to installations, and while this year's artists all call upon their shared foundation of drawing, they've each placed draftsmanship in the service of another medium.
A recent graduate of Washington University's graduate program, Corey Escoto is presenting an exhibition of drawings that is as much a display of artwork as it is the presentation of a unified cultural critique. Deeply influenced by the comic-book aesthetic of Los Angeles artist Raymond Pettibon, Escoto here imagines the "Global Repair Service," a fictional international relief agency that draws heavily on the iconography and animating spirit of the United Nations.
Although Escoto's agen-cy gets rough treatment at the hands of its creator, who portrays it as a culturally naive organization given to well-intentioned half measures, many of the drawings — of boats, Humvees and other quasi-military vehicles — are meticulously rendered and caringly fleshed out with watercolor.
It's this tension — between Escoto's seemingly flippant critique of rosy idealism foundering upon thorny reality and the great care with which he presents it — that informs much of his show. One suite of drawings, which includes a crudely rendered picture of a male student demanding that his professor "inspire" him, is contained in a finely crafted hexagonal display case.
"A lot of the stuff that I do has this element of humor or is satirical or sarcastic," says Escoto, a Texas native. "It's important to me to let people know that I'm not just making some superficial joke, but that there's genuine concern. By having that craft element, it kind of reflects that ultimately I care. It's not just an easy joke or criticism."
Recently, though, Escoto has been moving toward sculptures that are based on his drawing practice, and he's exhibiting The Right Tool for the Job? The piece is a giant drill (courtesy of the Global Repair Service, of course) created in the spirit of Claes Oldenburg's iconic 1969 antiwar sculpture, Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks.
Global in orientation with an ear tuned to hypocrisy, Escoto also displays a work titled Global Misuse Offsets Coin Funnel, a sculpture that pokes fun at a feel-good green culture whose members would rather buy carbon offsets than change their lifestyle.
"It's really weird how instead of changing they'll just buy their way out of the problem. I guess some good comes out of it, but it's really kind of a half step," says the artist. "I also think it's a funny idea — sort of trying to instill guilt into the viewer."
Originally working as an installation artist whose works — colorful, geometric, inspired by modernist architecture — created the impression of distinct spaces within spaces, Michelle Oosterbaan made the jump to figurative drawing three years back.
"I wanted to slow down," says Oosterbaan, a visiting assistant professor at Wash. U.'s School of Art. "I enjoyed the fact that I could transform places quickly, but in the end I wanted to make a more beautiful surface. I wanted to spend more time developing something with more of a sensitive touch."
The result is a series of drawings that takes personal memory — its conflicting distortions, obsessions and vagaries — and seeks to reproduce it on the page. By turns highly detailed and merely gestural, outsize in scale or minute, rendered in bold strokes or the faintest shadow, Oosterbaan's richly layered drawings seek to mimic the nonlinear and evolving nature of memory: Depending on where you stand, past events will either loom large or retreat into darkness.
"A lot of these drawings are about place or memories of places and creating a sense of myth or story based on memory and little moments in time," Oosterbaan says. "I'm trying to catch all of them — the big picture, the macro idea — and then the smaller bits inside of that. I'm fascinated by how big events are made out of really small things."
Many of her drawings, punctuated by large "breathing" spaces of pure, unvarnished paper, feature expertly rendered animals — bears, large cats, dogs — that inhabit metamorphic spaces leading to a hint of water, fences, flowers or layers of earth.
Oosterbaan now works in figurative drawing, but her show also includes installed elements: a stenciled chalk-dust carpet Oosterbaan has created on-site and an "environment" she constructed in the Contemporary's windows of overlapping colored wax paper that, she says, is an "attempt to really surround the viewer and have them inhabit a place."
Her past as an installation artist is everywhere on display here, even in her choice of large sheets of paper. Though painterly in size, they're then populated with intricately rendered and often minute subjects.
"I have to think: What's worth drawing? Every day we're bombarded with images, and I need to sit down and think: How does it fit into the ecology of the drawing?" says Oosterbaan. "By pulling the spectator closer, that gets them to participate in the story. These drawings have very particular associations for me, and I don't anticipate that people will come away with the same story that I'm presenting. But it's more interesting to me to keep it open-ended."
Juan William Chávez
As the director of Boots Contemporary Art Space, Juan William Chávez helms one of the city's most interesting galleries. With the suite of drawings he presents at this year's biennial, Chávez shows himself to be equally talented as an artist.
Steeped in the tandem cultures of film and fine art, Chávez's work — borrowing from the Italian futurists and the early work of Marcel Duchamp — seeks to portray the dynamism of motion pictures (or live action) in a static, two-dimensional plane. Often Chavez will draw from a television monitor — a soccer game, a piano solo by the experimental jazz pianist Sun Ra — all while filming himself drawing the film.
"It's kind of the cross between the art experience and the artistic experience," says the Peruvian-born, St. Louis-reared artist. "I'm the viewer, and at the same time I'm the artist — that's what draws me to a lot of my subject matter."
For the biennial, Chávez has illustrated two ultraviolent scenes from A Clockwork Orange: the gang fight that interrupts a rape in an abandoned theater, and the droogs' trip to the writer's house, which also includes a rape scene.
Unlike his earlier works, which endeavored to show an entire moving scene in one still image, here Chávez has made good use of his DVD player's pause button, using the TV "kind of like a still life," and assembling 50 or so discrete drawings for each scene. Working quickly and with only those drawing instruments he'd collected around himself — pencils, gouache, pen — Chávez has produced a series of drawings rendered in radically different styles: some gestural, some with stick figures, others that are cartoony, still more that are nuanced.
"I'm drawing really, really fast with a lot of variety of media, so it kind of goes from storyboarding to abstract expressionism," Chávez says. "Some drawings you can get a hint that it's from A Clockwork Orange, but a lot of the drawings you couldn't just walk up to them and say: 'Oh, that's from that movie.'"
Chávez has hung the assembled drawings, which are rendered on smallish sheets of paper and framed, on the outside wall of the Contemporary's multimedia room. Inside, he has digitized the drawings and is projecting them large-scale, in sequence and accompanied by the sounds of the original movie scene.
"It becomes like a whole new thing," says the artist. "I kind of like that back-and-forth, where the viewer sees this small little intimate drawing, and then going into the next room and it becomes this big monster."
Opening Friday, February 1, from 7 to 9 p.m. A panel discussion with the artists is scheduled for the following day at 1 p.m. Free.