Now in its sixth edition, the Great Rivers Biennial has become a sort of mixed blessing over the past twelve years for St. Louis-area artists. On the one hand, inclusion in the Biennial is one of the region's premier arts honors, offering three emerging or mid-career artists a $20,000 honorarium, recognition by a panel of well-regarded independent jurors and the promise of a major exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. On the other hand, the Biennial often leaves its young recipients in a difficult position. First, they must produce a body of work — and quickly — that's on a scale larger than many are accustomed to, prompting some past recipients to produce a glut of uncharacteristic (and at times inferior) work in the hope of filling CAM's cavernous galleries. Second, they've reached what amounts to the final rung in terms of area recognition — the irony being that more than half the previous recipients of this award have ended up leaving the city.
While it's too early to say what will become of the three artists selected for this year's Biennial, one thing is clear: Brandon Anschultz, Carlie Trosclair and Cayce Zavaglia have produced three visually engaging shows that compare favorably to Biennials past, commanding the space while offering viewers a sumptuous, if at times uneven, gallery experience that explores the relationship between surface appearances and underlying structure.
Opening the Biennial is Anschultz's ambitious Suddenly Last Summer, a house-of- mirrors-like installation where the artist loosely evokes the garden scenes from Tennessee Williams' titular play, using mirrors, smoky glass and spare vertical constructions to continue his exploration of paint as a sculptural medium. Anschultz has been plumbing the tactile qualities of paint for the past several years. For the current show, his first installation, he has embedded objects from his practice — wadded canvases, foam, dowels, even an old cell phone — in successive layers of house paint, hanging them to dry each day before submerging them again. It's a collaboration between the artist and chance, and what emerges is a series of organic forms whose exteriors are reminiscent of ginger root or stalactites.
But like the garden in Williams' play, Anschultz's installation is a site of revelation and obscuration. Using a band saw to slice these forms at dramatic angles, Anschultz exposes what lies beneath — a sort of painterly geode, polished smooth, that reveals successive bands of color and the original objects that lie at their center. Existing somewhere between painting and sculpture, these art objects are a study in color theory. Paint, so often used as a two-dimensional medium, here becomes the object itself, as three-dimensional bands of color radiate from the works' physical center.
While these sculptural forms are often successful on their own terms, their inclusion in the installation accentuates this tension between exposure and disguise, earthy exteriors and polished interiors. The tinted glass flattens these three-dimensional forms, making them appear as though viewed on a screen. Meanwhile, the mirrors do triple duty: placing viewers in the show, disorienting them in space and offering multiple viewpoints for the sculptures.
The installation's smooth lines and organic forms are set off, bewilderingly, by a couple of clunky pieces of wrought-iron filigree — a humorous nod to the "garden theme" that, in my mind at least, distracts from this otherwise very smart work.
The Biennial's second exhibit, Carlie Trosclair's Exfoliation, is also its most problematic. Trosclair, a talented young artist (and a recipient of a 2012 Riverfront Times MasterMind Award), has made a name for herself in recent years using textiles and wallpaper to create temporary spaces of real beauty in the city's abandoned ruins. Her work — which meditates on the ephemeral nature of buildings, looking at their eventual fall into desuetude as the tacit promise inherent in their functional life — responds to decay, viewing it not as an eyesore or an impediment to growth, but as part of the building's natural lifespan. As these buildings, through erosion and neglect, eventually reveal their internal structures and hint at the lives they once housed, Trosclair creates liminal spaces. She installs wavelike forms to create a bridge between a structure's past utility, its present thorniness and future possibility.
In Exfoliation, however, Trosclair has created a simulacrum of decline. Using salvaged two-by-fours and vintage wallpapers, she has created an installation that mimics a decaying building, staining a freshly erected swath of artfully crumbling drywall with a false patina of age. The drywall, which still smelled fresh at the opening, is "decomposing" on its outer wall, revealing the broken pieces of wood that support it. Meanwhile, the interior walls of the space boast a precisely rendered gash, where Trosclair has cut away the drywall to reveal layers of antique wallpaper and the salvaged wood beneath. The fourth wall, a massive enterprise, is again plastered over with wallpaper, whose diamond-shaped pattern is in the midst of peeling off, like butterflies about to take flight, or a bas-relief of decline.
Exfoliation is successful in so far as it creates an environment. Still, this work, which attempts to reconstruct the ravages of age, can't help but feel manufactured and aestheticized. Is Trosclair responding to a particular sensibility that fetishizes rust-belt decline? Perhaps, but that would be a pretty small quarry for this artist. Instead, the work reads like a model of Trosclair's real oeuvre, and I can't help but wish she had approached the museum's white walls on their own terms — the same way she approaches the slouching buildings to the north.
Rounding out the show is Recto/Verso, a marvelous collection of embroidered and painted portraits by Cayce Zavaglia. Zavaglia, a relative unknown in St. Louis, brings magnificent craftsmanship to these small-scale works. With a painter's eye, she combines different types of thread to create meticulous images that have the luminosity and depth of a finely rendered oil painting.
These works, which can't help but recall the craftsmanship of medieval tapestries, are stitched directly on to the canvas, which Zavaglia paints in mottled hues of pink, gray and yellow. These backgrounds, some of which appear to have been sanded down, make the portraits themselves appear all the richer, popping to life against their unobtrusive backdrops.
As realistic as these beautiful little portraits are, Zavaglia, in keeping with one of the show's inherent themes, is also fascinated by the underlying structure of her craft. In Rebecca (Verso), for instance, Zavaglia displays the canvas on a pedestal, allowing viewers to see both the surface — a richly crafted portrait of a woman — as well as the verso side, which reveals the work's reverse image. Here, the recognizable figure is partially obscured by the network of loose threads and knots that undergird its surface beauty. It is, in a sense, a visual riff on Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Similarly, Zavaglia is presenting a series of large-scale acrylic portraits that seek to re-create these semi-abstract embroidered images. They are interesting enough as paintings. Still, they lose some of their force when exhibited next to the thing itself. Overall, however, it is a marvelous body of work from a skilled artist who deserves greater local recognition.
Organized by associate curator Kelly Shindler and sponsored by the Gateway Foundation, this year's panel of judges included artist Mel Chin; Lowery Stokes Sims, curator at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York; and Lynne Warren, curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Together, this panel of judges has selected three very different artists who wrestle with similar questions from different perspectives. Whether St. Louis can keep them? Only time will tell.