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Review: 2010 Biennial at the Contemporary challenges, but is accessible

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 4, 2010 - The 2010 Great Rivers Biennial, now on view at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, is a resounding success. The individual installations by artists Martin Brief, Sarah Frost and Cameron Fuller are considerable accomplishments in their own right, but shown together, they comprise an extraordinary group show, with connections and productive tensions emerging out of the context.

Brief and Frost have produced works that are cerebral, tightly focused and highly handcrafted, while Fuller’s technical approach is more varied and his project generally more expansive. Together, the works represent the best of contemporary practice today: critically engaged, formally resolved, intellectually challenging yet accessible.

Brief’s installation consists of 28 text drawings. Each is a transcription of titles containing the word “god” from lists generated by searches on Amazon.com. Brief has handwritten the titles in vertical columns, lining up the word “god” in each title to form a central spine.

From afar, the scrolls appear to be seismological charts. On closer inspection, they indicate something about the infinite and peculiar nature of God’s presence in popular culture today, as offered up by Amazon, a web-based entity of godlike proportions.

Imagining Brief working for hours each day, hunched over his paper scrolls, transcribing his lists, recalls the scene of medieval monks toiling away at their manuscripts; at the same time, the project is thoroughly contemporary, a timely cultural examination and a rich contribution to the field of conceptual drawing.

The project possesses unexpected theological implications as well, causing one to pause and consider ideas about the centrality of language (the Word) in spiritual practice.

Frost’s installation, “Arsenal,” was also inspired by the Internet. The artist discovered a subculture of adolescent artisans on You Tube, sharing their practice of making handmade paper guns.

In a series of video stills, Frost depicts members of this ad hoc community — all preteen boys, alone in their bedrooms, showing off their creations and running tutorials on gun-building. As a response to what she discovered, Frost followed the painstaking instructions and made countless weapons of white paper.

She’s suspended them from the ceiling to produce an improbably beautiful floating cloud of guns, knives and ammo. “Arsenal” proposes an alternate avenue for considering the issues of violence in society and the pervasive fascination with guns. And it points out that such alternative thinking is needed, for the children in the videos seem far less interested in real violence and the murderous capabilities of guns, than they are in creative collaboration, crafting things and solving the formal and mechanical challenges they present.

Fuller’s project is a multi-room exhibition titled “From the Collection of the Institute for the Perpetuation of Imaginal Processes.” Fuller’s Institute is another kind of collaboration, a conceptual enterprise that stages opportunities for artists and audiences to engage their imaginative capacities.

This exhibition opens with “As it is,” a diorama of the type that we used to see in natural history museums, with taxidermied animals in an environment of faux rocks, water and trees; it’s a magical scene suspended between the real and the fictional, the living and the dead. “Remembering Washington” plays on anthropological and museological practices as well, and includes masks, sculptures, costumes, and other objects fabricated from Fuller’s memory of Northwest Coast Native American designs.

The key element in this work is a video of a “native” (fellow artist Sarah Paulsen) dancing in a bear costume, a work that references early anthropological documentaries and films like “Nanook of the North.” The suspiciously funky bear dance is a tipoff that Fuller is playing on tropes of authenticity and nativity. Indeed, “play” is an operative concept in this project, and in the Institute in general, which models itself loosely on the idea of a traveling circus, and invites viewers to reconsider and even surrender to the wonders of the everyday world.

Ivy Cooper, a professor of art at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, is the Beacon's art critic. 

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