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Review: CAMSTL shows are spare and rich

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 16, 2010 - The two shows on view at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, "Richard Artschwager: Hair" and "Elad Lassry: Sum of Limited Views," bring together artists from different generations working in very different media, yet who explore overlapping themes.

Those at all familiar with Artschwager's work probably know him best for his early sculpture: formica-covered boxes decorated with bright colors and straddling the lines between functional design, Minimalist sculpture and Pop Art.

Here, he's making furniture again, in severe, abstract lines that are softened by the rubberized horsehair he employs as a medium. Such horsehair is usually on the inside of upholstered furniture; Artschwager essentially turns the furniture inside-out, exposing the stuff that is normally invisible but that gives furniture its form.

It's a fascinating material that forms dense nests of lines and masses that appear solid and permeable at once. Artschwager uses it to make furniture, but also figures that dance across the wall, exclamation points and things he calls "Blps" -- punctuation points that pop up in unexpected places. A "Blp" is a sort of free-floating signifier; it can mean anything or nothing. More important is the function of the "Blp," which is to draw your visual attention to things and places you would normally overlook.

Herein lies one of many connections to the work of Elad Lassry, on view in the adjoining gallery. Lassry presents photographs of random-seeming subjects, framed and hung at eye-level. The point is not to determine the meaning of the individual photographs, but to understand them in relation to Lassry's larger project.

In various ways, the artist contemplates what photographs are in the 21st century: sets of digital code that occasionally become analog in the form of the print. The randomness of Lassry's subjects -- cat toys, vegetables, wigs, publicity headshots -- speaks of the mind-boggling ubiquity of photographs in the world.

By printing these oddly banal compositions, he gives temporary material stability to a pervasive medium that has become thoroughly unstable and immaterial. The frames are key components in this effort -- they're brightly colored, minimal forms that push the photographs closer to sculptural objects.

Lassry's frames also hearken back to Artschwager's early work, those colorful Pop/Minimalist chairs and tables the venerable artist was making in the 1960s--and so they bring this exhibition full circle. Pairing the work of these two artists was an inspired move on the parts of curator Laura Fried and guest curator Anthony Huberman.

This is an excellent show, spare but satisfying, nuanced and rich.

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

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