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Musings: A satisfying look at American vision

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 18, 2010 - Peter Shank, a scion of the great Shank family of artists and an accomplished painter in his own right, has put together a genuinely satisfying exhibition of drawings by artists and architects at the Frank Lloyd Wright House in Ebsworth Park. The house is not the most accommodating showplace for pictures. The numerous obstacles it presents, however, were overcome by the curator's understandably strong desire to present these drawings in a special, albeit quirky, house, and since there is a prohibition against hanging anything, his ingenuity was born of curatorial necessity.

Drawing is part of the respiration of architects and artists -- good, thoughtful ones anyway. And sketchbooks are essential company for them, be the sketchbook one of those wonderful blank-page Moleskin books or a simple dime-store composition book. The drawings that fill these sketchbooks often are quick sketches, notations of ideas to be realized fully later. But other times these drawings are painstakingly produced, often when an architect finds himself in some particularly visually rich place, where the drawings rise from the level of the off-hand to stand sturdy as works of art.

Such is the case with the drawings in this show, which is called "Through American Eyes, Views of Europe by St. Louis Artists and Architects."

These artists and architects should be familiar to anyone who lives in St. Louis and cares about the visual arts and the built environment. Some of the artists and architects represented worked in isolation; others worked for art schools or firms of various sizes. What distinguishes them, and what they shared, is the desire - perhaps the obsession - to represent and to interpret what they saw on visits to foreign and exotic lands.

Peter Shank understands such passion. He has a cultivated and a discerning eye, cultivated by virtue of having looked at architecture and art all his life, and having grown up in a household where the world of art was omnipresent materially and intellectually.

His father, Isadore, was an architect who designed many great modernist residences built in St. Louis in 20th century. His mother, Ilse, was a nationally celebrated, stylish illustrator. Both his brothers, Paul and Stephen, are accomplished artists. Thus it's no surprise, really, that Peter Shank did such an admirable job selecting the art, and hanging it as well. The best work is that which is heavy on meaning rather than realism, drawings in which the seen is subjected to interpretation and in which the soul, or essence is drawn forth from a building or a streetscape, rather than simply shown.

The impulse to play the favorites game is resisted here; so is the cop-out of the laundry list. The checklist is lengthy - there are about 50 drawings in the show, and numbers aren't the point.

The point is to encourage readers to go to see this carefully considered group of pictures, and, having looked at them, to think about the glories (and the fragility) of the built world and to realize how deeply affecting and important that world is, whether experienced at first hand, or in a drawing produced by someone endowed with the capacity to bring our material surroundings to life in an various but always enlightening ways.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.

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