This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: June 11, 2008
Courtney Henson's Character Study: Collected Data at Maps Contemporary Art Space is more than a simple art exhibit. It's a glimpse into Henson's ever-expanding Gesamtkunstwerk, her ongoing investigation into processes of growth, decay, dichotomies, and taxonomies.
She's worked these themes into an elaborate fiction centered around twin characters, Knit and Purl, who inspire her to make and collect the most unexpected, wonderful things: a knitted pod-suit for the twins, gingko leaves, tiny sculptures, sprouting seeds, books on botany, toy gardening tools, photographs, notes, and an old library card-catalog with drawers full of typed poems, book cards, and little objects, all filed under the subject headings Sight, Smell, Sound, Touch, Taste and Sensitivity.
Somehow, Henson imparts a magical charm to everything she creates or finds, making this collection a veritable Wunderkammer. Like the fledgling plants that populate this exhibition, Henson's own curiosity spreads its sinewy tentacles into some dim but marvelous corners of history, making oblique references to everything from Victorian couture, to archaic medical discourse, to the Biddenden Maids, conjoined twins in 12th-century England who bequeathed money to distribute cookies bearing their likeness to the hungry and strangers in town.
Sundays during this exhibition you're likely to find the artist herself, in a costume of her own making, occupying the domestic portion of the exhibit. She'll be knitting, but she's never too busy to engage in conversation about the entire affair, so don't be shy. And don't forget your cookie.
Through July 31 at Maps Contemporary Art Space , 225 North Illinois Street, Belleville, IL, 618-334-4347
Gallery hours are Saturday and Sunday, 12 - 5 p.m. or by appointment
How to write about Habitat, the exhibit of works by William Morris, Thomas Sleet and Seitu James Smith at the Regional Arts Commission?
It's a show with major ambition, to put it mildly. Curator Sleet writes in his statement that he "wanted to address issues that included art, architecture, environment, society and the spirit."
What actually transpires is a collection of three works that fit somewhere in Sleet's roomy roster of issues, though their specific associations with "habitat" remain unclear.
Sleet's own work, "Imation" (2008), comes closest to the title concept. It's a large beehive-like structure made of I-shaped bricks of cement pulp. Inside is a little pile of leftover bricks and some Styrofoam.
Smith is represented by a large acrylic painting on tarp, titled "Liberation Theology: Truth and Rights as Habitat" (2008). The painting collects random-seeming items (chickens, Egyptian symbols) around a crucifix and a preacher with outstretched arms. It's engaging enough, and Smith can certainly paint. I remain a little suspicious of the "habitat" in the painting's title: It may have snuck in for the occasion.
Morris' short video, "New World" (2008), is the most confident work of the three, combining graphic symbols and film clips to form a meditation on religion and the idea of heaven. I suppose heaven is a habitat. So are religions, in a sense. But carry that line of thinking far enough, and you find yourself in the middle of some pretty wide-open territory. Which might be a better title for this show than Habitat.
Ivy Cooper is an artist and professor of art history at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.