St. Louis Art Museum review

| Scene Reporter

Located in Forest Park, about a 15-minute walk from the center of campus, the St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM) houses strong collections of contemporary art and decorative arts and design. It is no surprise, therefore, that their exhibitions in those areas are particularly thought provoking. Three exhibits are on display in various sections of the museum, often in avant-garde or otherwise unusual methods.

“REAM,” created by Tom Friedman, is the newest installation of SLAM’s New Media Series, an ongoing succession of expositions focused on contemporary artists. “REAM” is only one work of art (or 500, depending on your opinion): An animated film, “REAM” consists of a ream of paper, 500 sheets. Friedman drew on each of these sheets to create the short movie. It is rather sparse, and many of the images are nonsensical, including a rocket ship, a variety of faces and lips, a man and a woman lying down together, and several images that are gone too quickly to definitely make out. The drawings themselves are evocative of the opening sequence of “Juno.”

At first, the drawings appear random and often without meaning. After repeated viewings, however (the film is less than a minute long, and it loops continuously, lacking a defined beginning and end), one can begin to see several themes emerge, punctuated by a number of brief stories. The stories themselves are gone in a flash, usually only a few sheets in length; however, they encourage the mind to wander, creating entire narratives from those few pieces of information. On display until Jan. 31, “REAM” takes only a few minutes of your time and is definitely worth a visit.

The second exhibit, called “Document,” is composed of a series of 10 oil-on-panel paintings by Ian Weaver and is connected to “REAM” by a hallway. Consisting of Weaver’s depictions of 10 legal documents regarding his relatives, the single-room exhibition gives a brief snapshot into his family and private life.

“Document” opens with a triptych, a three-painting representation of divorce proceedings between two of his relatives. The rest of the exhibit contains such papers as a Social Security card and both death and birth certificates. Weaver doesn’t just portray legal documents, however; a painting of a personal letter is also on view. Though in a vastly different medium, “Documents” is strangely reminiscent of Robert Frank’s seminal photographic book “The Americans,” from which select photographs were on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City until recently. Frank felt that photography in post-war America had become too glossy and glamorous; he instead turned to grittier and, as he believed, more realistic settings. Through his barebones paintings, Weaver manages to do the same; he has succeeded in accentuating both the high and low points of American life, including marriage, divorce, birth and death, by painting the documents surrounding the situations themselves, rather than the people involved. “Document,” on view until March 7, is an excellent complement to “REAM” but can also be viewed alone.

The largest exhibit in the museum is also, arguably, the most confusing. “Mother and Father Worked Hard So I Can Play,” created by Yinka Shonibare, MBE, takes traditional colonial American and Romantic European settings and infuses them with African undertones. In five of the six “period rooms” of SLAM, Shonibare hides—yes, hides—headless fiberglass mannequins of children.

Shonibare, a member of the order of chivalry the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE), was born in London to Nigerian parents and moved to Nigeria, but attended boarding school in England. His art unsurprisingly deals with pan-African colonialist themes. His six figures are dressed in Dutch wax fabrics, a material originally manufactured in the Netherlands but now connected to Africa. His figures engage in everyday activities, such as “Girl on a Scooter,” “Boy Playing with Marbles” and “Girl Playing with a Doll.”

The mannequins are clothed in batiks, brightly colored cloth that pops from the drab colonial rooms. This further emphasizes the disparity between colonialism and the creation of an African identity distinct from European influence. Though immediately noticeable, the headless children are overshadowed by the Western rooms, evoking additional thoughts of the dwarfing of African culture by other cultures for many years. The title of the exhibit—and its content—clearly suggests room for social improvement, however. The children are at play, taking advantage of their parents’ efforts and sacrifices on their behalf, exploring the ideas, as the museum puts it, of “social aspiration and achievement.” “Mother and Father Worked Hard So I Can Play” is on display until March 14 on the lower level of the museum.

SLAM’s proximity to campus and unusual collection of miniature exhibitions makes it a must-see for Wash. U. students, artists, art historians and laypeople alike.