Danielle’s ARTicles: The Ladd boys are back in town

| Staff Reporter

Steven and William Ladd are back on their stomping grounds, entertaining the Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM) with their playful personalities, boisterous singsong and humorous childhood stories. Their show “Currents 111: Steven and William Ladd: Scouts or Sports?” showcases their new set of works made specifically for this exhibition in their hometown. Curated by Simon Kelly, curator and head of the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, and Molly Moog, research assistant, the show focuses on the Ladds’ process of handmade paper, as well as their memories of childhood extracurricular activities: boy scouts and sports, among other constant themes.

Ladd 1Danielle Leventhal | Student Life

The Ladd brothers grew up in St. Louis with little exposure to experimental art education; they each remember creating one piece of art throughout their entire grade school experiences.

“I drew a dog and still have it,” beamed Steven.

“And I made a candy wreath and ate it all,” William announced.

But the brothers clearly had plenty of other experiences to draw from for their current artwork, as they are now showing their intricate beadwork, textiles and sculptures made of recycled materials internationally while operating two studios in New York City.

A central piece in the exhibition at SLAM is the “Dad-n-Lad” sculpture. Steven and William did a performance installation of 48 hand-sewn boxes, each topped with gridded green origami camping tents, filled with cavern-like pockets created from paper-mache and inlaid glass beads. This piece was inspired by the scouting trip that both Ladd brothers participated in with their father, and the textures that fill these “landscapes” were designed to evoke the cavernous Missouri terrain that the brothers encountered as scouts.

Watching this pair in their socks—quietly carry each box to the gallery-white pedestal, meticulously place them side by side in two sets of 24 and then synchronously prop open the lid of each creation to reveal its interior layers—was reminiscent of two schoolboys deeply engaged in constructing a LEGO masterpiece. This reticent exercise in an otherwise animated presentation was telling of the artists’ values, which they define as “spend your life doing what you love, be focused and disciplined and collaborate.” The duo demonstrated their passion for this focused collaboration in just a few minutes of installation.

Ladd 2Danielle Leventhal | Student Life

These three specific values are the key pointers in the Ladd brothers’ educational workshops for children. In conjunction with each exhibition, Steven and William engage with the community surrounding their museum shows by running art programs with students. They plan to work on a “Scrollathon” with over 500 kids in the St. Louis community, where each participant makes a scroll out of recycled fabric and learns to title their work. All of the scrolls will be included in a collaborative piece and exhibited at SLAM for the final two weeks of “Scouts or Sports?”

“We love the idea of giving back and sharing our values,” explained Steven. The brothers document these programs by photographing each student who participates in the workshop, interacting with them one at a time. “It’s always this very personal interaction with every single student…It becomes this moment of deeper-level engagement for them.” While the Ladd brothers have incorporated this educational initiative into most of their work in the past, their parallel experiences growing up in St. Louis, and the fact that this show is actualizing their childhood dreams will have a particularly powerful impact on the students in this city.

Although the Ladds tend to produce new work and explore different subjects for each exhibition, a running theme has been ants. “It’s all related to this early childhood memory Steven and I have where we pulled a red Lego box out from underneath the bed, and millions of black carpenter ants infested our room,” William recounted. Today, the ant as an iconic image in their work has shifted to symbolize collaboration and the loved ones who have supported them up until this point. This memory is brought to life in the Charleston Period Room (a separate exhibition of furniture in the Decorative Arts and Design galleries), where the artists have installed the original red Lego box with 50,000 tiny-cut paper ants pouring out into the gallery space. Six two-feet, glass-blown black ants also populate the Alexandria Period Room, each representing a member of their family.

The Ladds do remember Ellsworth Kelly’s “Spectrum” piece as an early inspiration, which is exhibited at SLAM just two galleries over from the “Currents 111” space. “This is like our ‘Spectrum,’” William said as he motioned to the 12 large scale paper landscapes, each embracing a specific color in its obscure texture of metal and glass beads, shredded paper, staples, pins and other recycled objects. Like Kelly’s piece, the Ladds took on 12 colors: six to represent memories from childhood sports and six from boy scouts. Much like the interiors of the “Dad-n-Lad” boxes, these textured surfaces elicit a sense of profound time and space, both in memory and physical handiwork. Besides the obvious red “Cardinal Nation” piece, most of their memories are very personal and privy to their unique upbringing (and many of them evoked song-singing by the artists). A standout piece from the series is “Tower Tee,” a dark, backwoods green texture that was inspired by the boys’ tradition of playing mini golf at Tower Tee, a course close to their childhood home.

Today, the Ladd brothers continue to play golf (now on a par-three course) every Wednesday in New York City, where they live three doors down from each other. Their focused collaboration continues outside of the studio, and the two artists are constantly talking through their processes.

“We’ve set it up so that we have these moments that are completely outside anyone else where we just figure everything out over the course of four hours,” Steven said. “It’s amazing to just see the level of our productivity and the conversations that can happen in that period of time. And play golf.”

The Ladds’ whimsical spectacle, “Currents 111: Steven and William Ladd: Scouts or Sports?” is on view at the Saint Louis Art Museum through Feb. 14, 2016.

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