Contemporary Art Museum Celebrates Ten Years With Ambitious 'Place is the Space'

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

With an eye toward celebrating their building’s tenth anniversary, the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis has kicked off the fall 2013 exhibition season with an impressive, multifaceted show that celebrates the building, investigating its form from construction-phase origin to present and future function as a high-profile art museum.

“You and I, Horizontal (II)” Anthony McCall

“You and I, Horizontal (II)”
Anthony McCall
Courtesy of CAM

Apart from the main exhibit, Place is the Space, the show features three additional works. “You and I, Horizontal (II),” is an intriguing laser beam composition by British-born, New York-based artist Anthony McCall in his first solo museum presentation in the Midwest. Renowned German artist Thomas Bayrle contributes “Chrysler Tapete,” a wallpaper work, and the show features the launch of a new sound art series featuring work by St. Louis-based artists Brett Williams and Jessica Baran, which continues through this season.

But easily the show’s focus is Place is the Space, a rare curatorial collaboration between museum staff and the architect who designed the building. Architect and founding principal of Allied Works Architecture, Brad Cloepfil, co-curated the exhibit with CAM chief curator Dominic Molon. The exhibition features five new site-specific commissions by major contemporary artists who address key aspects of the building, including boundary, intersection, public accessibility, scale, surface, and transparency.

"The Picture of Place" Jill Downen

“The Picture of Place”
Jill Downen
Courtesy of CAM

The exhibit is an ambitious one. To strengthen the thematic relationship between the exhibit and the building’s history, CAM has been deconstructed to its original incarnation; its “bare bones,” as Molon describes it. Over the years, walls have been added, windows covered and other visual or construction elements altered. Deconstructed, the space is raw, surprisingly expansive, and a little disorienting, as though you’ve walked into the wrong building. All of which directs focus to the building’s genesis and its subsequent ten-year bloom.

Here’s a look at the artists and their work represented in Place is the Space, currently showing at CAM:

Arocha-Schraenen is a two-artist team known for their installation-based and sculptural work that explores the relationship between material, space, and perception. In “Place is the Space,” Arocha and Schraenen have installed an overlapping abstract graphic pattern on the windows of the museum’s café and performance space that appears to change density depending on the angle you view it from, allowing varying degrees of visibility through the glass.

Jill Downen incorporates surfaces, flaws, and other elements of a space to create organic forms. For CAM, Downen has filled a long crack in the floor of the building with gold leaf, which she has titled, “Beauty Mark.” In addition, Downen has recreated a wall sculpture that she originally created at the museum nearly a decade ago. Such challenges have permeated Downen’s career. Her message is that our flaws—such as the crack in the floor that has been there since the building’s construction—have the potential to make us beautiful.

Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle creates sophisticated sculptures and video installations and often uses natural forms such as clouds, icebergs, and DNA. Here, the artist has installed a new sculpture comprising a massive cube constructed of charred cedar planks and a grid of white maple beehive structures to address issues of scale, proportion and surface within the building.

Virginia Overton, known for graceful sculptures that use raw materials such as drywall, mud, and wood beams, has created an elegant arrangement of long metal pipes across architectural voids between the museum’s main galleries and performance space and between the performance space and lobby. Along one wall, ropes tied to sandbags disappear overhead, then seemingly drop back down along an adjacent wall where they appear to hold a long pipe suspended at an angle.

Dominique Petitgand, who is one of the most prominent French artists working in sound, creates works that address the relationship between the spoken word, silence, music and space. His CAM project will juxtapose abstract sounds emanating from speakers placed in the main galleries and performance space, with a French vocal narrative and video translation, prompting visitors to consider their physical and public presence in the space.

As museum-goers walk through the exhibit, Petitgand’s audio composition occasionally interlopes with a clang, scrape or buzzing, reminiscent of construction sounds; a clink here, the faint sound of a jackhammer there; the clashing sound of metal on metal or a tool dropping to the floor, like the ghosts of construction workers still working to create the CAM we know today, a place that truly is the space.

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