Renewed Minimalism: A Conversation With St. Louis Artist Brandon Anschultz
“Have you heard of the hanky code?” St. Louis artist Brandon Anschultz asks mischievously in his Lafayette Square studio. It’s 4pm on a Friday, and it feels time for an early cocktail. Sun dapples the floors and walls, Indian summer turned interior design.
“Back in the Stonewall days in the sixties and seventies, when you were cruising for guys along the street, you’d have a really complex code of colors represented by handkerchiefs,” he explains, gesturing to a cerulean bandana tucked behind a red-orange painting, part of a new series of work he’s been preparing for the last six months. Of course, Anschultz wasn’t cruising during Stonewall’s heyday, and the handkerchief hanging from the canvas isn’t meant to be taken literally. Dubbed “Head (Warning),” it pays playful homage to a time in which the stakes for being out were often quite grave.
When Anschultz was born in “middle-of-nowhere” Arkansas in 1972, gay identity was as hidden as the hot springs below. When queer figures first hit the mainstream in the early ’80s, the artist was just hitting adolescence. “Think about a ten-year-old kid seeing Boy George for the first time,” he reflects. “But at the same time seeing a man with AIDS a month away from death on Oprah.”
As a visual artist, Anschultz is most known for a kind of flamboyant minimalism—process-oriented pieces that experiment with shape and materiality, often with a flash of whimsy. For his 2014 Great Rivers Biennial show at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, amorphous forms protruded from an array of free-standing door frames and geometric shelves, like psychedelic plungers. But this past year, he has shifted to a “content-out” approach, notably more narrative and much more personal.
“After the election of 2016, I’ve had trouble making work primarily about aesthetics,” he says, while giving me a tour of his space. “After everything sort of changed in the world, I couldn’t make that kind of art anymore. My point of departure is thinking about what it means to be growing up as a gay kid in the ’80s. It was the first time that queer people really had visibility. I was part of the first generation that had that.”
While Anschultz’s form-driven aesthetic hasn’t disappeared, it’s now complemented by a collage mode rife with pop cultural references. In “David (Flowers),” a portrait of ’80s activist and artist David Wojnarowicz appears upon a damask rose circle below a penciled outline of an inverted triangle. In another, the visage of porn star Billy Madison appears upon a series of printed pineapples, a symbol of welcome and hospitality. A trail of pearls splits the piece like a seam—festooning the raunch with faux-class charm while mimicking dribbles of something more sordid.
Navigating both nostalgia and lamentation, Anschultz’s new body of work “mixes mythologies” while incorporating imagery and objects from his own life. In one sculpture-in-progress, a curtain of fluorescent string and white lace is pinned with a badge of Boy George’s lacquered eye, and topped with the fedora Anschultz once wore playing dress-up as a boy. In another, the hourglass and iconic pink triangle combine to form a three-sided mirrored pedestal. For “Pink (Not Quite Arkansas),” a trapezoidal canvas is covered with enamel and sand, suggesting the passage of time.
Anschultz’s art has traditionally been one of making and waiting, waiting and making—letting form itself prompt future developments, obsolescence being one of them. At the heart of his studio are a series of waist-high tables, the walls lined with cans of house paint. Dozens of rubbery plunger sculptures hang above like melting Dr. Seuss chandeliers. “These were made like candle-dipping over six to eight months. After they cured, they had to be sanded. It was very much about the making of the thing as the thing itself.” Bisected, each layer of dried paint betrays the time taken to create each form, like the rings on the trunk of a tree.
“I’ve always been drawn to making work with fleeting materials,” says the artist. “I like the idea of my work having a life and a death.” This temporality of process is thrown into glittery relief in the title of his new exhibition, “Time Won’t Give Me Time,” taken from the refrain of a 1982 Culture Club song. Comprising the inaugural show at Flood Plain gallery on St. Louis’ Cherokee Street, his work will be on view from November 4 through December 16.
“Don’t put your head on my shoulder, sink me in a river of tears,” croon the lyrics of the song. “This could be the best place yet, but you must overcome your fears.” In a similar spirit, Anschultz approaches the challenges of his past with equal parts tenderness and curiosity. This is not a show mining past traumas for public consumption. Nor is it confessional, because there is nothing to confess: a young artist came of age through a turbulent but exhilarating time, his story no less moving for being unextraordinary.
Heading out of the sunlit space, a small framed illustration beckons the eye above a crowded double desk. “My master pieces,” it reads in careful Crayola—a caption to an assemblage of red, blue, pink and orange circles colored above. “My five-year-old drawings look the same as my forty-four-year-old drawings,” Anschultz jests. Some things, it seem, never change. Even the most abstract play with shape and shade prove autobiographical, (“master”) pieces to the puzzle of what it means to be a maker, and, in some humble way, what it means to be alive.
All photography courtesy of Brandon Anschultz.
Cover image: “David (Flowers)” by Brandon Anschultz