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Participatory "Occupational Therapy" At CAM

"Sanatorium" by Pedro Reyes. "Occupational Therapy," installation view, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, through Aug. 16. photo by David Johnson (click for larger version)
June 03, 2015
Sometimes, with contemporary art, it's not easy to know if you're in the gallery of an art museum or on the ward of a psychiatric hospital.

Entering the main gallery at the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM), the viewer faces a wall with scribbled notes. Oversized pieces of notepaper appear wadded up by a frustrated writer and thrown on the floor. This work, "Why Be an Artist?" by William Powhida, is an entryway grabber.

Wall text announces the show's title: "Occupational Therapy." The viewer can glance across to double doors, crowned by a bold blue sign, "Sanatorium." Good! If this artwork makes the viewer crazy, there's a place to check oneself in.

This faux "clinic" is, of course, an installation. These days, contemporary art exhibitions often include more installations, performances, videos and photography, with less of the traditional materials – drawings, sculpture and paintings – that older generations would define as art.

The 20 artists represented here are not so interested in materials; they focus on thought process. They question their identity as artists and probe the relevancy of what they do. Their works are like artifacts, left from their process of being honest with themselves – the detritus of their vulnerability.

Exploring questions and possible meanings presented in these works moves the viewer into an inner relationship with the artist. Artist and viewer, along with curator and museum, are called to respond in a communicative process.

This participatory interaction challenges notions of wellness and assumptions about what it is to make art or to be an artist. Taking time with these works is bound to encourage self-reflection and conversations that go beyond art, the art market and cultural comfort-zones.

"Love Vibe" by Rochelle Feinstein. "Occupational Therapy," installation view, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. photo by David Johnson (click for larger version)
Cynicism, irony and humor cross-pollinate throughout the gallery. Rochelle Feinstein captures the insincerity of an age when every recorded moment of the narcissistic self seeks yet another click of approval. In her work, "Love Vibe," the action of making art is repeated again and again, as if seeking more and more approval. Yet her vapid and oft-heard "Love Your Work" comment suggests inner doubt, and even anger.

Meanwhile, the drone of the Christian Jankowski installation, "Becoming Healthy," echoes through the gallery, as the protagonist artist obsesses for the answer; there has to be one. Isn't that what therapy is? Where is the magic bullet?

Deb Sokolow's architectural notes and drawings portray a paranoid narrator, telling stories about her daily life and imagining what life is like for her studio neighbors. She is an unreliable reporter, and the viewer is onto her, as she stalks the man in room 501 and fantasizes that the designer in 504 is a serial killer.

"Sanatorium," by Pedro Reyes, takes the show. This installation, a faux psychiatric clinic, invites the visitor to examine both personal and social ills. The barrier between doctor and patient is erased, as a CAM volunteer "therapist" does an in-take of the museum visitor, now playing the "patient."

The patient is asked to play out relationships in his/her life, to meditate on death and then to write an epitaph. Moving to another room, the patient becomes both artist with brush and writer on an old typewriter and is challenged to express gratitude for something.

Before leaving CAM, go back to the main entryway and spin Reyes' wheel-of-fortune. When I did, the spinning wheel stopped on the words "Hurry, hurry has no blessings" – one of the major points made by this show.

"This Project Started in Confusion and Will End in Disarray" – a Letterpress work by Carl Pope that is, really, two posters – nails the first part of this exhibition. Confusion is the initial reaction. However, the take-away from this show is not disarray, but a sense of how curator Kelly Shindler has organized something quite tidy and strong, well worth careful scrutiny and full participation.

"Occupational Therapy," installation view, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. photo by David Johnson (click for larger version)
"Occupational Therapy" is on display at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, 3750 Washington Blvd. in Grand Center, through Aug. 16.

Also Showing

• Lauri Simmons, Two Boys and the Love Doll, through Aug. 16

• Michael Staniak, IMG_, through June 28 (Front Room)

• New Art in the Neighborhood: 20/20, through July 20

• Nomad Studio, Green Varnish, through Sept. 13.

CAM is open Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and open until 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday. For more information, visit camstl.org.

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