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Ars Populi: 100 Artists Interpret The Human Face



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panoramic photo by Dickson Beall (click for larger version)
May 20, 2011
CLICK HERE for more photos.

It may come as no surprise that Bill Christman, creator of the Museum of Mirth and Mayhem at City Museum, is now one of three partners at Ars Populi, a curious new art venue in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis' West End.

Christman and his partners Keith Spoeneman and Greg Rhomberg think it's a hoot to call themselves curators, as all artists who submitted portraits for the opening exhibition, "100 Artists Interpret the Human Face," made the cut. The artwork was hung for the Ars Populi launch May 7 and 8 – a two-day celebratory opening of the gallery.

But forget that gallery word — which conjures up white-cube architecture with a young woman, in all-black, peering from behind an austere desk. These new guerilla gallerists consider that approach elitist. Their exhibition space calls to mind Greenwich Village coffee houses in the beatnik days.

Pull up a chair and kick back. Let's talk about art and take pleasure in the assortment of odd portraiture hanging crowded and crooked on the walls. There's a story behind every canvas.

Here's a brightly colored fauve-like work by Mel Meyer, S.M. (better known as Brother Mel) who belongs to a Marianist order. Making art is his service to the monastic community where he resides — no small aspiration, since he put out about 400 works last year. He specializes in sculpture, but his painting on display, a psychedelic portrait of a fellow religious, is wild in spirit.

Next, behold the solitary artwork made by Edmond Gottschalk — a strong and simple portrait of his friend Jack Parker, the owner of O'Connell's great burger and watering hole.

Gottschalk is an ex-Merchant Marine who lived in the Gaslight Square district in the late 1960s, a reported imbiber, who painted entirely from memory and traded his lone painting for wine and sandwiches.

Some of the artists on view are completely unknown and could fit in the "outsider" category of art. Consider the next piece, an anonymous work made entirely with matches, some of them burned, to create a figure in relief, glued to a flag background. A modest work of art, it presents a recognizable likeness of John F. Kennedy. The Kennedy family once owned it (probably a gift to them), then gave it away to a charity auction, from whence it fell to a good St. Louis home.

By contrast, at least one artist represented in the exhibit, Edward Boccia, enjoys some measure of fame. The brightly colored work on view here is characteristic of Boccia, with a bit of his Max Beckman influence showing through.

Now 90 years old and living in Webster Groves, Boccia continues to teach art in his home. One of his works, a mural at the Catholic Center on the Washington University campus, is seen weekly by hundreds of worshippers and has lived down the controversy that surrounded it when he painted it in the early 1960s.

More than one artist in this show abandoned a career in commercial art to become a businessman. An example is Chris Reuss, who for many years was an illustrator, but now is the coffee roaster of Mississippi Mud, a business that counts Dierberg's as a client. The young woman in his painting sits in a café and seems to be sharing an intimacy with an unseen companion.

A stand-out in the show is a work by Nancy Newman Rice, a full-time professional artist who is represented by one of the local white box galleries. Her double image pointillist portrait of daughter Amanda captures a movement in time, set in a soft and lovely space, which contrasts with the raw setting of the Ars Populi Gallery.

Is it successful? Does this gallery experiment, adjoining Christman Studios, bring more local color and energy to the neighborhood?

In a word, yes — if success means that there's a new kind of space for the St. Louis art scene. Ars Populi is akin to the much younger and "with-it" energies of Cherokee Street, and it adds to what Christman and others in St. Louis call a Renaissance of art.

I hope Ars Populi will engage conversation among other local galleries and museums that are also reaching out to the community, encouraging a wider participation in the arts. Welcome, Ars Populi.

Dickson Beall produces art videos at StLouisan.com.

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