31 October 2011

Sustainability and the Built Environment

You are invited to attend the exhibition opening at the St. Louis Artists' Guild upcoming on Friday, November 11, 2011 at 6pm.

Take a look at this short video I put together announcing the show and explaining the criteria for the USGBC Missouri Gateway Chapter's selection of awards.

Please share a link to the video with others who would be interested in the event!

09 October 2011

Sarah Paulsen's Anytown

I'm writing about Sarah Paulsen's mini-epic animation dealing with the City of Kirkwood. I encountered the first section of her production entitled, "Act I – Anytown" at the Critical Mass Creative Stimulus group exhibition (curated by Sarah Colby) held at the Regional Arts Commission gallery in August and September.

I was immediately drawn to the sprawling collage of elements situated in the southeast corner of the gallery opposite the glass entry doors. It featured a swirling montage of images, backdrops, abstract elements and multifarious materials. The tableau was grounded on the walls themselves on which the artist had drawn, painted, colored and pinned numerous images. Included were cuttings from color magazines, hand painted buildings and settings, three-dimensional figurines, string, rope, fabric and many other elements creating a rather hypnotic, almost psychedelic effect.

Detail of Sarah Paulsen's animation props for Anytown, 2011 (photograph by Andrew Raimist).
As I began to inspect these collaged parts, I began to notice recognizable structures that were well know to me at least. A Target store was prominently situated along the axis of a downtown American main street with post office, restaurants, train station, churches and other buildings typically found in midwestern towns and cities. As I looked closer, I realized the train station included was the iconic stone building in downtown Kirkwood. "Perhaps just a coincidence," I thought.

Detail of Sarah Paulsen's animation props for Anytown, 2011 (photograph by Andrew Raimist).
I was working on trying to piece together what this tableau was addressing. While the overall visual imagery was playful and fanciful, there was a solid grounding in a very real place, one that I feel strongly connected to . . . and I began to wonder what this was all about. At that point, I had no idea that the materials displayed on the walls had any relation to the video playing in the little mini-theater set up nearby.

However, once I noticed pedestrians looking up at the spire of St. Joseph's Catholic Church, I realized that this representation didn't just have some elements borrowed from Kirkwood, it actually was a re-creation of the city itself although in an unfamiliar configuration.

Detail of Sarah Paulsen's animation props for Anytown, 2011 (photograph by Andrew Raimist).
I explored the composition, following string, thread, rope and paint from one scene to another. I came across seemingly generic images of suburban America. Comfortable green neighborhoods with grand homes, automobiles, children at play and an abundance of flowers. The striking cloverleaf located above the overview of a residential street grid suggested a kind of controlling mandala that kept the energy of the community flowing through the veins of the streets. Being green and having four quadrants, it was also reminiscent of an actual leaf of clover suggesting a grounding of the community in nature and landscape (if only abstractly and distantly).

Detail of Sarah Paulsen's animation props for Anytown, 2011 (photograph by Andrew Raimist).
Dividing the scenes were rather abstract sections that seemed curious in their materiality. The juxtaposition of flat two-dimensional representations with these physical things created a sense of disjunction that seemed to destroy the ability to impose a coherent narrative structure or sequential pattern in the layout of these collaged elements.

Detail of Sarah Paulsen's animation props for Anytown, 2011 (photograph by Andrew Raimist).
Small child-like figures were suspended from thread by clothes pins in the corner. At once, Vladimir Tatlin's Corner Relief of 1915 came to mind while I stared curious and inquisitive into these Sears catalog types of happy figures. The idyllic aspect of the suburbs was abundant in the scenes of happy family life, joyful childhood summers and luscious, well-tended gardens.

The most powerful part of the animation is the story of the families picking up their children for ballet and the kids all going in different family's minivans. The story, and your delightful depiction of it, touched my heart. That is the kind of essence of trust and goodwill that is at the center of what makes Kirkwood special.

Detail of Sarah Paulsen's animation props for Anytown, 2011 (photograph by Andrew Raimist).
A sense of naivete suffused the work, yet it was clearly the product of someone with some very definite thoughts and intentions. Was this meant to be a critique of the suburb as a kind of utopian community without strife and loss? As I considered this question, I began to notice small suggestive details that indicated we were not quite in paradise, such as the "For Rent" and "For Lease" signs depicted in some of the vacant storefronts.

Throughout my examination of this display, I kept hearing deep tones of voices muffled but suggestive. I found it a bit hard to focus my attention on the work that had initially grabbed my attention because so many people were grouped around the table display positioned nearby. I took a look to see what was drawing people's interest there assuming it was another artist's presentation.

As I stood and looked over the shoulders of those gathered around, I realized that some of the images included in the animated film being projected in this mini theater featured some of the elements I'd just been examining on the walls. I gradually pieced together that these displays were both parts of a larger whole and began to try to listen more closely to the audio track to no avail.

Detail of Sarah Paulsen's Anytown, 2011 (photograph by Andrew Raimist).
Once I was able to get to a spot where I could see the video I started to get a better sense for how the characters and the scenery displayed on the wall were being used to tell a story. That night at the gallery opening, I could only hear the timbre of the voices and sounds on the soundtrack, but couldn't really discern their content. In a way, this made the experience all the more powerful for me, since I had to fill in the audio track with a narrative of my own making.

Detail of Sarah Paulsen's Anytown, 2011 (photograph by Andrew Raimist).

The conversations of those attending the gallery opening caught my attention, particularly when I heard someone mention Connie Karr. Now this whole presentation began to take on a different aspect entirely. Perhaps it was intended to comment on the recent turmoil, violence and conflict that had cropped up in my city (viz. 'Cookie' Thornton's February 2008 shooting at Kirkwood City Hall).

Once I returned to the collaged elements on the wall, I then noticed the small, empty stage set emblazoned with, "Connie Karr for Mayor." This gave me pause. I realized she did in fact intend to take on those difficult events. This put my appreciation and understanding of your intentions into a completely different realm. At that moment something deep in the pit of my stomach fell and realized that there was something of a fairly serious nature being addressed by these playful, engaging images, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. (I only later realized the image was likely based on a display at the Greentree Festival and not a proscenium decorated for a political rally).

Detail of Sarah Paulsen's animation props for Anytown, 2011 (photograph by Andrew Raimist).
I returned to the video projection which was a bit difficult to view because the projector was located within one building and the movie screen was situated on the facade of another building. This set up imposed a particular scale and limited the number of people who could reasonably view the animated images being projected.

I patiently waited while the film looped until I could move up to the side of this unusual model theater. Why was it this size? Why couldn't I clearly make out the audio which seemed to include women's voices speaking rather dispassionately about something.

Detail of Sarah Paulsen's Anytown, 2011 (photograph by Andrew Raimist).

All of a sudden I realized the building containing the projector was an abstraction of Kirkwood City Hall and the facing structure suggested the Station Plaza facade across the street. The City Hall was blocky and solid, while the Station Plaza structure seemed to be supported on a kind of scaffolding suggesting a billboard or outdoor drive-in movie.

Detail of Sarah Paulsen's Anytown, 2011 (photograph by Andrew Raimist).

At the gallery opening, I must've watched the animation sequence at least four times through and began to gather a sense about what kind of a story you were trying to tell. While the opening mentions "Anytown" and indicates that it's the first part, I was unclear about the direction in which the story was intended to head.

I began to listen in the conversations going on around your sort of digital version of the Globe Theatre. I heard people mention that your mother was a good friend of Connie Karr and that your project was somehow being done in relation to those painful events in recent Kirkwood memory.

Until that moment, I was seeing what you'd produced as being a pleasant, charming, engaging depiction of suburban life in America, with Kirkwood being given as a local example. I felt the kind of playful fun of Monty Python's animations which tend to end with a giant splat or some unexpected surrealistically complete and sudden change of context.

Examples of Terry Gilliam animations for Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Once I understood that you had some intention of dealing with some of the serious, heavy events in recent Kirkwood history, I started to view your project somewhat differently. I was looking for bits that somehow relate to racial, economic and class divisions. I could find a few insinuations of the that, but I couldn't be sure if I was projecting that onto your work or if they were something that I'd actually "discovered". For example, there's the bit about the country club and the gate which seems to indicate an element of exclusion within the seeming suburban paradise of the American midwest.

Her approach of interviewing people in Kirkwood to fashion an audio track and act as a scaffolding for the narrative and a basis for the imagery is clever and effective.

I determined to return to see the exhibition another time when the gallery was not so crowded and I might be able to hear the audio track. I did revisit the exhibit finding myself even more captivated by the thoughtfully constructed scenes and able to expose the small speakers hidden within the City Hall model so I could hear it more clearly.

Detail of Sarah Paulsen's Anytown, 2011 (photograph by Andrew Raimist).
This posting doesn't come to any substantive conclusions, in part because the work itself seemed open-ended and deliberately incomplete. After all the beginning of the video loop indicated it was, "Act I – Anytown." I now realize that this piece is merely the beginning of a larger project. I look forward to seeing this project develop as Sarah continues to investigate this rich mine of emotions and history.