PRINT September 2019



Installation of Joseph del Pesco and Jon Rubin’s Monuments, Ruins and Forgetting, 2019, 2712 Cherokee Street, Saint Louis, April 3, 2019. Photo: James McAnally.

CHEROKEE STREET is a singular commercial thoroughfare in Saint Louis. Surrounded by an ethnically diverse low-income residential area, it’s home to the city’s largest Latinx population as well as its largest black community south of the North Side. After a handful of small, shaggy, and mostly short-lived alternative art spaces moved in roughly eighteen years ago, the area began to earn a reputation as a creative district; I directed one of those spaces for four years and lived on the street for six. The Luminary, a nonprofit run by Brea and James McAnally, was founded at a rental space in a nearby neighborhood and moved to its permanent location, a former Walgreens, on Cherokee Street in 2014. This was just before Michael Brown, a black teenager, was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, about fifteen miles away, in Ferguson, Missouri. The tragedy shook the city to its core, remaking its identity from once-prosperous site of the 1904 World’s Fair to ground zero of a burgeoning civil rights movement. It also galvanized a new generation of activist-minded artists eager to respond to the city’s—and the country’s—deep-seated racial disparities.

The first iteration of Counterpublic, organized by the Luminary in 2015, probed this climate of upheaval while addressing the growing concern that its host, an ambitious contemporary-art institution, threatened to gentrify Cherokee Street. The Luminary placed seven individual artists and collectives (all but two of whom were based elsewhere) in operational storefronts along the street, presenting the two-day exhibition as a diplomatic gesture toward neighbors, an attempt to demonstrate that art can share its community’s concerns and have a place in everyday culture. Within the gallery was artist and Ferguson activist Damon Davis’s Hands Up, 2015, made in collaboration with artist Basil Kincaid, and consisting of black wooden cutouts of arms that were originally set up on area lawns. These were installed near a small survey of Dread Scott’s work, which included Historic Corrections, 1998, a complex multimedia installation in which mechanized police batons swat black baseball caps in a circular configuration around an electric chair. In Sweet Shears, a long-standing neighborhood barbershop, Saint Louis artist duo Work/Play (Dani and Kevin McCoy) created Shrine to Liberation, 2015; sage burned next to an offertory bowl, above which hung framed illustrations of historical black male figures. On the windows of Supermercado El Torito, the community’s central Latinx grocer, Chicago-based artist Alberto Aguilar displayed handpainted signs that bore bright, boldface phrases comprised of Spanish cognates, such as LOCAL PATRON LOCAL, INEVITABLE INVASION INEVITABLE, and CRISIS INVISIBLE CRISIS.

To assess the effects of those interventions on Cherokee Street is difficult; none of the various openings and closings of businesses and art venues seem to have ameliorated or worsened the entrenched economic challenges besetting residents. But the city’s broader art community, including its major institutions, has, in tandem with the Luminary, begun to embrace an agenda of activist-conscious programming and support for the young local artists engaged in such practices. The Pulitzer Arts Foundation and the Contemporary Art Museum, for example, have thoughtfully retooled their major exhibitions and events while amplifying their community outreach and collaborations. Davis and Kincaid, among several others, have since launched nationally lauded careers. The community has also begun to recognize Cherokee Street as a more central art district, in part because of the Luminary, but also because of this shift in priorities, which has legitimized small alternative initiatives such as the Bermuda Project and Paul Artspace, both in North County.

Demian DinéYazhi´, falling is not falling but offering, 2019, letterpress prints on paper. Installation view, Foam, Saint Louis. Photo: Melissa Fandos.

On the heels of two recurring midwestern exhibitions (Open Spaces in Kansas City, Missouri, and the Front International triennial in the Cleveland environs), Counterpublic returned this year, more expansive (with thirty-one participants, a three-month duration, and a dense event calendar) and rebranded as a “triennial exhibition scaled to a neighborhood.” Sprawling periodic shows of this nature, guaranteed to attract tourist traffic, revenue, and press, are unabashed in their civic boosterism; it’s therefore no surprise that spaces in cities frequently subsumed under the inglorious, provincializing, and obscuring label flyover country would want to throw their hats in the ring of this global art phenomenon, which grants them access to capital and, just as important, a voice in serious national and international art discourse.

For Counterpublic, specifically, this dramatic rebranding resurrected questions that have dogged the Luminary since its move to Cherokee Street: Who is this for and to what end? Most responses relied on a textual rather than a visual vocabulary. Tiling the windows of Foam coffee shop, printed signs by Portland, Oregon–based artist Demian DinéYazhi´ read, variously, WHITE RUINS, WHITE FLIGHT, and STERILIZATION, recalling Edgar Heap of Birds’s prints about the violence of colonialism and the ongoing oppression of indigenous communities; several blocks down, over a vacant storefront, Pittsburgh-based social-practice artist Jon Rubin and San Francisco–based curator Joseph del Pesco mounted a series of massive yellow signs that read, for discrete, several-week intervals, NATIONAL MUSEUM OF MONUMENTS, NATIONAL MUSEUM OF RUINS, OR NATIONAL MUSEUM OF FORGETTING. While these artists may have been speaking to a national audience about changes in their own home cities, or about the longer trajectory of Cherokee Street rather than about its present, residents and nonresidents likely interpreted their signs differently; this ambiguity called attention to the splintered intentions of the exhibition itself.

While Counterpublic’s artists may have been speaking to a national audience about changes in their own home cities, residents and nonresidents likely interpreted their signs differently.

Despite the number of voices in Counterpublic, the prevailing one was the Luminary’s. To navigate the exhibition as a whole, viewers depended on a printed map and guide containing extensive explanatory statements written and edited by James McAnally, which represented a missed opportunity to invite other perspectives into the fold. There were no descriptions of the host venues or their owners, nor was there any clear document of the voice of the exhibition’s curator, the remarkable artist Katherine Simóne Reynolds. This was problematic in itself, but all the more so given that she was the only person of color among the project’s leadership and that so much of the work on view concerned the erasure of histories and the danger of hegemonic narratives.

The more embedded installations by Saint Louis–based artists—such as José Guadalupe Garza and Miriam Ruiz’s Latinx community library in El Chico Bakery or Yowshien Kuo’s insertion of spiked and queered cowboy hats and men’s shirts among the merchandise at Carrillo Western Wear—lent nuance and complexity to the experiences of both their host venues and Counterpublic as a whole. Yet the triennial’s most transportive moments were those that caught one off guard precisely because they hewed to aesthetics more common to art spaces. Cauleen Smith’s Sky Will Learn Sky, 2018, a grouping of bright-orange banners bearing hand-stitched phrases from Alice Coltrane’s writings, installed in the lofted ceilings of a church turned performance venue, carried all the signifiers of protest culture while evading its didacticism through careful material choices and a poetic use of space. In Saint Louis–based artist Kahlil Robert Irving’s MOBILE STRUCTURE; RELIEF & Memorial: (Monument Prototype for a Mass), 2019, which stood in a vacant lot, an ambiguous wooden scaffolding anchored by sandbags and a deconstructed flag held up a strip of ersatz blue sky.

If the success of community-integrated art projects is typically marked both by a conscientious use of space and by the mutual dedication of neighborhood and artist, notable ongoing examples in Saint Louis include Juan William Chávez’s Northside Workshop, which emerged from his activities on Cherokee Street (where he still resides) and has evolved into a partnership with the Old North Saint Louis Restoration Group to renovate a dilapidated venue for hands-on training in such areas as horticulture and beekeeping. Ilene Berman’s Room13Delmar similarly addresses the neglect of specific communities within the city; her long-term project engages the neighborhoods north of Delmar Boulevard, which have historically been deprived of resources, largely because of their socioeconomic makeup. Yeyo Arts Collective, also once in the Cherokee Street neighborhood but since relocated to a site on the North Side not far from Berman’s and Chávez’s spaces, was founded by artist Dail Chambers and operates on a membership model specifically structured to support women’s wellness. What distinguishes these projects is their dispersal of authorship among their community collaborators—almost all people of color—who collectively form their own voices and missions.

Saint Louis is now at a critical juncture; it could lead the conversation on responsive and responsible art institutions or succumb to malignant stagnation. The path forward involves not necessarily the establishment of more art spaces, but rather a reevaluation of how they’re constituted, who leads them, and how their presence affects their communities.

Jessica Baran is a writer and Director of Curatorial and Program Development at Barrett Barrera Projects in Saint Louis.