Saint Louis

Jerstin Crosby

Good Citizen

For Jerstin Crosby’s first exhibition in Saint Louis, “In the Manner of Smoke,” he plastered the gallery’s full-size, outdoor billboard with an image of two men, their faces covered by bandannas, displaying a spray-painted banner that reads YOU CANNOT CONTROL WHAT IS WILD. The work alludes simultaneously to a 2001 arson action by the Earth Liberation Front, in which that slogan was found spray-painted amid the burned remains of a poplar farm, and to Edward Abbey’s 1975 novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, in which the titular proto-ecoterrorists burn, among other things, dozens of commercial billboards. Displayed here, the message was also directed squarely at Monsanto, the infamous Saint Louis–based biotechnology company (though divested of any explicitly environmentalist context, the banner might also refer to the figures who hold it—black-bloc anarchists or other “wild” activists of their ilk).

Crosby’s work probes activism generally, and the environmentalist and animal rights movements in particular, documenting moments of real social resistance, and then switching back to skewer corporate marketing of the “green” lifestyle and its mainstream assimilation. Coop/Co-Op, 2010, for instance, a makeshift fort for activists going off the grid, combines all manner of eco-kitsch (including tie-dye bandannas, a meditation fountain, and a yin-yang Hacky Sack) with more substantial provisions: copies of Peter Singer’s seminal 1975 tract, Animal Liberation, and of the journal Earth First!, in addition to a VHS tape of Raymond Pettibon’s Sir Drone and a poster for Land Art, a video broadcast on Gerry Schum’s alternative West German “Television Gallery” in the late 1960s.

Nearby, a mock community bulletin board caters to the casual environmentalist, advertising Sunday morning vegan “meet ’n’ greets” and a “sweet ride” on a “batmanesque anti-whaling ship.” The back of the bulletin board serves as the projection screen for Little Clouds of Smoke, 2010, a three-channel video of an imaginary episode of Seinfeld performed by goths. Never completely in character, the black-makeup-besmirched actors speak lines of subtitled dialogue that meander from the virtues of soy milk (“It’s heart smart!”) to the beef industry’s 1998 defamation suit against Oprah Winfrey. Alerted to the ever-widening crack in the video’s “fourth wall,” the characters try in vain to seal it with Morningstar Farms food cartons, bandannas, and tape. The video comments on the environmental movement’s penetration of consumer culture and mass media (symbolized neatly by Jerry Seinfeld’s own professed vegetarianism), while lampooning vapid upper-middle-class urbanites and the flaccid countercultural posturing of the goth movement.

The exhibition and video titles derive, respectively, from the Italian terms sfumato and fumetti, and refer at once to the smoke of the arsonist’s fire and to the video’s comic-book-style, three-panel format. (Fumetti, a word for “cartoons,” means literally “in the manner of smoke.”) This elliptical maneuver is typical of Crosby’s work, as is his peculiar tendency to engage contemporary themes via the technology and cultural forms of the recent past. The artist is evidently comfort- able operating on the periphery: While Crosby has exhibited installations at venues in Chicago and London, he also publishes zines from his base in Pittsburgh and broadcasts experimental videos on a North Carolina cable-access channel. Far from exercises in nostalgia, Crosby’s works are generally effective satires endowed with a built-in critical distance.

Ivy Cooper