St. Louis

Thea Djordjadze, His Vanity Requires No Response, 2011, mixed media. Installation view.

Thea Djordjadze, His Vanity Requires No Response, 2011, mixed media. Installation view.

Thea Djordjadze and George Maciunas

Thea Djordjadze, His Vanity Requires No Response, 2011, mixed media. Installation view.

In 2008, the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis launched its Front Room, a modestly sized gallery space off the entrance lobby, in which guest curators organize experimental, short-run shows. This March, an unlikely pairing of works by the late, Lithuanian-born Fluxus artist George Maciunas (works selected by Mari Dumett) and Georgian, Berlin-based artist Thea Djordjadze (curated by Mel Trad) produced some unexpected revelations, and even a few formal parallels that encouraged us to read process-based narratives into Djordjadze’s often opaque installations, while synthesizing the odds and ends associated with Maciunas’s projects to be seen as more than just ephemera.

Designer, architect, and a founding member of Fluxus, George Maciunas (1931–1978) was represented here by works such as Artist Name Cards, ca. 1964–68, and a chart titled Fluxus, Its Historical Development and Relationship to Avant-Garde Movements, 1966, both of which displayed the artist’s fastidious, inventive design sensibility, which echoed the formal interplays of Djordjadze’s sculptural practice. Beginning outside the gallery in the Contemporary’s entrance lobby, the selection of Maciunas’s work included abstract films, along with photos and documents such as his often-reproduced Self-Portrait, 1963, and the Fluxmanifesto on Flux Amusement, 1965. Also included were materials related to Maciunas’s unrealized Ginger Island project, 1969–71, for which he planned to purchase uninhabited land in the British Virgin Islands and build dozens of prefabricated “Fluxhouses” of his own design, thereby developing an alternative living community. Throughout his career, Maciunas was committed to the idea of community building and maintained faith in architecture’s role as an agent of social change. His optimism resonated somewhat ironically in Saint Louis, site of the 1972 Pruitt-Igoe debacle and blighted with a declining population and a surfeit of abandoned buildings.

While several more works by Maciunas lined the inside of the Front Room’s walls, Djordjadze’s His Vanity Requires No Response, 2011, spanned the concrete floor, simultaneously reading as an exercise in abstract formalism and the aftermath of some entropic event: At the center of the gallery lay two large, rectangular remainders of cheap medium-pile carpet, one drab peach and the other gray. The gray carpet overlapped the peach by about six inches and was covered in a haze of white paint, while about an inch of one edge was saturated with a stripe of deep indigo. To these dual fields of carpet, Djordjadze had added a series of ad hoc constructions, including a boxlike, jerry-rigged structure of metal mesh, plaster, and wire, set on a mirror and capped by a varnished-wood floor tile; opposite this, on the far end of the carpet, was a fireplace screen slathered in white plaster, save for a square segment left clean, which neatly corresponded with the boxlike object it faced. Elsewhere, more detritus-like forms suggested additional mini-narratives of their own making. Viewed as a whole, the composition evoked Hans Hofmann’s midcentury abstract painting, the interwar hybrid forms of El Lissitzky, or maybe the product of Russia’s OBMOKhU group, whose ca. 1920 experiments with reclaimed industrial materials correlated with an interest in avant-garde social reconfiguration.

Djordjadze, having spent her teenage years in Tbilisi and now based in Berlin, is no stranger to buildings and spaces with backstories rooted in political conflict and corruption. In preparation for this show, Djordjadze sourced her materials from Saint Louis’s local salvage sites. A closer look at His Vanity Requires No Response (the title deriving from Saint Louis native T. S. Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land) reveals details such as brick embedded in plaster, hinting at a criminal enterprise peculiar to this city and currently on the rise: the illegal torching of empty buildings to procure Saint Louis’s coveted red-clay brick for profitable sale to developers across the South. In another artist’s hands, such commentary might take a more elegiac, even maudlin form. But, like Maciunas, Djordjadze balances poetry with a certain dry-eyed pragmatism, issuing trenchant observations as to how we inhabit this world.

Ivy Cooper