Walking up the hill in Forest Park to the St. Louis Art Museum, the grandeur of the building demands the attention of onlookers, with its large stone columns and Corinthian capitals holding up the elegant façade. The statue of King Louis IX of France shines brightly in the midday sun, made of bronze that elegantly shifts between the soft folds of his cloak and the stiff armor of his horse. The stone steps absorb the temperatures, either cold or blazingly hot depending on the time of year.
This is where Amy Reidel, local art teacher and painter, comes to work twenty-five hours per week. She works part-time in the Registrations Department, where she is in the process of creating digital documentation of hard-copy materials relating to more than 33,000 objects housed in the museum’s collection. “I arrive at the museum and walk into that big, beautiful building, grateful that I get to be a part of securing its position in perpetuity,” she says.
But today we are in Reidel’s studio, a quaint, focused space where she spends every free moment she can spare. There are few, as she splits her time between the museum, teaching several art classes at St. Louis University and Meramec, and making art. Brightly colored weather radar images and mineral scans of rocks are thumbtacked to the walls alongside several photographs of women, immediately apparent as the subjects of Reidel’s paintings.
Two of the women are relatively recognizable twentieth century pop-culture icons: Karen Carpenter of the popular 70’s soft rock duo, The Carpenters, and Julia Sugarbaker, a character from the late 80’s sitcom, Designing Women. “For a long time, they were just a symbol for me and my mom. It was my way of talking about emotional things without being too personal about them. Because when I was in school, I was told that my work was too personal, and that people couldn’t enter it; it was too journalistic. That embarrassed me a lot.”
Carpenter’s personal struggles are well-documented in the later years of her life. She began dieting shortly after the release of The Carpenters’ first record, which slowly developed into a severe case of anorexia nervosa. She died at age thirty-two due to complications from the disease. Sugarbaker, on the other hand, was the strong, sharp-tongued leader of the interior design firm depicted in Designing Women. “If Julia Sugarbaker could have just gotten to Karen Carpenter…I feel like, you know, she could have saved her,” Reidel says.
In her pieces, images of both women coexist on the same plane, as she manipulates them in such a way that forces them to interact. This led to an exhibit called Expire, which appeared at the Gateway Tower Gallery in 2011.
In the series, large painted color fields, modeled after the weather radars, obscure the images of Carpenter and Sugarbaker. Reidel has carefully layered them on with gouache and acrylic paint, their faces barely recognizable underneath the bright colors. In the quiet, secluded space of her studio, Reidel lends enough transparency to uncover her fascination with these women. Rather than commenting with direct specificity about the women themselves, she has used their photographs as a way to explore the binding, universal struggles of the human condition, casting them as accessible stand-ins to voice the profound emotional sensitivity she has always had. “At the same time I’m sure it’s totally obvious that I find myself in both of those women, for whatever reason.”
Her inclination to start a dialogue about emotional complexity that all humans deal with, be it in the form of a panic attack, a breakup, an existential crisis, or other emotional response, has consistently been a central component of Reidel’s explorations. Yet, learning how to engage this kind of sensitivity in her viewers has taken years of honing her craft and perfecting a more nuanced, sophisticated approach to emotional subject matter.
She reflects back on her earlier paintings through a lens of both humor and nostalgia. “They were very honest. They were very raw and bloody. I compare them to like, teenage poetry, that I certainly used to write, and it is atrocious. It is so embarrassing, even to just read back through when I’m alone, by myself. And that’s what my artwork looked like. To me, it looked like that.” As she articulates the limitations of her earlier work aloud, she simultaneously emphasizes the importance of making it, as it has been a vital step towards conveying content with a higher level of intricacy.
Emotions as a common denominator of the human experience make them an appealing access point for artists: complex, universal, and commonly suppressed, emotions are of infinite fascination. Yet as Reidel has discovered the hard way, it takes years of practice and experience to understand what her formal, stylistic, and material choices truly mean on an emotional level, and to be able to combine them in a way that successfully reflect her intentions.
“Surely you know artists want to communicate. I wanted to talk about these things people feel like they’re not supposed to talk about. Like, if you’re on anti-anxiety pills, or you just went through a really bad break up, but you’re not allowed to actually mourn, you still have to go to work and act like a whole person even though you’re not.”
The process of actually deciding what is important to talk about with art and what isn’t is also a product of learning and growing in art making, and can look completely different for different artists. Warhol’s pop art and mass-produced images rejected the importance of an emotional component and highlighted the absence of it, using advertising imagery such as Campbell’s soup cans and iconographic imagery in the way that Reidel has used images of Carpenter and Sugarbaker: as accessible points of entry for a discussion of something larger. Without those access points, the rich nuance and subtlety of that discussion was lost for Reidel. “It couldn’t get in,” she says.
Either way, what must an image contain that renders us sufficiently unguarded, even for just a moment, to enter it, and allow it to mean something to us? Anna Pasternak of Creative Time, an arts organization in New York City that funds large public art pieces, says a successful piece is, “An exciting, beautiful thing of wonder to look at. But you could also say that ethical engagement with the community is what really matters. I don’t think that there is a static checklist of criteria that one has to meet. You have to define what success looks like with every single project that you do.”
Perhaps this is part of the difficulty of understanding what makes successful work. There are no methodical, standardized criteria for assessing it, except for the artist or viewer’s impression of whether or not it successfully communicates. Even then they often meld together, as successful and unsuccessful components can coexist in the same piece of work. John Sarra, local artist and painting professor at Washington University, says, “In the grandest of failures, it’s the attempt that actually contains quite a lot when you’re digging deep and really trying to articulate something which may not actually be possible to articulate.” Or one of Warhol’s famously facetious responses as to whether or not a body of work is successful: “Don’t pay any attention to what they write about you. Just measure it in inches.”
In short, it seems to mean something different to everyone. There are as many valid ways of working and types of work as there are people making it. To Reidel, it means re-presenting the world in the way she sees it, and drawing connections between things that others might not. She notes a clear difference between “representing” the world and “re-presenting” it, as she seeks to combine old ideas in new ways that are fresh and original, rather than mimicking the traditional, three-dimensional world. The weather radar image is not new, but incorporating it into the world of a canvas or using it to obstruct the image of a recognizable figure, and weaving them together in a new and beautiful way reveals new meaning for both subjects. “Yeah, I don’t know. I guess…Re-presenting the world. That’s all I can come up with. It’s stupid,” she laughs.
In order to make her artistic dreams reality, Reidel has stationed herself in St. Louis, where she has been able to successfully construct a life that allows her to devote herself entirely to her craft. While immersed in the arts community, she has noticed a difference in the cultural attitudes of those who were born and raised here, versus those from outside of the city who see its potential. “I think there are many people that are from here that don’t have any idea what is going on here. They don’t participate in it at all.”
Perhaps there are varying degrees of native disillusionment, or submissive acceptance of the status quo. Regardless, the arts community in St. Louis is thriving. “A lot of the proactive people for the arts scene were not born and raised here. They are from somewhere else. And they have found this city, this sad city, that needed some help, and they are doing a damn good job of making things happen.”
The arts have also been given priority investment: millions of dollars have been spent to improve and restore the St. Louis Art Museum, culminating in a of 200,000 square-foot renovation to the space, yet it is kept free and open to the public. This is unheard of in other cities. Museum entrance fees can range between ten to twenty-five dollars per person, even with senior and student discounts. Our unwavering commitment to the arts and making it accessible to everyone is one of the truly unique factors of our arts community. In the process of promoting the city, perhaps the most important people to target are those who already live here. “You’ve got all these other people that were born and raised here, like me, and they’re not quite as involved. Maybe they don’t see the potential.”
Reidel herself is most telling of the success one can achieve in St. Louis, as she is living, breathing proof of the talent that can grow and exist here. In the process of proving the possibility of success to herself, Reidel has done the same with her students, a new generation of artists living and working here. “I hope they can see that they can do this. Even at Meramec, in St. Louis, Missouri. I remember what that felt like. Like ok yeah, I’m going to be an artist, I’m from St. Louis. But, I don’t want them to think them or feel that way, it’s not true. I know now it’s not true.”
Like Reidel, that new generation of artists in St. Louis have the desire to push the envelope, to introduce new ideas and techniques, and to explore territories left unmarked by their predecessors. As a teacher, she relishes her role in their growth, even if that means just letting them know how truly important it is to make art. “It’s valid. What they’re doing is important. It’s important to make artwork, it’s important to be an artist. It’s not silly, and it’s not frivolous.”
This consistent defiance against the easy, the acceptable, the safe, that relentless pursuit of greatness, equal parts obsessive critique and fierce emotional desire to connect, all contribute to a portrait of an artist such as Reidel.
“You have really beautiful things to say,” I tell her.
“Really? I feel like I’m talking jibberish.”
The passionate community of people who believe in St. Louis and where it could go, fiercely blazing the trail for other artists who live and make work here, encompass many of the reasons Reidel chooses St. Louis. She is one of many case studies of highly talented individuals who opt for St. Louis as the backdrop to further their artistry, and their lives. Perhaps what drives her can be surmised most accurately by one of Reidel’s favorite quotes, a quote by artist Felix Gonzales-Torres that she puts on the beginning of every course syllabus:
“What am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to feel? Who am I supposed to identify with? And, finally above all else, it is about leaving a mark that I existed: I was here. I was hungry. I was defeated. I was happy. I was sad. I was in love. I was afraid. I was hopeful. I had an idea and I had a good purpose and that’s why I made works of art.”
-Felix Gonzales-Torres, 1957-1996.
For more information about Amy Reidel, visit www.amyreidel.com