String of Lights, 1996

Love and Minimum Wage 1996

servetar selects
by stuart servetar

Linda St. John
at Bridges & Bodell

Jan. 25-Mar. 9, 1997

I used to work for an organization so committed to its own self-congratulatory marginality that it maintained a position of outsidedness irrespective of reality. Any person within the organization who became too integrated in the cultural life of this city was asked to leave. Naturally enough the only artists it acknowledged were either dead, insane or lived in shacks. I've been around long enough to realize that an illiterate person with a crayon is not necessarily a more genuine artist than someone who has spent nine years at Cal Arts (and of course vice versa). I've also noticed that people sometimes prefer outsider artists because they are less threatening and easier to exploit.

You can call Linda St. John an outsider artist insofar as she is unschooled, has not seen a lot of art, and actually did grow up in a shack. She did very well at the Outsider Fair and her current exhibition at Bridges & Bodell is also going gangbusters (this may be another way to define Outsider Art: it tends to sell well and at generally reasonable prices). In a perfect world I'd like to think the work sells well because she's so damn good.

Her style is effectively simple. She does paintings and works in fabric, but mostly she is the craypas master, using the medium in a takeoff on the child's approach: a colorful ground is covered in black and then etched into with a seam ripper. St. John's form fits her function insofar as she constantly addresses her difficult and heart-wrenching childhood in rural Southern Illinois. Apparently her father was an abusive alcoholic, her mother a vain and distant woman and her siblings various shades of dysfunctional. That St. John is here in New York making art is a testimony to nature over nurture. The only artist whose work is comparable to hers at the moment is Richard Billingham, but St. John works at a remove and looks back on her family with literary distance. And it is with literary aplomb she draws vignettes from her childhood in razor-sharp compositions featuring pumpkin and black-headed characters (through the artist is herself white) in natty plaid shirts against the false light of traveling carnivals, set in the family shack or sitting on a lime green couch. Over and again we see terrified kids waiting on Dad, Mom, the cops or God knows what. All the elements in St. John's world scream with color equal in intensity but directly opposite the drab pathos of her former reality.

Bridges & Bodell,13 East 7th Street, New York, N.Y. 10009