Left: “Choice or Chosen” by Deborah Alma Wheeler (Courtesy of Eric Wynen/The Current)

By Sarah Hayes, A&E Editor

Saint Louis is an architectural city of concrete and steel, new designs built on top of and wedged between the ancient sculptures and aging buildings of its history. It is a city that moves forward while remaining in the trappings of its culture-based living memory, entrenched in religion, economics, sociology and what is born through the intersection of the three. Local artists have been working to capture the complexities of these various differences, and three modern artists are now displaying their works with their visual representations of the anxieties that regularly affect those caught in the trap of modern living.

“Exposure 18: Nervous Laughter” is the current art exhibition at the University of Missouri—St. Louis’ Gallery 210; it officially opened on August 29. The artists in “Nervous Laughter” are all St. Louis natives whose installations are rooted in the stress that comes from living in an intra-divided community. The featured artists are Aimee Howard, Deborah Alma Wheeler, and Brett Williams; the exhibit itself is a part of the Exposure series by the St. Louis Art Gallery Association and is a regular event at Gallery 210.

Walking through the gallery room of “Nervous Laughter,” the most apparent theme throughout all three artists’ pieces is tension—tension with society and tension of the self. Wheeler’s pieces are prominently from the point of view of someone who grew up caught between the pressures of the Christian faith and being a member of the LGBT community. One of the largest pieces is Wheeler’s “Religion f**ked me”, where she has strewn rose petals across a bed that looks slept in, while the bedside table features an ornate open copy of the Bible and a cast rubber dildo shaped like Jesus.

While Wheeler displayed more pieces of objects in life set in contradicting scenes, such as the book and the sex toy, Howard’s displays show the artist’s skill with metalwork, especially copper and bronze. Her art is split between two different series, both sharing the concept of examining the body on both a visceral level and a psychological level. The ‘Catharsis’ series features pieces such as the “Guilt Debilitator,” a device created by Howard to alleviate a fake syndrome which has real life symptoms, in answer to how disease affects both the ill person and those who are in close contact with that person.

However, there is no disputing that the most noticeable and magnetic piece in the entire “Nervous Laughter” exhibit is Brett Williams’ mixture of visual and audio, “Consonance/Dissonance.” The set is a combination of cables, metal and wood, various electronics including a guitar amp and a microphone that swings from a complicated-looking device, bumping into elaborately placed symbols and setting off sounds that reverberate through the room. It is a loud piece that attracts attention and takes up nearly half of the room but between the swing of the mic and the sounds coming out of the speaker, it is also strangely hypnotic.

The issues and questions expressed in the “Nervous Laughter” exhibit are not simple ones to digest, like the pieces themselves. Depending on the viewer, a piece can elicit a wistful sigh, a knowing nod, a revolted look or even a bout of nervous laughter – thus the title of the exhibit. According to the program, nervous laughter is a normal reaction in “social situations that are unfamiliar or challenging, especially when confronting circumstances or ideas that run counter to societal norms or deeply held beliefs.”

For college students, it is commonplace in the classroom to be confronted by ideas they would have never experienced in their everyday private life but never in the outspoken, dynamic way that these artists are expressing them now. These Saint Louis natives have taken to metal, wood and plastic to express these issues of individual versus society in a medium that confronts the mundane life with real life. Whatever reaction they garner, whether it be an awkward chuckle or a hasty retreat, people are engaging with their work—and that is the point.

“Exposure 18: Nervous Laughter” will be running at Gallery 210 until October 3. For further information on upcoming 210 shows, students can visit umsl.edu/~gallery for an exhibit schedule.

guilt debilitator

Above: “Guilt Debilitator” by Aimee Howard, nickel over copper and brass (Courtesy of Eric Wynen/The Current)

Below: “Catharsis” by Deborah Alma Wheeler, school desk and rear-view mirror assemblage (Courtesy of Eric Wynen/The Current)