THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
At 7th and Pine in downtown St. Louis, a solitary billboard marks the district with a mysterious photograph of unidentified, almost abstract objects. No words suggest its significance. In its urban setting, surrounded by glass and steel and brick and mortar, the billboard coaxes interest by its curious absence of narrative.
Titled Real Estate Row, the billboard photograph is by St. Louis photographer Jennifer Colten. It is a public art commission by the Luminary, an art gallery and incubator. The photograph’s subject relates by genealogy to the immediate downtown area in whose shadows it stands. Its image depicts artifacts saved long ago from a demolished building in the area. Real Estate Row earned its nickname from the district’s history as a nucleus of wealth-building enterprises in late 19th to early 20th century St. Louis. Subsequent real estate developments slowly removed most of the district’s landmark buildings.
The photograph draws attention by means of sheer scale and its seemingly out-of-context image. Clearly not an advertisement, it begs for context. Fortunately, the billboard is accompanied by ten contextual photographs and introduction panel mounted nearby on empty storefront windows.
Real Estate Row depicts rows of wire-cage boxes containing salvaged terra cotta tiles from a demolished building. A corrugated wall completes the composition. By analogy, the boxes echo the past and current buildings surrounding the billboard. Inside the boxes is the literal archive of an almost erased history. The photograph establishes, this was here. The architectural tiles are in the collections of the National Building Arts Center in Sauget, Illinois, where Colten has been photographing the collections. The difficulty in any quick understanding of the billboard photograph is matched in the difficulty of integrating the overlapping and multiple social, ecological, economic, political, and historical contexts that influence and complicate readings of cultural centers, like downtown St. Louis, and their margins.
Colten’s practice has long documented the edges of society where cultural traditions and progressive innovations collide. For Colten, the cultural margin is an event horizon that she brings into focus and dialogue with her photography as she documents relationships between the differing communities and the lands they live on and use. Colten’s aesthetic practice expands socially when her photographs return to the site of origin to be shared with the communities. Marking downtown St. Louis with the billboard photograph may catalyze awareness of the architectural and economic histories of Real Estate Row, particularly with the interpretive materials that accompany Colten’s imagery.
An artist and teacher, Colten is a second-generation New Topographics landscape photographer who documents human intervention in nature. Colten distinguishes her practice aesthetically with a nuanced poetry of the interactions between culture and nature. Her photographic methodology is a close as possible faithful rendering of the scene before the camera. Results range from straightforward depictions to abstract lyrical compositions. Site selection plays a key role in establishing content. Colten seeks marginal places marked by earlier urban development now abandoned and where nature has begun to reclaim the site. From her documents, issues of representation, myths, and beliefs with regard to the land may be unfolded. The most fundamentally critical component of her practice reinserts the photographs into the communities they document, encouraging dialogue with the people who live and work there.
Encountering Cotlen’s photographs of the margins, viewers must consider the center for context. In that sense, Colten’s works become historical documents—indeed, experiences of her images are a way of knowing. The photographs establish the center’s aspirations to provide material sustenance as well as the attendant residue, accidents, and failures. The center’s relationships with nature are also established. Multiple, overlapping stories (economic, political, cultural) may come into view or consideration. A sense of place unfolds.
Big Mound Billboard, installed near site of the original pre-Columbian Cahokia mound in downtown St. Louis. Photo by Jennifer Colten.
Related to Real Estate Row was Colten’s recent project, “Significant & Insignificant Mounds,” a joint project with artist and writer Jesse Vogler. It also used billboard photographs for interventions in downtown St. Louis. Two billboards marked the downtown site where an earlier pre-Columbian monument had been completely disassembled and used for backfill and road construction. One billboard presented a historic black and white photograph showing the mound being taken apart. The other was a color photograph from Cahokia Mounds. As the duo explained in an accompanying statement, the point was to look closely at the mound forms of the region and their functions to begin to at least foreground the complexity of human involvement with the land.
“Our interest in the pairing of text and image, and in the pairing of so-called ‘meaning-filled’ and ‘meaning-less’ subjects, is to bring the process of signification itself to the surface, in order to complicate received value judgments that so often attend landscape photography and description. We do not aim for an illustrative description of place. There is nothing in our writing and photography that seeks to provide a tidy orientation or even a neat juxtaposition. Rather, we relish the ambiguities, unknowns, and unknowabilities of this place in its fullest.”
Colten’s aesthetic and civic-minded embrace of the Mississippi-Heartland region builds on her multi-year projects, which bring to light hidden, neglected, or erased stories of those people and places ignored by the dominant center. One such project is “Higher Ground: Honoring Washington Park Cemetery Its People and Place." Washington Park Cemetery is a St. Louis African-American cemetery founded in 1920. Over the ensuing decades, much of it was eventually decimated by urban development. Another of Colten’s geographically sensitive projects is “Of Place and Non-Place,” a specific intention to photograph ambiguous sites, the “edgelands” between nature and the past events of humans. Finally, her project “Wasteland Ecology” documented the resiliency of the land against the damaging effects of industrial progress.
Jennifer Colten, Real Estate Row. Contextual photos installed in storefront. Photo by Jennifer Colten.
Colten is a member of “The American Bottom,” a multi-year, multi-artist, multimedia project to study the diverse disciplines that have defined and redefined the region over time. The American Bottom is a geographic area on the eastern bank of the Mississippi that runs from Alton, Illinois to Kaskaskia, Illinois. From colonial times, the American Bottom has been used in various ways by the occupying cultures. Pre-Columbian Native Americans, French, and other European communities have all utilized the area. Co-directed by Jesse Vogler and Matthew Fluharty, the project portrays the American Bottom as the geographic microcosm reflecting the macro North American settlement ideologies. Cultural histories, sociologies, habitats, and wetland geographies all compete, overlap, and complicate any close reading of the region, yet these histories as assembled by this project may provide future bearings and insights. As the editors note, “The American Bottom is site to the social and spatial aspirations of pre-contact Native Americans, 19th century industrial expansion, 20th century infrastructural consolidation, and 21st century ecological precarity.” The success of Real Estate Row strengthens my confidence in Colten’s work with this collaboration.
Rusty Freeman is the Director of Visual Arts, Cedarhurst Center for the Arts, Mt. Vernon, IL.
Colten teaches photography at Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, Washington University, St Louis; jennifercolten.com. The American Bottom is at theamericanbottom.org. Colten’s Real Estate Row was commissioned by The Luminary, St. Louis. For their sustainable, just, and considered worldview, see theluminaryarts.com/about/manifesto.
Jennifer Colten, Real Estate Row. Photo by Jennifer Colten.
Jennifer Colten, Real Estate Row. Downtown St. Louis at 7th and Pine with billboard of Real Estate Row. Photo by Jennifer Colten.
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