St. Louis

Steven and William Ladd: Scouts or Sports? at St. Louis Art Museum

Currents 111: Steven and William Ladd: Scouts or Sports? at the St. Louis Art Museum features intricately crafted objects made by the two brothers from which the exhibition gets its name. They often work serially and use the grid as a means of organization; process and formalism appear paramount concerns as they experiment with a variety of materials and methods that include drawing, assemblage, sculpture, and installation. While taking influence from geometric abstraction and minimalism, the artists also impart a personal narrative, often through titles. Though they now live and work in New York, the Ladds grew up in St. Louis, and in this exhibit they offer commentaries on these childhood experiences—specifically their participation in after-school activities such as Cub Scouts and sports, hence the title. The works are playful and depict an unaffected and innocent view of St. Louis as seen through the rose-tinted glasses of children’s eyes. Unfortunately, this perspective is limited, and the Ladds’ interpretation of the city, at times, lacks depth—mentioning St. Louis organizations and locations without offering further explanations other than wistful reminiscence.

Steven and William Ladd. Cardinal Nation, 2015; paper, glue, wheat starch, metal beads, metal trinkets, glass beads, crystal beads, pins, screws, dye, mesh, staples, and wood; 59 1/2 x 39 1/2 x 1 in. Photo courtesy of the artists.© Steven and William Ladd, All rights Reserved, 2015.

Steven and William Ladd. Cardinal Nation, 2015; paper, glue, wheat starch, metal beads, metal trinkets, glass beads, crystal beads, pins, screws, dye, mesh, staples, and wood; 59 1/2 x 39 1/2 x 1 in. Courtesy of the Artists. © Steven and William Ladd, all rights reserved, 2015.

 

On one wall, works on paper are hung in two separate gridded arrangements, with twelve in each group. In the drawing Injury 1, a freehand grid is sketched with pencil, and in each unit of this framework, short, perpendicular strokes of magenta, cerulean, and black ink alternate, creating an intricate weave-like pattern that fills the page. A transparent wash of violet creates a rectangle on top of this ground and floats in the middle of the composition. Within this shape and slightly off-center, irregular patches are left unpainted, and the rectangle looks like a pane of glass with a shattered opening that exposes the layer beneath. All the drawings from this series, Injury 1–12, are nearly identical except for being distinct in color.

Steven and William Ladd. Injury 1, 2015; paper, fiber, ink, pencil, and metal trinkets; 18 x 24 x 1/8 in. Photo courtesy of the artists.© Steven and William Ladd, All rights Reserved, 2015.

Steven and William Ladd. Injury 1, 2015; paper, fiber, ink, pencil, and metal trinkets; 18 x 24 x 1/8 in. Courtesy of the Artists. © Steven and William Ladd, all rights reserved, 2015.

 

In the other series, Merit Badges 1–12, the Ladds deviate from repetition—to an extent. Although still adhering to the constraints of the grid, they create a variety of squares and rectangles assembled from square metal trinkets that are implanted and sewn between sheets of diaphanous paper. In both series, a narrative is suggested, but the clues are ambiguous. Although there is a correlation between the title, Injury, and the carefully painted blemish in each drawing, the event that inspired these decisions is left unsaid; the word and image remain speculative and abstract. Likewise, while Merit Badges no doubt refers to the Ladds’ experiences as Cub Scouts, it is unclear what the significance of the title is in relation to the metal trinkets or the works themselves.

 

Steven and William Ladd. Merit Badge 1, 2015; paper, metal trinkets, pencil, and ink; 11/4 x 14 x 1/8 in. Photo courtesy of the artists.© Steven and William Ladd, All rights Reserved, 2015.

Steven and William Ladd. Merit Badge 1, 2015; paper, metal trinkets, pencil, and ink; 11/4 x 14 x 1/8 in. Courtesy of the Artists. © Steven and William Ladd, all rights reserved, 2015.

Spanning the length of two walls, a succession of twelve monochromes is hung neatly, single file. Again, each piece is a different color, but these are arranged in a spectrum-like sequence. Like with the Injury series, they are distinguishable from each other mainly because each work is in a distinct hue; all are the same dimensions and are composed similarly. The monochromes, however, are made of thick layers of dyed paper pulp and are coarsely textured and punctuated with finger-sized craters that are scattered across their surfaces, resulting in little excavation sites that reveal wire mesh substrates underneath. Some of these gouged holes are left bare and unadorned, while others are heavily decorated with gleaming beads, similar in color to the pulp in which they are embedded. Countless beads amass around cavities and become mildly grotesque and threatening. The kitsch commodities transform into infestations, spawn, or malignant growths that encrust orifices. Picture planes become swarming hives of activity. Whether this collocation of decoration and revulsion is intentional or not is difficult to determine. Each piece is given its own title that associates anecdotal recollections with the color of the monochrome. For instance, in the museum catalog it is explained that the red one is titled Cardinal Nation as a tribute to the local baseball team, and the brown one is titled Brownie, referring to the name of a younger Girl Scouts division in which the brothers’ sister participated. The titles are nostalgic, and their relations to colors are simplistic—because of this it is hard to imagine any subversive qualities to have been deliberate.

Steven and William Ladd. Brownie, 2015; paper, glue, wheat starch, metal beads, metal trinkets, glass beads, crystal beads, pins, screws, dye, mesh, staples, and wood; 59 x 39 1/4 x 2 3/4 in. Photo courtesy of the artists.© Steven and William Ladd, All rights Reserved, 2015.

Steven and William Ladd. Brownie, 2015; paper, glue, wheat starch, metal beads, metal trinkets, glass beads, crystal beads, pins, screws, dye, mesh, staples, and wood; 59 x 39 1/4 x 2 3/4 in. Courtesy of the Artists. © Steven and William Ladd, all rights reserved, 2015.

No doubt the artists’ experiences in extracurricular activities as children were formative, probably even influencing their current choices of materials and processes, but these experiences as subject matter appear secondary and often a belabored effort to bestow tangible content to a studio practice that is primarily formal. That the subtitle of the exhibit—Scouts or Sports?—ends in a question mark seems subliminally telling, as if Steven and William Ladd are not wholly convinced of their overarching concept.

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