At the Top of Their Craft

Published in St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Sunday February 3, 2008 on the occasion of the Great Rivers Biennial Winners Exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum
By: David Bonetti

The “Great Rivers Biennial” is the Oscars, or at least the Whitney Biennial, for the local art world.  Held every other year, the winners, chosen by jurors from outside the region to ensure fairness, are given cash — $20, 000 this year, up from $15,000 – and the opportunity to show their work at the Contemporary Art Museum in one of the most widely anticipated exhibitions of the year.  Funded by the Gateway Foundation, it aims to raise the profile of local visual artists.

This year’s edition is only the third since the program was initiated, but already the biennial has a history.

From the start, a distinguished trio of jurors has chosen dark horses, or at least artists whom local pundits have not anointed beforehand as likely winners.  The jurors for this edition kept to the pattern.  None of the three winners-Juan William Chavez, Corey Escoto, and Michelle Oosterbaan – was a predictable choice.  Although Chavez and Oosterbaan have lived here earlier, the longest any has been working here has been three years.

Contemporary assistant curator Laura Fried oversaw the installation and notes a common thread among the winners.  “Although their individual practices are incredibly diverse and they have completely different agendas and aims,” she said, “it is immediately apparent that they are connected by the fact that their work is rooted in drawing.”

“I’m not necessarily a painter; I’m not necessarily a printmaker; I’m not necessarily a sculptor; I’m not necessarily an installation artist, “ Michelle Oosterbaan, visiting art professor at Washington University, said.  “I’m someone who works with a situation.”

Oosterbaan’s situation at the Contemporary includes the wall of windows that looks out on Spring Street and a nearby spot on the floor.  For the windows, she is making images out of colorful Japanese paper she has made translucent by adding washes of wax.  The images feature pit bulls that lived in her Philadelphia neighbor’s backyard.  For the floor she will make a drawing out of colored chalks used by carpenters.

Oosterbaan, 40, has lived all over the place.  “My family moved around a lot, “she said.  “When my father opened his own business, Washington D.C. became home.”

In Washington, Oosterbaan spent lots of time in the city’s great museums.  “I started making plein-air landscape paintings when I was in the seventh grade, “she said.  “My father, who was a civil engineer, would show me soil samples and let me feel the texture of different kinds of dirt, so I was getting both a macro and micro understanding of landscape.”

Oosterbaan got her undergraduate degree at Washington University’s School of Art in 1990.  “I was a double major in painting and printmaking. I studied with Peter Marcus, Joan Hall, and James McGarrell, “ she said.

“What I learned from the print makers was to take something, do something to it, and then do something else to it, that old Jasper Johns saying, “ she said.

After getting her master of fine arts in Indiana, Oosterbaan went to Italy for six months.  Before returning to St. Louis in 2006, she spent time in Savannah, Ga., and Rochester, NY.  She spent a decade in Philadelphia, where she worked at the Fabric Workshop and Museum. “ I met artists like Rachel Whiteread, Mona Hatoum and Anish Kapoor there and saw how they worked with a master printer.

Oosterbaan like the handmade, the tactile. “My work is all about the mark – it’s an intuitive and direct way to express what I’m thinking and feeling,” she said.  “The quality of the mark – - fast, slow, rough, smooth, sinuous, bulky – can communicate directly.  It can be a sensuous, kinesthetic experience.”

For the Contemporary, Oosterbaan is making work that she characterizes as “temporary, lightweight.”

“I didn’t’ want to add anything to the world, “ she said.