Better Together: Metra Mitchell and Jenna Bauer at Houska Gallery

Of all the non-essential indulgences that were whisked away at the onset of lockdown, art openings were one I mourned most. As our cities, advisedly or not, start to open up I jumped at the chance to visit St Louis' Houska gallery for its new show. Houska's multi-tiered space in the central west end is split between Metra Mitchell's "Other Disguises" and Jenna Bauer's "KC Trials and Tivoli Dreams". On opening evening, the gallery's promise of being "closely monitored to maintain social distancing" was belied by the sounds of chatter and laughter audible from across the street. Inside, the two artists offer reflections on the past year of isolation and missed opportunities; Bauer ruminates on pre-COVID social life while Mitchell turns her eye inward.  

Visitors at Metra Mitchell’s show

Mitchell's oil-on-panel paintings, ranging in size from one foot to several, depict scenes from her studio and home life, and the internal worlds that develop from months of lockdown. The paintings are replete with references - to ancient Egyptian deities, the occult, Sylvia Plath, Greek mythology, vanitas paintings and more. Mitchell's academic background in figure painting is obvious, and her nude figures would not be out of place in a collection of Michelangelo studies. Mirroring the crowd that mills around them, the work universally depicts white, cisgendered, and able bodies, with occasional (but never explicit) hints at homoeroticism. Yet despite the Fauvist colors and storied imagery the work lacks any real emotion or excitement, and the exhibition as a whole feels somewhat cold. 

Overall, the foremost protrusion is that of the artist - and the artist's ego. Many of the paintings are accompanied by their smaller studies, or by black-and-white figure sketches in ink. This documentation of the making process feels performative, an attitude which is reflected in the self-consciously artistic blurbs by each piece (a sample text reads, "I must have painted [the figure's] ear over 4.5 times. Now, I am satisfied with the structure well enough to support her gold hoop earrings."). The white, cisgendered female body reigns supreme in these works, luxuriating in her bohemian studio, and offering little more reflection on the past year other than how hard it was to go so long without inviting friends over for wine.  

“Complex Choreography” (2019) and “Catnap” (2019) by Metra Mitchell. 

Visitors would be forgiven for thinking that Jenna Bauer's exhibit, up a small flight of stairs from the front gallery occupied by Mitchell, was separate from main show. The contrast from maximalism downstairs to minimalism upstairs is significant. Chrome-framed gouache paintings make a line around the gallery walls, each depicting a grid of small, colorful squares, while a handful of miniature graphic landscapes hang in a corner. Alone in the white room and away from the hubbub, the paintings seem to emit an unassuming, welcoming presence, and upon reading Bauer's statement I promptly lost all desire to go back to the main gallery.

Jenna Bauer’s exhibit at Houska

The grid paintings are boiled-down interpretations of eight weeks Bauer spent in Kansas City before the onset of the pandemic: reflections on the music, art, and activity she experienced pre-lockdown. Each square of color (and there are many) is unique, and upon closer inspection the gridded lines slant and slope, giving each square individual dimensions. There are hints of what the inspirations for each piece were: a few blue-grey squares that might be sky; some brown and green that could be part of an outdoor concert; pops of yellow or pink that hint at performers or lights. Like ultra-pixelated photographs, the paintings relay warped and half-blurred memories of pre-pandemic “normal” life. The series revolves around feelings of belonging and shared excitement, and is a celebration of culture and community that feels more needed than ever. There is a warmth and quiet vibrancy to these works that makes a post-pandemic world seem ever the sweeter, and I left the gallery filled with nostalgia for pre-COVID life and excitement for a post-COVID future.

Doubtless there are hundreds of quarantine-related works and shows awaiting us in the near future, and personally I hope to experience as few of them as possible. If they can offer as much subtle joy and insight as Bauer's collection of paintings, however, then I might be persuaded otherwise. It is easy, after a year of isolation, to lean on our individual experiences. But as we teeter into a vaccinated world I hope that we will not over-emphasize the plight of such-and-such an artist in their lonely studio, but rather the importance our communities, our collectives and groups, and our friends. If we've learned nothing else from this pandemic, at least we can all agree how frustrating it is to have to be socially distanced from each other. Let’s keep our pandemic art as socially close as possible.  

St Louis, MO
April 2021