The few. The proud. The spoofed subjects of Philip Slein
Hollywood has its Oscars, and photographers and sculptors have their New York Times reviews, ArtForum covers and MacArthur Genius Awards. And the mover and shakers of the St. Louis arts world? They have their own tribute: a portrait by artist Philip Slein.
Among local artists and patrons, it's a mark of distinction to be immortalized by Slein, the owner of the Washington Avenue contemporary gallery that bears his name. But the painter of satirical portraits is also known as much for his teasing as his talent: White Flag gallery owner Matt Strauss is shown as Napoleon; art publisher Robert Lococo's cigarette has phallic implications.
"None of the portraits is mean, but they all have a mischief about them," Slein said.
Slein, 42, doesn't ask his subjects' permission (although he accepts commissions) and works mainly from Internet images. Some have no clue they've been "Sleined" until their portrait is revealed in surprise fashion after an invitation to his studio or in the dramatic whipping off of a drape at a public event.
Slein's latest work, however, is being unveiled in a brand-new manner.
A portrait of the controversial Rex Sinquefield, frequent filer of ballot initiative petitions and arts patron, is seen for the first time in this Beacon article.
A glass of red wine is a nod to Sinquefield's sophisticated tastes.
The position of the chess board, a reference to Sinquefield's love of winning and the game itself, is meant to put the viewer in his opponent's seat.
"I think I captured this fun-loving sparkle in his eye as he's soundly beaten you in chess," Slein said. "I'm really excited for him to see it, and of course, I hope he loves it."
Planes, trains and taxidermy
In Slein's University Loft home and his studio on Washington Avenue, you would expect to find portraits in various stages of readiness, along with his extensive private art collection including the works of Tom Huck, Jamie Adams and Cheonae Kim. But the contingent of old clocks, metal signs and taxidermy that includes a moose head and 22 mounted fish reflected in a fish-eye mirror? Not so much.
Slein's eighth-floor loft is chock-full of his favorite things. The 1,250 square foot space with 16-foot ceilings holds thousands of antique and newer furnishings and collectibles -- and there are just as many in the basement waiting for their turn in the spotlight.
They are all beloved objects, each with a story.
The 500-pound, artisan-created, working steam engine atop an 1860s kitchen table from Washington Avenue's Ely Walker building reflects Slein's interest in transportation vehicles and 19th century westward expansion.
The gilded entry mirror which once graced an elegant Lafayette Square home speaks to his love of St. Louis history.
"I wouldn't say it's all fine art but it all fits in with my aesthetic sensibility," Slein said.
Early artistic style
Slein's fascination with the arts springs from his DNA and his upbringing.
His mother, who died when Slein was a young boy, loved to paint. His father played five musical instruments, and his stepmother helped ensure the family frequented the St. Louis Art Museum, where Slein always made a beeline to Matisse's "Bathers with a Turtle."
Slein's own talent began to emerge in nursery school at Temple Israel in Creve Coeur. He has a distinct memory of his 5-year-old self in a backward shirt smock, facing a canvas, and wielding a brush and an attitude.
"I was painting the paper all red, just red. The teacher was trying to tell me to paint an image or something, and I remember saying, 'No, I'm an artist!'" Slein said.
Later, Slein distinguished himself at Ladue Horton Watkins High School as "the person in the class who could draw" and with his cartoons in the school newspaper.
After receiving an undergraduate degree from the University of Missouri Columbia and an MFA from Washington University in 1996, Slein launched a career in academia, teaching at several St. Louis Community College campuses and later at Webster University.
Running the makeshift, cigarette-stained teachers-lounge-turned-gallery while teaching at STLCC Forest Park diverted his path. After several years of overseeing the Des Lee Gallery, Slein opened his own business in 2003 with entrepreneurial partner Tom Bussmann.
Out on his own
It was an era of renaissance in the St. Louis arts world. The Contemporary Art Museum had just been renamed and reborn in its new, sleek space on Washington Boulevard. The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts had paved the way with its inspired Tadao Ando building. And the closing of the Eliot Smith gallery left a vacuum Slein thought he could fill.
"It seemed to me to be the perfect time," Slein said. "In the beginning, it was all enthusiasm and passion, and there really wasn't a well-thought-out business plan. I didn't know what I couldn't do so I was pretty fearless."
The gallery was so successful that Slein quit his Des Lee job. But shortly thereafter, he felt the rug go out from under him.
"When the economy is good you can make many millions of dollars of sales a year in the art business," Slein said. "But this recession hit the local arts scene worse than a ton of bricks -- like a ton of anvils -- it was really devastating."
Seeing other galleries close their doors, Slein stayed afloat by taking advantage of new opportunities with national art shows. A slight, recent uptick is visible "only through an electron microscope," he said.
Slein's commitment to his gallery and to St. Louis has boosted the city's cultural life, according to Contemporary Art Museum director Paul Ha. Referencing Slein's private collection of "really odd things," Ha recalled that Slein opened up his eclectic home to a party last year at the museum's request.
"It showed the generosity and the big heart that Phil has," Ha said.
'A big kid'
When Slein's not working, he's usually working out, scrounging around antique shops, catching a movie or hanging out with his friends. According to art consultant Susan Barrett, his friend since graduate school, Slein is "a big kid, childlike in the best way, so excited and full of wonder."
A selection of portraits
These views of portraits (clockwise from top left) of Matt Strauss, Robert Lococo, Alan Brainerd and the Probstein family are courtesy of Philip Slein.
At a St. Louis Symphony gala, attended by celebrities including jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, Barrett said Slein was not embarrassed to be openly star-struck.
"People were saying, 'Oh, there's so and so,' and he grabbed his program, hunted down all of them, and got their autographs," Barrett said.
Tom Huck, a well-known printmaker and social commentator represented by Slein, has also known the gallery owner since their Washington University days. Slein does not follow the latest trends, Huck said, but is true to his own perceptions.
"He really likes to push the edge of what can be shown, and when he falls in love with an artist, he's very dedicated -- he's there forever," Huck said.
Even Matt Strauss, he of the Napoleonic rendering (which ribbed him for criticizing other local galleries when he opened White Flag in 2006), gives Slein kudos for his ongoing dedication to St. Louis. And about that portrait? Strauss good-naturedly used it as his Facebook profile picture for a while.
"It's flattering to have that kind of ridicule," Strauss said.
At some point, Slein is planning to turn the brush on himself. So how will he satirize the satirist? Slein's not certain of the details, but he's definitely going to have some fun.
"I'm not going to show any mercy," Slein said. "You have to be able to laugh at yourself."