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Ivy Cooper encapsulates the St. Louis art scene

 About Painting; About Sculpture The gallery becomes an aesthetic carnival of spatial illusions and formal play, as Jim Schmidt once again proves to be one of the most cerebral curators around. This spare exhibition contains eleven artists' stunning works that contemplate the dialectical relationship between painting and sculpture (and surface and mass; two- and three-dimensionality; spatial illusion and real space; etc.). Paint moves beyond the task of representation to objecthood in works by Michael Toengas, Peter Tollens and Stephan Gritsch, not to mention the utterly strange #3 (2000) by Donald Moffet, in which oil paint grows into furry tentacles. Dennis Hollingsworth's The Madhouse (1996) is wonderfully perverse, with paint morphing into spiky anemones among a riot of nauseating colors. Jerald Ieans' two-part painted Relief juts out from the wall, casting sculptural shadows, while Charles Long's papier mâché-on-metal sculpture sports a scumbly surface rivaling the blue paintings of Yves Klein. Through August 12 at Schmidt Contemporary Art, 503 North 20th Street; 314-575-2648. Gallery hours 1-5 p.m. Wed.-Sat. and by appointment (by appointment only during August).

Airstream! An Architectural History of a Land Yacht Sure, everyone recognizes an Airstream when they see it: that shiny, bullet-shape "land yacht," the American Dream on wheels. But the Airstream trailer is more than just midcentury kitsch. This modest exhibition traces the history of the Airstream from its 1931 Art Deco design to its state-of-the-art aluminum alloy construction to the life of its colorful founder Wally Byam all the way up to contemporary designers Christopher Deam and Nic Bailey, who have proposed contemporary reworkings of the interior. "Building Dreams Is Our Business," a short company film, plays alongside photos of Airstreams on classic family vacations -- to the lake and the forest, to Moscow, Egypt and beyond. What a trip! Through August 20 at the Sheldon Art Galleries, 3648 Washington Boulevard; 314-533-9900. Gallery hours noon-8 p.m. Tue. and Thu., noon.-5 p.m. Wed. and Fri., 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat.

Animated Earth: The Many Permutations of Clay Curators Matt Wilt and Paul Dresang selected works by sixteen artists who incorporate animal (and human) imagery into functional and sculptural clay objects. The show sidesteps New Age-y explorations of earth spirits and animal avatars in favor of smart, strong works with an awareness of history. Kurt Weiser turns in Caucasia, a lidded urn with finely detailed fantasy figures. Beth Cavener Stichter's J'ai Une Ame Solitaire is an enormous prehistoric beast on a rude wooden cart, looking quite lonely indeed. Maryann Webster's Mesoamerican-style doll figures are chilling fetish figures containing "magical" objects. There's no shortage of wonderful, engaging work here; what's lacking is information about the various techniques and media used to produce each piece. [Editor's note: The curators are colleagues of RFT art writer Ivy Cooper at SIU Edwardsville.] Through July 24 at Craft Alliance, 6640 Delmar Boulevard, University City; 314-725-1177. Gallery hours 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun.

Art Struck: The William D. Merwin Collection The first of what is to be a regular showcasing of art from local collections features Merwin's interest in post-1960s artists and works on paper. Jaw-dropping color prints by the likes of David Hockney, Robert Motherwell, Jim Dine and Roy Lichtenstein anchor the show; subtler pieces such as some exquisite Kiki Smiths and Christo collages round it out nicely. Topping it off are a small-scale sculpture by Mark DiSuvero, a gorgeous Jane Sauer birch piece and glass by Dale Chihuly and Dante Marioni (once, he was a local) -- plus dozens more. There's an overriding sense of the joy Merwin must take in collecting -- each of these works is ebullient. Through July 17 at the Saint Louis University Museum of Art, 3663 Lindell Boulevard; 314-977-3399. Museum hours 1-4 p.m. Tue.-Sun.

Brancusi and Serra in Dialogue The Pulitzer is getting a lot of mileage out of Richard Serra, particularly a few large-scale pieces (Joplin and Standpoint in particular) that have graced the main gallery since the Serra solo show opened two years ago. (They're really heavy; I wouldn't move them either.) Now Serra's sculptures and drawings are paired with sculptures and photographs by Constantin Brancusi, whose interests intersect with Serra's in some fascinating ways. Their approaches to materials couldn't be more different -- Brancusi hacked away at wood and polished stone and bronze to a high, classical finish -- but all kinds of intriguing observations emerge out of this "dialogue," including the ways in which both artists treat (or dispense with) the pedestal, their interest in stacking pieces and relating individual parts to the sculptural whole. The small Cube Gallery now features an intense confrontation between Serra's Pacific Judson Murphy (1978), a black paint-stick piece that spans two walls; and Brancusi's Agnes E. Meyer (1929), a stately, totemic polished work of black marble. It's an inspired pairing, equaled by the strong juxtapositions throughout the show. Through July 23 at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, 3716 Washington Boulevard; 314-754-1850. Museum hours noon-5 p.m. Wed., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat.

Exposure 8 Gallery 210 director Terry Suhre has coordinated another fine installment in this long-running series featuring four area artists. Suhre's selection of Sarah Colby, Andrea Green, Deborah Katon and Linda Vredeveld seems particularly inspired, as the works complement one another while maintaining their autonomy on separate walls in the spacious gallery. Katon's and Green's works in particular pose parallel questions about the body, its traces and memories. Katon combines outlined drawn forms and thin paint, suggesting bodily fluids and tissues. Green's startling combinations of beeswax, hair, lace and latex on vellum are ghostly plays on presence and absence. Vredeveld fills a wall with tiny, variegated blown-glass vials. And Colby exhibits an uncanny skill for evoking adolescent angst with inanimate objects. A re-creation of a young girl's bedroom, Colby's extravagant Let It Be Me involves crocheted knickknacks, store-bought tchotchkes, quilts, toys, pillows and pencils; together they embody the singular pain of pubescent love and longing. Through August 27 at Gallery 210, TeleCommunity Center, UM-St. Louis, 1 University Boulevard (at Natural Bridge Road); 314-516-5976. Gallery hours 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat.

Fresh! and Daniel Barton: Post-Modern Primitive Round out your summer tour of work by underexposed and overachieving artists with a visit to Philip Slein, where you'll see tantalizing new work by K.L. Robinson, Shane Simmons, John Watson, Bryan Reckamp and Cassie Simon. Robinson and Reckamp make richly engaging paintings that play around with opposite ends of the semiotic spectrum: Reckamp employs overdetermined, commercial text and imagery, while Robinson relies on fragmented forms and typographic hieroglyphs. Simon's mixed-media works on paper smuggle in some fairly loaded content beneath their decorative surfaces, and Simmons' acrylic works are strangely joyful, ebullient messes. Watson, the sculptor among the group, contributes clumsy constructions made of too many plywood strips, screwed together obsessively and verging on overkill. Yet they're endearing -- like incompetently built soapbox derby cars. In the back gallery, Barton shows off his ability to paint as if he'd never gone to art school -- sort of the reverse of the toddler who can turn out a Pollock. Good postmodern fun. Through August 6 at Philip Slein Gallery, 1319 Washington Avenue; 314-621-4634. Gallery hours 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat.

Hurrell's Men As chief photographer at MGM Studios in the 1930s, and as owner of his own studio after that, George Hurrell (1904-1992) developed a signature style that epitomized glamour, grace and the glory of old Hollywood. Though he photographed dozens of women throughout his career, this exhibition concentrates on his gorgeous, bronze-toned portraits of actors. Hurrell's subjects -- like Clark Gable, Johnny Weissmuller, Tyrone Power and Ramon Navarro -- are posed and in character, yet they appear intimate and genuine at the same time. Anyone who can make David Soul look sexy has got to be a genius! Don't miss the text panel on Pancho Barns, the flamboyant aviatrix who befriended Hurrell in the 1920s and collected all these photos. Through August 13 at the Sheldon Art Galleries, 3648 Washington Boulevard; 314-533-9900. Gallery hours noon-8 p.m. Tue. and Thu., noon.-5 p.m. Wed. and Fri., 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat.

Junko Chodos: The Breath of Consciousness This California-based artist enjoys her first Midwest showing with this exhibition, curated by museum director Terrence Dempsey. It's a beautiful survey of three decades of work engaging heady questions of spirituality and the intersection between living beings and machines. Junko, who grew up in Japan during World War II, has plenty of visual and visceral experiences from which to draw inspiration for her wildly expressive prints, paintings and drawings. The "Concerning Art and Religion" series (2003) plots photographs of engines amid a roiling chaos of inky waves and drips -- it's nigh apocalyptic, and quite effective in the context of the museum's ecclesiastical design. "Compact Universe" features smaller versions of earlier abstract paintings and collages enclosed in CD jewel cases -- the ultimate in portable art. Most intriguing of all are the elegiac paintings in the "Requiem for an Executed Bird" series, and the collection of collages that layer minuscule cutout images into dense, frenzied fields. Through July 31 at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, Fusz Hall, Saint Louis University, 3700 West Pine Boulevard; 314-977-7170. Gallery hours 11 a.m.- 4 p.m. Tue.-Sun.

Russell Kraus: Midwestern Modernist Russell Kraus graduated from the Washington University School of Art in 1940 -- an interesting point in the history of American art. While abstract modern painting had taken firm hold on the East Coast, the Midwest scene was still dominated by the more realist works of the likes of Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood. Kraus starts out painting in the realist vein, then moves through experiments with surrealism, American-style cubism (think Stuart Davis) and expressionism. (Then there's the astonishingly bad "children" series, started in 1972 and carrying into the 1990s, which defies categorization and is best left alone.) The most interesting work in this large retrospective is actually Kraus' illustration and design, and in particular the stark graphics of the World War II posters produced for the Work Projects Administration. The entire affair is useful as a review of mid-century modern art and design, St. Louis-style. Through July 23 at the Des Lee Gallery, 1627 Washington Avenue; 314-621-8735. Gallery hours 1-4 p.m. Sat. and by appointment.

Amber Marshall and Micah Roufa: Blown Glass Lighting These blown-glass lighting fixtures are extraordinary, ranging from brilliantly colored table lamps to vertical hanging lights and a chandelier composed of glass "shades" and mirrored globes. This last piece is a real knockout, pairing the icicle texture of modern Scandinavian glassware with super-mod globes -- sparkly effects abound. The more restrained vertical tubular lights hover just inches from the table or floor. They're all installed alongside conceptual furniture -- wooden frames that just hint at the shape of tables, beds and sofas. It's an impressive installation, and comes with a bonus work: In the grassy lot next door, dozens of mirrored globes on rebar posts create a wavy pattern that shifts gracefully as you walk or drive past. Through July 16 at Third Degree Glass Factory, 5200 Delmar Boulevard; 314-367-4527. Gallery hours 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Sat.

Savage X Michelle X has reinterpreted tarot card imagery using live models and staged photographic tableaux. The images are dark and vaguely sadomasochistic -- bare breasts, someone licking the barrel of a gun, and the like. You can buy your own custom card set (if you must). Added to this are "new" interpretations of the seven deadly sins and the seven righteous virtues. Strictly for the least discriminating of the Goth set -- and even they will have seen it all before, in the 1990s, via Marilyn Manson and Trent Reznor. Through August 31 at the 3rd Floor Gallery, 1214 Washington Avenue; 314-241-1010. Gallery hours noon-4 p.m. Wed.-Sat.

Six Shooters/Six Visions The "shooters" are six women photographers (Susan Dietz-Schmidt, Marianne Pepper, Joan Proffer, Naomi Runtz, Harriet Fisher Thomas and Kay Wood) who have frequently shown as a group since 1997. Their works are wildly divergent and often incorporate a variety of media in addition to photography (as is the case here). The standouts: Runtz's "Say Cheese" series of enlarged photobooth portraits from the 1960s and '70s, and Dietz-Schmidt's stark black-and-white images of tree branches. Thomas' manipulated Polaroids and Wood's Polaroid transfers explore conventional "women's" subjects -- flowers, baby shoes -- to mixed effect. In her "Turkish Relief" series, Pepper sabotages the power of her source material with extraneous decoration. Sustaining an artists' group requires considerable camaraderie and cooperation, and it's encouraging to see Six Shooters succeed at this level. Whether their exhibitions succeed is another question; this one is hit-and-miss. Through July 31 at the Gallery at the Regional Arts Commission, 6128 Delmar Boulevard; 314-863-5811. Gallery hours 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri., noon-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun.

Christina Shmigel: Chinese Garden for the Delights of Roaming Afar This third installment in the Kranzberg Exhibition Series brings Shmigel back to St. Louis from Shanghai, where she has spent the past two years. She's been missed, but the change of scenery has done incredible things to her work and her visual sensibility. The exhibition unfolds as the visitor passes through the galleries. Framing elements are a leitmotif: A floating pavilion sets the stage, showing photographs of bamboo scaffolding -- a leitmotif taken from the constant formal flux of Shanghai, a city evidently under permanent reconfiguration. Photos of text messages evoke the city's chaos of communication, but this gives way to calmer, more contemplative and intimate encounters with light, shadow, text and cityscapes. The artist's signature connecting-pipe circuitry pops up here and there, transformed by this new context. Somehow Shmigel manages to make a hundred disparate strains coalesce in a delightful experience of another world, recognizable and yet far from home. Through August 30 at Laumeier Sculpture Park, 12580 Rott Road, Sunset Hills; 314-821-1209. Gallery hours 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. Tue.-Sat., noon-5 p.m. Sun.

David Burns Smith: The Arcana and Dionna Raedeke: Drawings These two artists have lived in St. Louis practically forever. It's about time they got some exposure. Smith's "Arcana" series consists of heavily worked acrylic paintings, some on multiple panels. Each is an abstract interpretation of a tarot card character, in other words, a meditation on human archetypes, emotions and folly. Smith lays sober, rigid forms over roiling, stormy swirls; here and there, a wayward line wanders in as if by accident. These are bold, accomplished paintings. In Xen's lower gallery, Raedeke's drawings are simply amazing. Each is a small, tightly organized composition combining restrained color passages and strong graphic elements. Consistent in size and format, they easily suggest multiple recombinations. Raedeke's design sensibility is highly refined, but these drawings are breezy, bright and even humorous. With luck, this will be only the first of many shows to come for these two. Through August 7 at Xen Gallery, 401 North Euclid Avenue; 314-454-9561. Gallery hours 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tue.-Fri., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat., noon-4 p.m. Sun.

Summer Sessions This group of works by well-known artists Douglas C. Bloom (based in Pasadena), Benjamin Edwards (Washington, D.C.), Jennifer Dorsey (D.C.) and Jessica Craig-Martin (New York) make for an impressive combo. Dorsey has continued to make saturated c-print photographs in the deadpan style she perfected in Wash. U.'s M.F.A. program. Here her untitled close-ups of wedding and bridesmaids' dresses, all garish satin sheen, glisten forth from underneath their clear plastic sheaths. Just as Dorsey packs wry commentary into formalist compositions, Edwards rearranges fragments of corporate logos into colorful, abstract icons. Bloom, meanwhile, revives and reinterprets the smudged pop-painting style of early Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke. The exhibit also includes color and black-and-white photographs by Craig-Martin. The gallery makes no bones about its pitch to collectors, but the show's still a pleasure to look at. Through August 30 at Greenberg Van Doren Gallery, 3540 Washington Avenue, 314-361-7600. Gallery hours 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat., and by appointment. -- Ivy Cooper

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