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Ivy Cooper encapsulates the St. Louis art scene

Advance Directive: Peter Pranschkeand Dystopia: Paul E"Paul E" is Paul E. Jost, a character who pops up in Pranschke's art more than once, and a good artist in his own right. On view here are more than a dozen smallish framed prints by Jost, incorporating dreamy imagery and wonderful titles ("pack up all the things that you don't deserve" gives you a good sense of it all). But the exhibit rightly belongs to Pranschke, whose ambitious autobiographical cartoon narratives have never looked better. They're all wonderful, despite -- or perhaps because of -- the fact that most are unfinished. Pranschke's shorthand drafting style is packed with expression; he says more in a single drawn line than most writers do in a novelful of words. Most are ballpoint and colored pencil on cut paper, many pasted on graph paper. Also included are clay prototypes for a set of action figures based on Pranschke's characters. The row of works culminates with the memorable Jenny Gordon Commission -- read the whole work; it's well worth it. One of the nicest shows in recent memory. Through October 29 at Mad Art Gallery, 2727 South 12th Street; 314-771-8230. Gallery hours by appointment 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tue.-Fri., 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Sat.

The Artists of SCOSAG: Faculty and StudentsWhen local artist Jenna Bauer founded the South City Open Studio and Gallery, she may not have realized she would revolutionize art education in St. Louis. But the evidence is all here in a wonderful survey of works by young students and their SCOSAG teachers. Using every imaginable material, these students are allowed to freely explore process rather than concentrate strictly on results -- but the results are amazing anyway. On view are prints, murals, ceramic work and things that can only be described as conceptual. What's even better is seeing the works that result from collaborations between students and their SCOSAG teachers, who include Bauer herself, Jason Wallace Triefenbach, Carmelita Nunez and a host of others who rank among the best artists in St. Louis. If everyone learned about art the SCOSAG way, we wouldn't need to argue the benefits of having art in the world. They'd be obvious. Through October 13 at the 3rd Floor Gallery, 1214 Washington Avenue (third floor); 314-241-1010. Gallery hours noon-4 p.m. Wed.-Sat. (Closing reception Friday, October 7, 6-10 p.m.)

Currents 95: Julie Mehretu Those who saw Mehretu speak at the Saint Louis Art Museum on September 8 can attest to the fact that she had a certain amount of trouble articulating the concepts of her work. Take a look at her four paintings on view there and you'll see why: They are so very complex, deeply layered and astonishingly beautiful that they defy description. Mehretu appropriates remarkable architectural plans, combines them with her own idiosyncratic drawings and overlays all of that with vaguely familiar nationalist symbols and signs, to generate explosive scenes -- of war? of sports? of schizophrenia? -- that may be the most accurate blueprint ever to have been rendered of psychic experience in the post-industrial, late capitalist Western world. If that sounds like excessive praise, then mission accomplished: Mehretu's works are absolutely brilliant. These paintings act like a buoy, a lifesaver in the sad chaos of the daily news; to think that someone has been able to get it down legibly on a flat surface provides hope that we might just survive this insanity after all. Through November 27 at the Saint Louis Art Museum, 1 Fine Arts Drive, Forest Park; 314-721-0072. Gallery hours 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sun. (10 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri.)

Ron Laboray: After C.E.Laboray combines observations on cultural hegemony with critical takes on formalist art to make some of the smartest, prettiest and funniest works imaginable. Schematic maps and globes are overlaid with melted plastic blobs whose colors signify pop-culture institutions -- from Barbie to McDonald's to Wild West theme parks -- and whose oozy spread suggests an insidious takeover. These paintings engage postmodern theory but aren't weighed down by it; they also suggest what a populist redemption of high-modernist formalism might look like. And there's an interactive digital project that allows visitors to rearrange star constellations. What more could you want from an art exhibit? Maybe just a six-sided gallery guide with a brilliant essay by local art hero Michael Byron. They've got that too! This is a beautiful five-year survey of pieces from one of the best artists working in St. Louis. Through October 15 at Gallery 210, TeleCommunity Center, University of Missouri-St. Louis, 1 University Boulevard (at Natural Bridge Road); 314-516-5976. Gallery hours 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat.

Pearls Are a Nuisance: A Retrospective of Art Chantry Chantry is the undisputed reigning master of contemporary American poster design, but his ragged, edgy style of graphic sampling and razor wit have been mimicked so often you may not even realize he's the source. Chantry came to prominence in his native Seattle during the post-punk 1980s engineering ads for groups like Gang of Four, but he hit his brutal stride in the 1990s, channeling Raymond Chandler to shape a nasty noir aesthetic that was the visual equivalent of grunge music. This retrospective, smartly curated by Todd Hignite, delivers up a smorgasbord culled from Chantry's vast oeuvre, including poster work (ads for concerts, theater, art galleries and political posters), album covers and a group of "original" mechanicals that reveal Chantry's painstaking design and print processes. This may be the most fun any of us will have at an art gallery this year. And if you have any doubts about whether this is art, put them to bed: The guy's in the Louvre, for Pete's sake. Through October 15 at the Philip Slein Gallery, 1319 Washington Avenue; 314-621-4634. Gallery hours 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat.

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