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Ivy Cooper encapsulates the St. Louis art scene

Accidental Mysteries: Vernacular Photographs from the Collection of John and Teenuh FosterThis traveling exhibition poses an interesting counterpoint to the splashy color photos currently dominating the gallery circuit. It's no wonder that found collections -- old photos, random notes, cast-offs of all kinds -- are so popular. They're relatively easy to come by and they've earned their art cred thanks to the hard work of luminaries like Kurt Schwitters, Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp. (The Web site www.foundmagazine.com features a new "find" every day.) And there's something utterly magical about encountering an orphan object, something that once held meaning for someone somewhere but is now a free-floating non-signifier. This exhibition features dozens of found photographs from the collection of John and Teenuh Foster, who have scoured flea markets and estate sales with an eye for the particularly surreal. None of these images is titled, but some are grouped to suggest odd relationships. Still others are enlarged, which only enhances their mystery. Through January 6, 2006, at the Sheldon Art Galleries, 3648 Washington Boulevard; 314-533-9900. Gallery hours 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Tue., 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed., 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat.

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.

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.)

DoDo Jin Ming: Land and SeaIt's astonishing to think that this Chinese photographer was Robert Frank's apprentice. Then again, her talent would probably take her to these outer regions regardless of how, or with whom, she studied. Ming is an internationally known artist, and this exhibition features her astonishing powers of photographic interpretation in spare but dramatic form. In series of photographs of roiling seas and barren fields of sunflowers, she somehow sidesteps cliché and captures something of the human condition. The sunflowers, printed in negative tones and with veils over their heads, carry with them an elegiac quality that seems to want to heal the world's wounds. Through December 18 at the Saint Louis University 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.

Public Notice: Painting in Laumeier Sculpture Park It's a brilliant conceit: Exhibit paintings in a sculpture park, and make them billboard-size, unescapable! Whoever came up with the idea deserves a raise, because this show transports Laumeier beyond the territory of contemporary-art coolness it had reached before. The ten billboard artists on view here come from all over the world (we're lucky to claim one of them, Eva Lundsager, as our own). All have the talent to translate their idiosyncratic aesthetics to a massive scale, and each twelve-by-sixteen-foot sign/painting has something unique and engaging to say. But first check out the stunning exhibition of smaller works in the galleries; they lay the groundwork for the big statements. Through January 15, 2006 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. (Outdoor grounds open daily from 8 a.m. to a half-hour past sunset).

Cindy Sherman: Working Girland Girls' Night OutKudos to the Contemporary: Rather than simply play host to a great touring photography show (Girls' Night Out), the museum has paired that exhibition with a selection of Cindy Sherman's works. Not the (now overly familiar) Untitled Film Stills, and not her more recent self-portraits-with-prostheses, but some very early works -- photobooth things and cut-out images and portraits that retain a weak but recognizable link to her later work. Setting the video and photography of the next generation of "girls" against the backdrop of the most influential female photographer of the twentieth century gently poses questions without making overbearing genealogical claims. After a tour of Sherman's material, the work in Girls' Night Out(by Sarah Jones, Daniela Rossell, Shirana Shahbazi, Katy Grannan, Kelly Nipper, Salla Tykkä, Dorit Cypis, Elina Brotherus, Reneke Dijkstra and Eija Liisa Ahtila) takes on added dimensions of meaning -- and pleasure. Through December 31 at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, 3750 Washington Boulevard; 314-535-4660. Gallery hours 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat. (open till 8 p.m. Thu.), 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sun.

Katy Stone/Jeanine Coupe Ryding/Avery Danziger The Atrium Gallery has relocated from Clayton to Elliot Smith's former space in the Central West End, but this inaugural exhibition indicates that it will remain true to form, featuring slick, unchallenging art with commercial appeal. Seattle-based Stone works with acrylic paint on transparent Dura-Lar cutouts, creating wall hangings that look pretty in the gallery's big front window (and that would fit nicely with Target's home-décor line). Ryding's wood-block prints employ layers of imagery but lack emotional depth. "Water Babies," Danziger's series of large, color-saturated photographs, explores the overlooked aesthetic of super-soft art porn, featuring naked sisters frolicking at night in a swimming pool; it could use more art, more porn, or both. Through November 27 at Atrium Gallery, 4729 McPherson Avenue; 314-367-1076. Gallery hours 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Tue.-Sat., noon-4 p.m. Sun.

Kimiko Yoshida: Birth of a Geisha Juxtaposed against the Contemporary's Cindy Sherman show (see above), this exhibition poses some interesting questions. Yoshida's large, laminated C-print bride self-portraits obviously align themselves with the Japanese tradition of ritual dressing of the geisha and the bride. At the same time, it's hard to imagine these photographs would ever have been made without Sherman's precedent. Her role-playing self-portraiture has so profoundly imprinted itself upon contemporary photographic practice, it's tempting to read most of the genre in terms of its relation to Sherman's work. Yet Yoshida's works have plenty to distinguish them: Each of these sixteen images glows in its own saturated color, and her stunning bridal props range from Pokémon masks to feather headdresses to white afro wigs. Yoshida offers herself up as a free-floating cultural signifier -- one part of her rooted in the controlled Japanese geisha aesthetic, another exploring cultural practices in Africa, Asia, Brazil and the U.S. And where Sherman's recent works are willfully repulsive, Yoshida's are lovely, if quite strange. Also on view is a video projection piece, Birth of a Geisha. Through November 26 at Ellen Curlee Gallery, 1308A Washington Avenue; 314-241-1209. Gallery hours 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tue.-Sat. -- Ivy Cooper

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