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Ivy Cooper encapsulates the St. Louis art scene

 Accidental Mysteries: Vernacular Photographs from the Collection of John and Teenuh Foster This 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 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.

Lawrence Carroll: The Shadow Paintings and Other Work Australian-born, LA-based painter Carroll has been producing some of the most beautiful, contemplative art seen anywhere in the last two decades. He's a regular exhibitor in Europe, particularly in Italy, and his recent inclusion in the 50-year retrospective of Germany's Dokumenta Exhibition speaks volumes about his status abroad. Unfortunately, he's underappreciated and underrepresented in this country, which makes this quiet gathering of his recent Shadow Paintings all the more significant for us here in St. Louis. Each of the four modest-size paintings from this series hangs on a separate wall, which allows for the kind of quiet concentration these canvases invite. Their surfaces are patchworks of canvas covered thickly by hues ranging from gray, bone and putty to subtle shades of blue, beige and green. Their thickly scumbled surfaces, as well as their physical depth (they jut four inches out from the wall), generate a calming sense of gravity and density. Carroll's wall works are normally larger in scale; this group proves that canvas size isn't the source of Carroll's power. Also on view is one of Carroll's remarkable Table Paintings from 2003-05 -- a painting that literally emerges out of a low table, framed by a complex skeleton of wooden dowels -- as well as two bold Color Paintings from 1997-2002. Through November 23 at Schmidt Contemporary Art, 503 N. 20th Street; 314-575-2648. Gallery hours 1-5 p.m. Wed.-Sat. and by appointment.

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.)

Phyllis Galembo, Dressed for Thrills: 100 Years of Halloween Costumes and Masquerade Don't write this off as a Halloween gimmick; Galembo's Cibachrome photographs of historical Halloween costumes and masks are brilliant objects unto themselves. As a collector, Galembo clearly has an eye for the visual and the historical novelty of these costumes; but as a photographer she possesses uncanny skill and intuition for lighting, composition and color, and her images transport these things into another dimension. The Deluxe Disguise Kit (2001), a relic of the 1950s, looks straight out of a horror movie; the homemade Depression Era Ghost Mask (2000) can't help but evoke a KKK hood; even the cheesy, plastic 1965 Hairy Skeleton mask is unimaginable in the context of 21st-century Halloween costumes. Granted, Halloween costumes are designed to be strange; but in Galembo's hands they appear to have come from another world, or at least the most surreal depths of this one. Through November 19 at Philip Slein Gallery, 1319 Washington Avenue; 314-621-4634. Gallery hours Tue.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

DoDo Jin Ming: Land and Sea It'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.

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