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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. Hours: 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Tue., 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed., 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat.

John Baldessari: Person with GuitarWilliam Shearburn throws in a light December treat with this small show of six Baldessari screen-print constructions, each titled Person with Guitar (all 2004) and each inserting boldly colored guitar shapes into photographs of guitarists. Their heads are missing, though, so it becomes a game to try and identify who might be whom via clues from clothing, setting and the like. Baldessari has been known since the 1960s for making fairly heady conceptual art, but he's also mastered the art of making serious art funny. The latter is the case in this show, which is highly recommended for its sheer cleverness and light touch. Through December 24 at William Shearburn Gallery, 4735 McPherson Avenue; 314-367-8020. Hours: 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tue.-Sat.

Stuart Elster: New Paintings & DrawingsA small show, and a gem. The five works on view provide a nice introduction to Elster's slightly twisted take on American money — bills and coinage, to be precise. One large untitled oil on canvas appears at first glance to be a coppery-gold op art offering. Scrutinizing it further, a profile of Abe Lincoln emerges — on its side, stretched taffy-like, but unmistakably taken from the portrait on the U.S. penny. Two drawings, Happy and Sad (both 2005), perform related hijinks on George Washington's dollar-bill portrait, this time in ultrafine graphite scribbles. The quarter gets its own treatment in two oil paintings. There's humor here, certainly, but the work is saved from one-linerness by the remarkable, enviable skill and sophistication of Elster's execution. Through January 14, 2006, at Schmidt Contemporary Art, 503 N. 20th Street; 314-575-2648. Hours: 1-5 p.m. Wed.-Sat. and by appointment. Call for holiday closing times.

Aaron Karp: New PaintingsKarp's style is slightly wider ranging than this show suggests. He's made a name for himself engineering complexly layered perforated forms in acrylic on canvas. These works are complex, to be sure, but all in more or less the same way. It would be going too far to say "seen one, seen them all," but there's a great deal of homogeneity here. Still, no one does this dazzling, practically hallucinogenic tour through meshes of flowers, waves and squiggles better than Karp, so for those not acquainted with his work, this show is worth a visit. Through January 14, 2006, at R. Duane Reed Gallery, 7513 Forsyth Boulevard, Clayton; 314-862-2333. Hours 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Fri., noon-4 p.m. Sat.

Marked Menand Eric WoodsThe Marked Men of the show's title are six of the most influential tattoo artists working today: Nick Bubash, Scott Harrison, Thom de Vita, Michael Malone, Don Ed Hardy and John Wyatt. Their talents beyond skin art are on view here. Bubash's mixed-media assemblages are wildly funny; Sante Bozo (2005) looks like something Joseph Cornell might have made on an LSD bender. Harrison's water colors are absurd tour-de-force illustrations. Wyatt's black and white photographs of people sporting tattoos are the show's only ho-hum note. In the back room, a slew of wonderful works by local artist and Firecracker Press printer Eric Woods show off his wide-ranging talents. Some of the posters are extremely affordable — collectors, take note. Through December 24 at Philip Slein Gallery, 1319 Washington Avenue; 314-621-4634. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat.

Garry Noland: Unorganized Territory Noland's messy, dystopic paintings and assemblages are apt metaphors for the state of current American foreign relations. In one series the artist binds National Geographic magazines in colored tape and arranges the pieces to spell out messages in Morse Code. Elsewhere Noland gouges maps into impossibly thick impasto paint. Best of all his works are the TV assemblages: stacks of dusty, pre-cable TV sets adorned with various effluvia and broadcasting mostly snow, punctuated by recognizable imagery. The works read like desperate attempts at post-apocalyptic communication, witty and disturbing. Also on view is a video work by Chris Coleman and flower photographs by Gene Moehring. Through January 21, 2006, at Gallery 210, TeleCommunity Center, University of Missouri-St. Louis, 1 University Drive (at Natural Bridge Road); 314-516-5976. Gallery hours 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat.

Philippe Parreno: The Boy from MarsThe fourth installation in the Saint Louis Art Museum's "New Media" series is the most exciting to date from the standpoint of contemporary art. French artist Parreno has produced a video piece that's meditative, mysterious and somehow otherworldly. A billowing, tentlike structure, glowing gold from within, stands peacefully in a swampy, verdant setting among water buffalo. As evening descends, strange lights rise in the sky. The film reads like the documentation of an advanced culture on another planet, or Earth in an enlightened future. This is not far off the mark, for the site is an artists' community in rural Thailand, where a host of artists have come to work and contribute to the self-sustaining system that supports the place. Along with architect François Roche, Parreno designed the building, a central gathering place within the community and the mute protagonist of this film. It's strange and enigmatic, while staking a clear claim for the possibility of communities this beautiful, this harmonious, here on this planet. Through February 12, 2006, at the Saint Louis Art Museum, 1 Fine Arts Drive, Forest Park; 314-721-0072. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sun. (10 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri.)

Public Notice: Painting in Laumeier Sculpture Park It's a brilliant conceit: Exhibit paintings in a sculpture park, and make them billboard-size, inescapable! 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. 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).

Max rada dada: Sideshow!Rada dada is the real deal: a kinder, gentler Dada artist for the 21st century. Where some of the Dadaists of the early twentieth century made work that was cutting, politically subversive and anticapitalist, rada dada's work is delightfully strange, utterly apolitical and imminently commodified and consumable. Which is not to say it's not worth a look; in fact, it's outlandish and fun. Rada dada is skilled with the large-format Polaroid camera, as evidenced by a few "double pull," two-part images of hybrid figures such as Grecian Beauty and Mystical Boy (both 2004). Other large Polaroid works feature tableaux of taxidermied animals dressed up and acting like people. Two extraordinary hand-painted banners, Monopoly and Flying Bad Taxidermy, evince rada dada's fine sense for archaic imagery and the absurd. Also featured are more affordably priced handpainted and printed shirts. Through February 4, 2006, at Ellen Curlee Gallery, 1308A Washington Avenue; 314-241-1299. Hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tue.-Sat.

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. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat. (open till 8 p.m. Thu.), 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sun.

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