Current Shows

Robert Duffy encapsulates the St. Louis art scene

 Capsule reviews of current exhibits are written by Riverfront Times arts writer Robert Duffy, with occasional contributions by the RFT staff.

Ars Botanica: Works by Leslie J. Laskey Redoubtable, formidable, irascible, brilliant. For nearly a half-century, Leslie Laskey held forth with self-assured conviction in the School of Architecture at Washington University. He gathered disciples and detractors by the dozens and never doubted the rightness of his opinions and pedagogy — or, at least, he didn't let on if he had a doubt. All the while he was teaching, he was also working as painter, sculptor and printmaker, as a designer of jewelry and of lighting fixtures and furniture. He has exhibited frequently in galleries around town, at Wash. U. and at Frank Schwaiger's south-side Xanadu, in New York and in North Carolina. He has also shown before at the Sheldon, and now Sheldon art curator Olivia Lahs-Gonzales has mounted a telling examination of Laskey's work that concentrates on plants and flowers. Just as Laskey was loath to admit that he might be less than correct in his pronouncements, he developed a firm, authoritative and recognizable style early on and stuck with it. Within this rigorous, disciplined aesthetic and stylistic framework, Laskey produces art of great intellectual depth and lyricism, and — as do all artists who understand that the architecture of living things is the foundation on which all art is constructed — plants are a means to his understanding of the world, and of his interpreting it for the viewer. Through January 27, 2007, at the Sheldon Art Galleries, 3648 Washington Boulevard; 314-533-9900 (www.sheldonconcerthall.org). Hours: noon-8 p.m. Tue. and Thu., noon-5 p.m. Wed. and Fri., 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat. — Robert Duffy

Bound Visions: Artists' Books Try to put a date on the birth of the book, and you'll pick a big, fat scholarly fight. Nevertheless, bookmaking is ancient human industry, and the first book-like things probably were invented — guess where? — in Mesopotamia, which is now being ravaged. Professor Ken Botnick, head of the Book Art Department at Washington University, and Robert Ebendorf, a distinguished professor at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, have mounted an absorbing exhibition about contemporary manifestations of the art of the book. This survey presents everything from illustrated books of rather traditional natures (books that look, y'know, books) to books that move beyond accepted and expected conventions. This liberation of the book allows the form entry into an entirely more experimental territory, where narrative is read more viscerally than literarily. Books of this new bibliography are more like blank slates, bare canvases, lumps of clay or masses of stone, ready to be manipulated and moved from shelves onto walls and into vitrines. Through November 5 at the Craft Alliance Gallery, 6640 Delmar Boulevard, University City; 314-725-1177 (www.craftalliance.org). Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Thu., 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun. (RD)

Michael Eastman: America Series Michael Eastman has employed technical virtuosity time and again to impress his keen sensibilities as images on paper. With the exception of an equine detour I never quite got in the saddle of, his eye and intelligence have been trained toward buildings and built environments. Although few human beings physically appear in these images, they're palpably present. Look, for example, at Eastman's photograph of a New Orleans library, an accommodation of a diverse accumulation of books and pictures and Mardi Gras regalia and other shards of an existence's mirror. This and similarly affecting images reveal Eastman's ability to evoke the sad and silent eloquence of rooms and buildings, and to observe them not simply as material and space but also as resounding symbol. Through October 21 at R. Duane Reed Gallery, 7513 Forsyth Boulevard, Clayton; 314-862-2333 (www.duanereedgallery.com). Hours 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Fri., noon-4 p.m. Sat. (RD)

The Graphic Imperative: International Posters for Peace, Justice and the Environment — 1965-2005 Posters blur the boundaries between advertising and art. They've long performed effectively in getting consumers to buy this necktie or that automobile, or in getting theatergoers into this seat or that one. They encourage you to take public transportation or to take your kids to the circus. Posters are everywhere, or seem to be, anyway. "Post No Bills" was meant for them. As important as they are in keeping commercial activity humming, posters have also proved invaluable to politicians and to anyone advocating for one cause or another, or against something regarded as heinous. These posters in this powerful show are guaranteed to give any committed conservative a rip-snorting case of fantods, but for those who navigate the political middle and the left end of the continuum, they are vehicles of wisdom and truth, expressed in powerful graphics and economical use of words. Examples go back to the heyday of Another Mother for Peace and that movement 's ubiquitous "War is not safe...." poster. Sharing the same space is the haunting silhouette of the tormented, humiliated prisoner in the black hood at Abu Ghraib. There's enough visual gunpowder enough in this show to blow the roof off 1627 Washington. Its energy is expressed in a beautifully designed exhibit, hung by Tom Bussmann, art preparator-extraordinaire and co-owner of the Philip Slein Gallery. Through October 21 at the Des Lee Gallery, 1627 Washington Avenue (University Lofts Building); 314-621-8735. Hours: 1-5 p.m. Wed.-Sat. (RD)

Jerald Ieans: New Paintings Nothing could be finer than to have Jim Schmidt open his handsome new gallery in Grand Center with a brilliant exhibition of the work of his protégé, the talented St. Louis painter Jerald Ieans. For years, Schmidt has soldiered on valiantly as a dealer and an evangelist of modernism, encouraging young talent such as Ieans and showing work that perches perilously on the point of the advance guard's javelin. Now, one hopes, he is getting what he has long deserved: a bright new gallery, properly outfitted, with spaces designed to accommodate large works of art as well as intimately scaled paintings and sculptures. Schmidt gives Grand Center's leadership full credit for its support of his establishment, and indeed, the all-over-the-place street party Vince Schoemehl and his colleagues tossed last Friday was not only fun but also had the effect of restoring faith in the Grand scheme of things. But let's not lose our focus. Ieans — since the first show of his work at Schmidt's gallery on Washington almost fourteen years ago — has gone from strength to strength as a painter, and this new, fleshly group of paintings spells further advancement. Arpian shapes ebb and flow, advance and recede, in this radiant world, flexing and relaxing, meandering insouciantly, while some muscle vigorously against the pictures' frames. Dealer and artist commit acts of aesthetic heroism on Grand Boulevard. The evolving arts district and the region are better for their being there. Through November 4 at Schmidt Contemporary Art, 615 North Grand Boulevard; 314-575-2648. noon-5 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat. (RD)

Leslie Laskey: Lilium Another thing about the work of Leslie Laskey, whose floral retrospective is reviewed above: Although paintings, prints and drawings have been particularly important media for expressions of his ideas, he enthusiastically embraces other media (such as photography), should they serve his purposes. Ellen Curlee has brought together a garden of photographs of lilies of various descriptions and in various conditions (including shattered). These are digital prints; the eye is drawn to the exquisite grain on the paper as well as the central images. All are bold, luscious, exotic, saturated with color and sexuality. Through October 21 at the Ellen Curlee Gallery, 1308A Washington Avenue; 314-241-1299 (www.ellencurlee.com). Hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tue.-Sat. (RD)

Of Spirit and Form: The Monuments of France in Photographs by Édouard Baldus and Médéric Mieusement Photography was born in France, in the first half of the 19th century; its first image was architecture. In 1851 Édouard-Denis Baldus became one of 40 founding members of the Société Héliographique. That same year France established the Commission des Monuments Historiques to document the noble heritage of architecture on French soil. Yet the work produced for the commission regularly transcended documentation and comes down to us as art. Why? Photographs of structures in their context, produced by men and women of deep visual sensitivity, convey more than documentary evidence; they allow viewers to respond to buildings as vessels of personal, universal and universal memory. More than 80 individual images and portfolios in this show at the Sheldon Galleries represent Baldus and Séraphin Médéric Mieusement, who revived the work of the commission in the 1870s. To say it is arresting and beautiful is to praise it only lamely: Of all the photography exhibitions of the past three decades in St. Louis, this stands as one of the most indelible. David Hanlon, art department chair at St. Louis Community College-Meramec, who'll talk at the Sheldon at 11 a.m. on October 21, organized it. The photographs, culled from the Russell Sturgis Collection at Washington University, are up through January 27, 2007, at the Sheldon, 3648 Washington Boulevard; 314-533-9900 (www.sheldonconcerthall.org). Hours: noon-8 p.m. Tue. and Thu., noon-5 p.m. Wed. and Fri., 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat.

Bill Smith: Structures and Systems One's tempted to say words fail him, but we're not here to demonstrate creative uses of white space, no matter how tempting that may be. Still, the unfailingly rewarding and confounding energy of Bill Smith's wizardly constructions and their ethereal beauty challenge a writer to bear witness properly. Smith was trained as a scientist first, then as an artist, then as a diesel mechanic. Juggling all of those capabilities, he makes art that draws inspiration from everyone from Leonardo to Jean Tinguely to Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell. He assembles — no, involves, makes marriages of — skulls and artificial flowers, light, magnets, sounds (including the voice of Carl Sandburg), maple-tree helicopter seeds, mathematics, and yards and yards of wire. Like a spider's web, the intricacy of the construction and the glitter of shiny stuff draw you in first. Once seduced, you are transfixed, trapped and sentenced to sit or stand and attend carefully to Smith's visual music. Whirring, moving, constantly in motion, surprising, at once fragile and structurally vigorous, Smith' s art speaks credibly and hypnotically of genius. His sculptures are installed to great effect, with room to breathe and to operate, in Matthew Strauss' noble venture in the Grove. Through October 21 at White Flag Projects, 4568 Manchester Avenue; 314-531-3442 (www.whiteflagprojects.org). Hours: noon-7 p.m. Wed, noon-5 p.m. Sat. and by appointment. (RD)

Mel Watkin: Insurgency Mel Watkin was one of the smartest of the bright, dedicated crowd that shaped influential exhibitions on next to no money in the good old days of the old Forum for Contemporary Art. She now directs the Public Policy Resource Center at UMSL, but she continues to make art on her own. This haunting exhibition of drawings is a deliberate subversion of the folding road maps that even in the Internet era find their ways into glove compartments. Some are worn to the texture of chamois by frequent handling; some after a hundred refoldings acquire the enigmatic qualities of palimpsest. Watkin draws on them, and what she draws corrupts the map's established function: Geography is erased, redefined, overgrown with the flora of the draftsman's compass and the artist's fecund imagination. The commercial road map -- so deliberately informative, so thoroughly artless and commonplace -- thus becomes anarchic. Watkin's work will challenge your notions of time and space through February 3, 2007, in the Nancy Spirtas Kranzberg Gallery of the Sheldon, 3648 Washington Boulevard; 314-533-9900 (www.sheldonconcerthall.org). Hours: noon-8 p.m. Tue. and Thu., noon-5 p.m. Wed. and Fri., 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat.

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