St. Louis Art Capsules

Jessica Baran encapsulates the St. Louis art scene

Jane Birdsall-Lander: The Poetry of Objects This new body of work by St. Louis-based artist, writer and educator continues her inquiry into language's pictographic roots and its relationship to physical form. The undulating wall sculptures that predominantly comprise the show are works of expert craft: Wooden canes, truncated and affixed to other cane parts, form branch-, eye-, or wishbone-like shapes. Where the parts conjoin, they're bound with colored, waxed linen thread wrapped in taut circles. A piece resembling a wavering ladder ends in outstretched wooden hands; another spine-like form spouts fronds made of viola and cello pegs. The objects bear a vague resemblance to primitive instruments or tools, yet all have the linear quality of a handwritten mark, which draws them back to their point of origin: the alphabet. In one large-scale work, a grid of 26 square paintings serves as an index for the exhibit: Each piece represents a letter of the alphabet, its form revealed amid a swarm of other marks that represent the character's historical forebears. Broken down to their constituent parts, the marks begin to resonate with the core forms of the wall sculptures. The work itself appears to formulate a new language, speaking in curves, lines and staccato endpoints. Through June 11 at Duane Reed Gallery, 4729 McPherson Avenue; 314-361-4100 or Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tue.-Sat. and by appointment.

Larry Fink: Attraction and Desire — 50 Years in Photography This generous survey of the notable Brooklyn-born artist reaffirms the durable pleasures of black-and-white figural photography. A nimble chronicler of society's more extreme coteries, Fink moved among New York beatniks, Vegas gamblers, mid-century jazz musicians, the young Mike Tyson and other boxing strivers, rural Pennsylvanians and the lacquered elite of fashion, art and Hollywood. His preference for Caravaggio-esque high contrast dramatizes what is essentially an obsession with fugitive detail: the long, alabaster, manicured hands of a man clutching the back of a black-dressed blonde; a silver radiator in an angled swath of daylight; the heavy-lidded eyes of a lone woman in a crowd at the Cedar Bar; drops of rain on the black sedan bearing Coretta Scott King to the 1968 Poor People's Campaign. It would be easy to marvel at the fabled personalities and events chronicled here, but Fink's most anonymous subjects serve as the firmest testament to his peculiar eye — a complex gaze that is at once empathetic, excoriating and salacious. Intimate and disarmingly wearied self-portraits of himself, his wife, his child and dogs reframe a narrative that might otherwise tip completely into an obsession with cultural novelty. In the end, the show functions much like that other beleaguered medium — the novel — telling stories about living, loving and other less conclusive failures. Through August 20 at the Sheldon Art Galleries, 3648 Washington Boulevard; 314-533-9900 or Hours: noon-8 p.m. Tue., noon-5 p.m.

Poems by Bobby Thiel In this elegant suite of collaborative works on paper by local artists Gina Alvarez and Jana Harper, a too-often-lost sense of innocent wonderment is harnessed and safe-kept in line, color and texture. Inspired by a child's notebook made in the 1940s by one of Alvarez's distant relatives, the artists used the titles of Thiel's poems to generate new imagery, combining their own photographs with found images, along with shapes and hues drawn from Japanese prints and Indian miniatures. Beginning with digital prints, they applied printmaking techniques and handwork to each unique piece, drawing, stitching and collaging elements into to the imagery. An aerial image of plotted land, as one would see from an airplane window, is punctuated by inset rhinestones, washing those squares of fields in emerald and yellow. The blurred impression of a figure behind a shower curtain turns spectral, with the dappled mist punched through with multicolored dots. A rain cloud hovering over a cityscape swirls with minute circular gestures, emitting a dotted-line rainfall, as a child would render it. Memory, here, is embodied in the impressionistic mark, amassing a gestural journal of days defined by changes of light, shifts in weather and all-but-ephemeral glimpses of the modestly sublime. Through June 4 at the Sheldon Art Galleries, 3648 Washington Boulevard; 314-533-9900 or Hours: noon-8 p.m. Tue., noon-5 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 10 a.m.- 2 p.m. Sat.

Cosima von Bonin's The Fatigue Empire.
Markus Tretter
Cosima von Bonin's The Fatigue Empire.

Ruptures This exhibit of small, intimate abstract pieces by eleven contemporary painters once again raises the question of what, really, should be talked about when trying to talk about contemporary abstract painting. Curator and artist Michael Wille has assembled a sensitive and skilled cast of practitioners whose mediums vary widely — from oil and acrylic, to plaster, glitter, and casein mixed with ground marble dust. The scale of all of the work — which never exceeds hand-holdable dimensions — is distinctly anti-grandiose, mirroring the shared tenor of subtle, rustling abstraction practiced. Both Wille and Philadelphia-based Thomas Vance take cues from architecture, leaving on their pieces the imprint of structural elements (Wille) or re-presenting fragmented aspects of architectural plans (Vance). Chicago-based Zachary Buchner explores a painting's object status by building the surfaces of his pieces with plaster and spraying them with metallic and neon enamel; they hang on the wall like the melted remains of former icons. Sampling is prevalent in a number of the works, in which the artist extracts bits and pieces of the representational world or art-historical canon, suggesting the impossibility of novelty or escape from Modernism's shadow. The two paintings by Knoxville-based Jered Sprecher appear as if they could have been made by two different artists: one by a Hans Hoffmann acolyte and the other by a midcentury silk screener. Their way of quoting and reprising shades of culture has a charm not unlike a mixtape full of new covers of songs by long-gone bands. A true gem is a piece by Kent, Ohio-based Gianna Commito; it bends and refracts with knotted ribbons of stripes in muted, earthy hues that also feel distinctly midcentury, of a kind the Eameses would have favored in their work. Even the piece's surface has an aged quality that resurrects the sense of history as a burden. But the weight here is exquisite — as though beauty holds a vital stake in something, and not merely a distinguished lineage. Through May 28 at Hoffman LaChance Contemporary, 2713 Sutton Boulevard, Maplewood; 314-960-5322 or Hours: noon-5 p.m. Fri.-Sat. and by appointment.

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