St. Louis Art Capsules

Jessica Baran encapsulates the St. Louis art scene

Newly Reviewed
Günther Herbst Blending the seemingly irreconcilable — high art and the economically disenfranchised — British artist Günther Herbst paints small, nearly photorealistic still lifes depicting the makeshift structures that shelter London's homeless. In Tottenham Court Road, the oil-on-board painting that's the exhibition's sole point of focus, an abandoned cardboard shelter capitulates to its own vulnerability, buckling under the weightless strain of autumn leaves and assorted blown refuse. Vacillating among meticulous realism, brushy expressionism, and Mondrian-hued geometric abstraction, the otherwise diminutive work capaciously embraces a wide amalgam of stylistic approaches, each bearing the freight of its own historic and theoretical associations. Close consideration (as this deliberately isolating venue invites) may allow for more inspection than the work can bear. Enjoying the aesthetic merits and art-historic pastiche of this undeniably skillful painting feels, well, wrong in light of its subject matter — as though one has unwittingly become complicit in an even larger lampoon of the politically aloof art world itself. What exactly would be the ultimate outcome of this work? Activism? That nebulously heightened state of being called "awareness"? Whatever the case, Herbst has succeeded in reopening the whole can of worms. Through August 11 at Isolation Room/Gallery Kit, 5723 Dewey Avenue; 314-660-6295 or www.isolationroom-gallerykit.com. Hours: by appointment.

Tom of Finland A self-taught Finnish native who sought creative refuge in 1960s Los Angeles, where he was able, miraculously, to make a living drafting pencil-rendered cartoons of eroticized gay machismo, Tom of Finland straddled taboo and popular appeal long before the likes of Madonna and Lady Gaga. A former anti-aircraft officer and commercial illustrator, Tom (a.k.a. Touko Laaksonen) harnessed essential qualities from both fields, making uniformed dress as suggestive as negligee and a clear, graphic line evocative of Norman Rockwell, Marvel comics, Vargas Girls and Warholian Pop Art. In this exhibit of his relentlessly simple and strangely delicate drawings, finished works are interspersed between incomplete sketches. Square-jawed males with barrel chests, broad shoulders, petite waists and other proportional impossibilities appear in solitary, glorified repose or explicit couplings. Yes, the work was made to titillate — but hell, so was most Greek and Roman art. And like his classical forebears, Tom graces every male figure (and Tom's is a male-only universe) with a placid, enlightened-looking smile. The finished works exhibited here are much more demure than the sketches, the more overt sexual acts receding beneath dim erasures and incomplete limbs while suggestive gazes, sawed-off logs and rakishly angled sailor caps resonate in full black-and-white detail. This is where the work rises above genre: it's sheer bizarreness. In a motorcyclist's tilted hat, a single rolled-down leather boot or an outfit consisting of white gym socks and high-top sneakers, a microcosm of style and desire is written. How Tom's beefcake homoeroticism became a standard-issue brand is another story — but such is the course of any enduring style. Through August 6 at phd Gallery, 2300 Cherokee Street; 314-664-6644 or www.phdstl.com. Hours: noon-4 p.m. Thu.-Sun. and by appointment.

Ongoing
A Is For... In this playful and affecting group exhibition curated by Gina Alvarez, the relationship between art-making and child-rearing is explored through that fundamental building block of communication: the alphabet. Twenty-six local artists were each assigned one letter as point of departure and, often in collaboration with their offspring and spouse, off they went. John Sarra has crafted a low-lying table with F's for legs; Lindsey Obermeyer embroiders a swarm of H's in the manner of old Americana; architect Matthew Jeans contributes a massive K made of engineered Plexiglas of the type used for building models; Jim Ibur crafts a porcelain vase full of eyes (for I). The array of materials and approaches are as diverse as the artists' concisely written reflections on their lives as parents. Tom Huck contributes a linocut tattoo design for one of his fictional characters (a crossed devil's tail that forms an X) and admits to envying his daughter for her imagination. His wife, Anne Teeger Huck, goes the linocut route as well, rendering swirling words that begin with Q — a nod to inquisitiveness that complements her assertion that her kids bring her back to the most basic joy of making art: beginning with a simple line. Eric Repice builds a massive M from handmade paper, explaining that he often borrows art supplies from his daughter. The list goes on, with letter-bearing gems contributed by John Early, Jana Harper, Robert Longyear, Jason Hoeing, Dionna and Daniel Raedeke, Ken Wood, Amy Rosen and more (not to mention a poster by Eric Woods of Firecracker Press). Through August 13 at the Millstone Gallery at COCA, 524 Trinity Avenue, University City; 314-725-6555 or www.cocastl.org. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri., noon-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun.

Analogue Inverting the equation wherein mass-produced items are considered the antithesis of all things unique and handmade, this succinct group exhibit draws together a collection of artisan-crafted big-box items made by five contemporary artists. St. Louis-based Ryan Thayer's my building has every convenience fills three shopping carts with outsize hollow drywall forms. The tricolor lineup makes the familiar seem strange, the tall white inserts heightening the carts' bright colors, polished steel and elegant geometry. Caleb Larsen's One Person, Three Days — Survival Kit lays out the products suggested for inclusion in FEMA survival kits. Arranged on the gallery floor in descending size, the boxes, bottles and cans begin to express the bold formalism of their design, shape and palette, transforming items that were chosen for their critical usefulness into useless aesthetic objects. Juxtaposed behind them on the gallery wall are two vacuum-formed plastic molds of concrete sidewalk slabs by Ethan Greenbaum. The flattened and dirt-flecked hangings comprise an apt foil to the streamlined products otherwise on view, suggesting in their rough-hewn utilitarianism a rawer brand of abstraction. Helmut Smits fills a Coca-Cola bottle with 0.26 gallons of oil, which appears nearly indistinguishable from the soda. Conversely, Zoe Sheehan Saldana performs the most painstaking illusion in three items selected from her "Ersatz" series. Her lifejacket, for instance, crafted by hand to industry standards, elevates the notion of "machine-made" to a level of life or death, versus the lovely but functionally superfluous art object. Also showing: Terra Firma, an elegant site-specific installation by St. Louis-based artist John Early that points a pinewood bike ramp toward a skylight while the sounds of the Voyager space probe fill the space — suggesting the extremes of human limits and potential. Through July 22 at the Luminary Center for the Arts, 4900 Reber Place; 314-807-5984 or www.theluminaryarts.com. Hours: noon-6 p.m. Wed.-Sat.

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