St. Louis Art Capsules

Jessica Baran encapsulates the St. Louis art scene

Monet's Water Lilies Before collectible magnets, waiting-room posters, silk-screened mugs, T-shirts and hotel wallpaper turned his work into deplorable kitsch, Claude Monet was a bona fide revolutionary. A proto-abstract expressionist (and before that a rough-hewn countercultural innovator who literally re-imagined the way we see), the Father of Impressionism can lay claim to a staggering number of not-ready-for-gift-shop achievements, despite considerable efforts to persuade us of the contrary. Seeing the three massive panels of Agapanthus (1915-1926) reunited for the first time in 30 years communicates an almost jarring order to stop, look closely and reconsider all of one's rigid preconceptions. One of his "Grand Decorations" (as he referred to them), the seven-by-fourteen-foot depiction of the artist's beloved water-lily pond is wild, rough and, at the same time, luminous and narcotically tranquil. Allow your eye to see beyond the teal and lilac that we long ago made crass with our consumerism, and he palette is for the most part muddy, the pond's murky depths occasionally shot through with mad swipes of yellow or cadmium red. The scope, Confronted in person rather than via reprint, the scope is staggering; it dwarfs and engulfs the viewer, creating a spectacle that bears no relation to turn-of-the-century plein air painting. The exhibition prefaces the triptych with a display of studies, which give a sense of the final work's agonized evolution. Tracing the process from its descriptive, fathomable beginnings to an endpoint that's depthless and nearly abstract, the viewer is able to appreciate the enormous risks the artist embraced as he moved from the comfortably conventional to the twilight zone of invention. Not everyone will leave a convert, but it's impossible not to absorb this effort — so huge, strange and, yes, beautiful. Through January 22, 2012, at the St. Louis Art Museum, 1 Fine Arts Drive (in Forest Park); 314-721-0072 or Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sun. (10 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri.)

David Noonan The extent to which the world is a stage and all of us mere actors is wisdom darkly revisited in this solo exhibition of recent works by London-based Australian artist David Noonan. Using found imagery of theatrical performances from the '60s and '70s, Noonan creates large-scale screen prints on linen that's patched together in textures that recall Japanese Boro textiles (an intuitive patchwork clothing style from the late 19th century). Noonan constrains his palette to inky black and the earthen tones of the fabric, which imbues his works with a saturated, macabre character, amplified by the black-painted eyes and mouths of the sinister performers he depicts. Suggestive of extreme avant-gardism and occult ritual, the players in these fractured scenes are at once frozen in bizarre contortions and animated by the frayed and tactile nature of their substance: The torn swaths of linen beg to be touched, if not worn, like a costume. Abstract patterns printed over the images underscore the work's identity as fabric and artifact of the past, resembling both stitch lines and the marks of distress. A roomful of just-beyond-life-size dancers, also printed on linen but affixed to freestanding pieces of wood cut to the figures' silhouettes, is more physically confrontational in real time. The specter of the past — when experimentalists' utopian aspirations were sincere and hopeful — thickly permeates the show like a sinister symbol of misguided folly, vain indulgence or worse. Also showing: Sick Serena and Dregs and Wreck and Wreck In this Gothic-inspired 16mm film, British artist Emily Wardill uses the morality-tale paradigm as an absurdist analogy for the mis-education espoused by contemporary media, wherein the common phrases we use to communicate with one another (e.g., "sex and drugs and rock & roll," which is mangled and re-imagined as the film's title) are reduced to hollow rituals and empty acts of aimless devotion. Through December 30 at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, 3750 Washington Boulevard; 314-535-4660 or Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed.-Sat., 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sun.

Monet's Water Lillies.
Monet's Water Lillies.

Out of the Box: Artists Play Chess To inaugurate the contemporary gallery in the newly minted World Chess Hall of Fame, Bradley Bailey has curated a thoughtful yet cacophonous exhibit of 21st-century artworks that exploit the cerebral game's sculptural and conceptual possibilities. Drawing on chess' militaristic identity, the exhibit abounds with warring audio tracks — Liliya Lifánova's expertly stitched costumes from an interpretative live performance of the game may hang empty and mute, but video footage of the event booms with moans and growls. Diana Thater restages a famous 1920 match between chess showman Georges Koltanowski and conceptual artist/chess enthusiast Marcel Duchamp (the artist won): Two female chess novices re-enact the moves on four video screens, the action and audio twitching at a frenetically sped-up pace, the twice-bisected image nearing abstraction. Looking on as a mute foil, Yoko Ono's all-white chess board, Play It by Trust, suggests there's an antidote to all the heady antagonism: communication and collaboration. And St. Louis native Tom Friedman offers another pacific salve: sheer absurdity. His fantastically bizarre and meticulous set confounds any attempt at studied fastidiousness, even as it creates the most impossible game of all. Through February 12, 2012, at the World Chess Hall of Fame, 4652 Maryland Avenue; 314-367-9243 or Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed. and Sat., 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thu.-Fri. and noon-5 p.m. Sun.

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