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Ivy Cooper encapsulates the St. Louis art scene

Accidental Mysteries: Vernacular Photographs from the Collection of John and Teenuh Foster This 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. Gallery hours 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Tue., 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed., 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat.

Advance Directive: Peter Pranschke and Dystopia: Paul E "Paul E" is Paul E. Jost, a character who pops up in Pranschke's art more than once, and a good artist in his own right. On view here are more than a dozen smallish framed prints by Jost, incorporating dreamy imagery and wonderful titles ("pack up all the things that you don't deserve" gives you a good sense of it all). But the exhibit rightly belongs to Pranschke, whose ambitious autobiographical cartoon narratives have never looked better. They're all wonderful, despite -- or perhaps because of -- the fact that most are unfinished. Pranschke's shorthand drafting style is packed with expression; he says more in a single drawn line than most writers do in a novelful of words. Most are ballpoint and colored pencil on cut paper, many pasted on graph paper. Also included are clay prototypes for a set of action figures based on Pranschke's characters. The row of works culminates with the memorable Jenny Gordon Commission -- read the whole work; it's well worth it. One of the nicest shows in recent memory. Through October 29 at Mad Art Gallery, 2727 South 12th Street; 314-771-8230. Gallery hours by appointment 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tue.-Fri., 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Sat.

The Artists of SCOSAG: Faculty and Students When local artist Jenna Bauer founded the South City Open Studio and Gallery, she may not have realized she would revolutionize art education in St. Louis. But the evidence is all here in a wonderful survey of works by young students and their SCOSAG teachers. Using every imaginable material, these students are allowed to freely explore process rather than concentrate strictly on results -- but the results are amazing anyway. On view are prints, murals, ceramic work and things that can only be described as conceptual. What's even better is seeing the works that result from collaborations between students and their SCOSAG teachers, who include Bauer herself, Jason Wallace Triefenbach, Carmelita Nunez and a host of others who rank among the best artists in St. Louis. If everyone learned about art the SCOSAG way, we wouldn't need to argue the benefits of having art in the world. They'd be obvious. Through October 13 at the 3rd Floor Gallery, 1214 Washington Avenue (third floor); 314-241-1010. Gallery hours noon-4 p.m. Wed.-Sat.

Currents 95: Julie Mehretu Those who saw Mehretu speak at the Saint Louis Art Museum on September 8 can attest to the fact that she had a certain amount of trouble articulating the concepts of her work. Take a look at her four paintings on view there and you'll see why: They are so very complex, deeply layered and astonishingly beautiful that they defy description. Mehretu appropriates remarkable architectural plans, combines them with her own idiosyncratic drawings and overlays all of that with vaguely familiar nationalist symbols and signs, to generate explosive scenes -- of war? of sports? of schizophrenia? -- that may be the most accurate blueprint ever to have been rendered of psychic experience in the post-industrial, late capitalist Western world. If that sounds like excessive praise, then mission accomplished: Mehretu's works are absolutely brilliant. These paintings act like a buoy, a lifesaver in the sad chaos of the daily news; to think that someone has been able to get it down legibly on a flat surface provides hope that we might just survive this insanity after all. Through November 27 at the Saint Louis Art Museum, 1 Fine Arts Drive, Forest Park; 314-721-0072. Gallery hours 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sun. (10 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri.)

Cheonae Kim: Interplay Kim has managed to drag the minimalist painting aesthetic into the 21st century with only slight damage to its conceptual basis. After Frank Stella's huge, striped, shaped canvases, after Gerhard Richter's conceptual color-chart riffs and after the more recent rejection and then resuscitation of minimalist painting in general, Kim's paintings look fresh and original. Her geometric color strips are arranged within severely restricted fields, some reading like enlarged, pixelated details of digital images, others like Home Depot-style color combos meant to evoke a mood (Carmel, CA and Hummingbird are two good examples). The show is rounded out by a series of small grid paintings and a wall mural titled Now (2005). In the hands of artists like Kim, minimalist painting appears to have a long, healthy life ahead of it. Through October 16 at William Shearburn Gallery, 4735 McPherson Avenue; 314-367-8020. Gallery hours 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tue.-Sat.

Ron Laboray: After C.E. Laboray combines observations on cultural hegemony with critical takes on formalist art to make some of the smartest, prettiest and funniest works imaginable. Schematic maps and globes are overlaid with melted plastic blobs whose colors signify pop-culture institutions -- from Barbie to McDonald's to Wild West theme parks -- and whose oozy spread suggests an insidious takeover. These paintings engage postmodern theory but aren't weighed down by it; they also suggest what a populist redemption of high-modernist formalism might look like. And there's an interactive digital project that allows visitors to rearrange star constellations. What more could you want from an art exhibit? Maybe just a six-sided gallery guide with a brilliant essay by local art hero Michael Byron. They've got that too! This is a beautiful five-year survey of pieces from one of the best artists working in St. Louis. Through October 15 at Gallery 210, TeleCommunity Center, University of Missouri-St. Louis, 1 University Boulevard (at Natural Bridge Road); 314-516-5976. Gallery hours 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat.

Pearls Are a Nuisance: A Retrospective of Art Chantry Chantry is the undisputed reigning master of contemporary American poster design, but his ragged, edgy style of graphic sampling and razor wit have been mimicked so often you may not even realize he's the source. Chantry came to prominence in his native Seattle during the post-punk 1980s engineering ads for groups like Gang of Four, but he hit his brutal stride in the 1990s, channeling Raymond Chandler to shape a nasty noir aesthetic that was the visual equivalent of grunge music. This retrospective, smartly curated by Todd Hignite, delivers up a smorgasbord culled from Chantry's vast oeuvre, including poster work (ads for concerts, theater, art galleries and political posters), album covers and a group of "original" mechanicals that reveal Chantry's painstaking design and print processes. This may be the most fun any of us will have at an art gallery this year. And if you have any doubts about whether this is art, put them to bed: The guy's in the Louvre, for Pete's sake. Through October 15 at the Philip Slein Gallery, 1319 Washington Avenue; 314-621-4634. Gallery hours 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat.

Cindy Sherman: Working Girl and Girls' Night Out Kudos 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. Gallery hours 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat. (open till 8 p.m. Thu.), 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sun.

Kimiko Yoshida: Birth of a Geisha Juxtaposed against the Contemporary's Cindy Sherman show (see above), this exhibition poses some interesting questions. Yoshida's large, laminated C-print bride self-portraits obviously align themselves with the Japanese tradition of ritual dressing of the geisha and the bride. At the same time, it's hard to imagine these photographs would ever have been made without Sherman's precedent. Her role-playing self-portraiture has so profoundly imprinted itself upon contemporary photographic practice, it's tempting to read most of the genre in terms of its relation to Sherman's work. Yet Yoshida's works have plenty to distinguish them: Each of these sixteen images glows in its own saturated color, and her stunning bridal props range from Pokémon masks to feather headdresses to white afro wigs. Yoshida offers herself up as a free-floating cultural signifier -- one part of her rooted in the controlled Japanese geisha aesthetic, another exploring cultural practices in Africa, Asia, Brazil and the U.S. And where Sherman's recent works are willfully repulsive, Yoshida's are lovely, if quite strange. Also on view is a video projection piece, Birth of a Geisha. Through November 26 at Ellen Curlee Gallery, 1308A Washington Avenue; 314-241-1209. Gallery hours 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tue.-Sat. -- Ivy Cooper

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