St. Louis Art Capsules 

Malcolm Gay encapsulates the St. Louis arts scene


John Armleder and Olivier Mosset Making good on its new curatorial team's promise to present more artist-centered exhibitions, the Contemporary has handed over its main gallery space to two European heavyweights. Though their styles are wildly different, for this show, custom made for the Contemporary, John Armleder and Olivier Mosset have adopted the notion of art as obstacle and obstacle as art. The Swiss-born Armleder, who splits his time between Geneva and New York, has created a 45-foot wall painting as well as several new paintings and an installation of Mylar Christmas trees piled together pell-mell. Mosset, also Swiss born but now living in Tucson, presents a series of his 60s-era "circle paintings" along with an enormous installation of Toblerones, large cardboard sculptures that recall the anti-tank structures used by the Swiss army. Though both are better known in Europe circles than America, they remain two of the most influential artists working today. May 9 (reception 7-9 p.m.) through August 3 at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, 3750 Washington Boulevard; 314-535-4660 ( Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat. (open till 8 p.m. Thu.), 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sun.

Bare Witness: Photographs by Gordon Parks What more can be said about the work of famed African-American photographer Gordon Parks? Well, this collection of photographs, hand-selected by Parks before his death in 2006, represents some of the iconic photographer's finest work. The show includes many of Parks' best-known compositions, such as American Gothic, a portrait of a black cleaning woman standing before an American flag with a mop in one hand and a broom in the other that was viewed as a forceful indictment of race relations in America. Parks, who worked as a staff photographer for Life magazine from 1948 to 1972, selected other iconic works, such as his haunting profile of an aged black woman titled Mrs. Jefferson, but also several that are less familiar, such as a portrait of a young Muhammad Ali and a stunning portrait of Ingrid Bergman being warily regarded by a klatch of Italian grandmothers. May 9 through August 3 in Gallery 222 of the Saint Louis Art Museum, 1 Fine Arts Drive (in Forest Park); 314-721-0072 ( Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sun. (10 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri.)

Hello Masterpiece Like some garden gnome swiped from Ladue and taken on a whirlwind European tour, Hello Kitty seems to be everywhere in this exhibit of postcard-size paintings by Leslie Holt. But unlike a gnome-napper whose abductees turn up in snapshots beside the Eiffel Tower or Buckingham Palace, Holt interpolates Hello Kitty into miniature reproductions of some of the most iconic images in the history of Western art. Here Kitty nabs Heraclitus' seat in Raphael's School of Athens. There she's standing en pointe in Degas' Dance Class. It's a clever little show that's a mash-up of highbrow and popular culture and that directs our attention, yet again, toward the idea of art as a commodity. The operative word here, though, is little: At four by six inches apiece, Holt's paintings refuse to take themselves too seriously. May 10 (reception 7-10 p.m.) through June 21 at phd Gallery, 2300 Cherokee Street; 314-664-6644 ( Hours: noon-4 p.m. Thu.-Sun.

Journeys Traveling in the United States, Europe and North Africa, for most of his life St. Louisian Peter Shank has been interpreting his journeys in oil paint. The title, then, of his current exhibition, which draws on more than four decades of painting experience, is fitting. Spanning from his days as a student at Yale to a stint in Paris and the Arab-dominated regions of North Africa, Shank's paintings show a remarkable consistency of technique. Consistency, however, does not translate into uniformity. Many of the paintings are reminiscent of the pre-surrealist painter Georgio de Chirico, incorporating such disparate images as a fish over a house topped by a mountain range. Many incorporate collage, while still others present simplified landscapes or nude portraits. Shank's range as an artist is hardly surprising. As the son of modernist architect Isadore Shank and famed illustrator Ilse Shank, he's one of three brothers, all of whom are artists. What is surprising is the scope of the show (more than 40 works) and the unmistakable impression it gives that an artist's vision, no matter the time and place, can remain intact while, simultaneously, it matures. May 9 (artist talk and reception 5:30-8 p.m.) through June 20 at the Millstone Gallery at COCA, 524 Trinity Avenue, University City; 314-725-6555 ( Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri., noon-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun.

Deborah Aschheim: Reconsider In earlier projects Los Angeles-area sculptor Deborah Aschheim has explored the relationship between the cyborg and the surveillance state, most notably in her critically acclaimed multi-part installment Neural Architecture. More recently the artist has been exploring the nature of memory. Alzheimer's disease runs in Aschheim's family, and initially the artist embarked on her current project as a defense against forgetting. She submitted a list of her 25 favorite words to Bay Area musician Lisa Mezzacappa, who (along with other musicians) created songs for each word. Aschheim, in turn, created sculptures designed to play the songs. The idea: Our linguistic and auditory memories use separate neural pathways. By creating new sensory associations for these words, Aschheim might be able to protect them from the ravages of memory loss. The result is a series of boldly colored hanging sculptures — made of plastic tubing, LEDs, monitors and funnels — that resemble the circuitry of the human nervous system. Through May 11 at Laumeier Sculpture Park Museum Galleries, 12580 Rott Road, Sunset Hills; 314-821-1209 ( Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Fri., noon-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun.

Chuck Close: 10 Years in Print In a career that has spanned more than 40 years, Chuck Close has developed an instantly recognizable style. Often working from photographs of family and friends, Close applies a grid to the image before meticulously re-creating the photograph, grid cell by grid cell, on a grand-size canvas. From a distance Close's paintings appear almost as photographic reproductions. Step closer, though, and the image quickly disintegrates, revealing itself to be a seemingly pell-mell construction whose logic is only apparent when the painting is viewed as a whole. This is the stuff of museums, but here in St. Louis the William Shearburn Gallery is presenting a partial retrospective. One standout: A new 187-color screen print published by Pace Editions, the publishing arm of the famed Pace/Wildenstein Gallery in New York. Through May 10 at William Shearburn Gallery, 4735 McPherson Avenue; 314-367-8020 ( Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat.

Common Concern After more than 30 years of work and friendship, painters David Ottinger and Barry Sullivan mount a joint show at the Regional Arts Commission. Former classmates, Ottinger and Sullivan even shared a studio before heading in separate directions. For Sullivan that meant stints in Paris and Iran, where he explored the world of abstract painting. Ottinger, meanwhile, remained in his native St. Louis, where he honed his skill as a representational painter who relies heavily on the observed world. For Common Concern, Ottinger presents a crop of formal paintings concerned with line, form and shadow, while Sullivan offers a moody series of expressive paintings. Through May 11 at the Regional Arts Commission, 6128 Delmar Boulevard; 314-863-5811 ( Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri., noon-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun.

Alex Couwenberg: Working Space Raised in Los Angeles and Orange County, painter Alex Couwenberg is deeply influenced by the cultural touchstones of the region: custom cars, surf and skateboard culture and the rigors of mid-century design. But it is Southern California's graphic tradition that seems most deeply to inform Couwenberg's paintings, which display a fine use of color and composition. St. Louis artist Shawn Burkard occupies the gallery's project room with his show Over and over and over, a body of work that reinterprets commercial objects. In the New Media room is "Cornerstone," a short video by installation artist Jill Downen, in which the artist explores the relationship between human bodies and the buildings they inhabit. Through May 31 at Bruno David Gallery, 3721 Washington Boulevard; or 314-531-3030. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed.-Sat. and by appointment.

Currents 102: Sarah Oppenheimer The Saint Louis Art Museum has given over to installation artist Sarah Oppenheimer one of the galleries that houses its modern collection. With an undergraduate degree in semiotics, Oppenheimer explores the notion of "mutable architecture": Rather than viewing a room or a building as a fixed space, she seeks a fluctuating architecture that is socially engaged. Here the artist has constructed plywood tunnels through several of the museum's walls. Each tunnel, smooth and tapered, provides a view to a piece in the museum's modern collection. Some portals use mirrors, others open onto artworks that are several galleries away; each has a vaguely filmic quality that allows the viewer to reframe and re-engage with the museum's collection. Through July 6 at the Saint Louis Art Museum, 1 Fine Arts Drive (in Forest Park); 314-721-0072 ( Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sun. (10 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri.)

Discerning Palette: Jerry O. Wilkerson Retrospective Like many of his contemporaries in the pop art movement, Jerry Wilkerson, who died of cancer in 2007, took his inspiration from the world of consumer goods. Painting in a neo-pointillist style that was more influenced by the technological world of printing than the wispy ghost of George Seurat, Wilkerson tackled consumer culture in the most literal way. He painted that thing we consume directly: food. Boiled lobsters, hot dogs, beer cans, potato chips. Wilkerson did not confine himself strictly to painting. He was also a sculptor whose three-dimensional creations tackled similar themes. Like the best pop art, the relationship of Wilkerson's work to the material consumer world is ambiguous: It celebrates the riot of product variety while simultaneously highlighting its disposable nature. Through August 15 at the Saint Louis University Museum of Art, 3663 Lindell Boulevard; 314-977-2666 ( Hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Wed.-Sun.

Fiesta de la Libertad: Celebrating Passover in Havana In 2001, taking a break from her documentary photography project about the Bible Fellowship Apostolic Church in East St. Louis, Deborah Weinstein traveled to Cuba with the Maine Photographic Workshops. What she found there was remarkable: a group of Orthodox Jews who had worshiped in an Old Havana synagogue without interruption throughout Fidel Castro's rule. Latching on to a friendly interpreter, Weinstein gained remarkable access to this little-known community, visiting private homes, a kosher butcher and, of course, the synagogue itself. Shot on black-and-white film, Weinstein's photos act as a window to a world few of us have ever imagined, much less seen. Through May 16 at the Art Space at Provisions Market, 11615 Olive Boulevard, Creve Coeur; 314-989-0020. Hours: 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Sat.

Dan Flavin: Constructed Light Limiting his palette to mass-produced fluorescent tubes of varying lengths and colors, Dan Flavin, who died in 1996, made a career distilling these ubiquitous artifacts of bureaucratic life into their purest form. The result: a body of reserved, minimalist work that at once extracts these relics from their workaday commercial context and reformulates the sites they inhabit with their refulgent glow. As installations, many of Flavin's works are site specific, leaving the stewards of his estate with the thorny question of whether in re-creating his works they are, in effect, creating new works of art. For this show, Tiffany Bell, director of the Dan Flavin catalogue raisonné project, and Steve Morse, who worked as Flavin's chief technician for many years, have chosen several works that rely more on architectural situations than on specific sites. The result is a meditative show that both accentuates and quarrels with the natural grace of their setting. Through October 4 at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, 3716 Washington Boulevard; 314-754-1850 ( Hours: noon-5 p.m. Wed., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.

Miao Xiaochun: The Last Judgment in Cyberspace What do the subjects in a painting see? That question lies at the heart of the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art's first exhibition of 2008. Working from Michelangelo's Last Judgment, Chinese digital artist Miao Xiaochun has re-imagined the towering fresco in which Christ separates the blessed from the damned, from the internal perspectives of some of the fresco's subjects. This allows the viewer to, say, view the scene from the angst-ridden point of view of a cowering man awaiting judgment. Moreover, whereas the original work features muscular male and female figures, Miao's work, rendered in black-and-white digital photographs, features the same computer-generated nude in each role: Miao himself. The exhibition includes a short animation, allowing viewers to explore the entire three-dimensional work. The effect is as mesmerizing as it is vertiginous. Through May 11 at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, 3700 West Pine Boulevard (on the Saint Louis University campus); 314-977-7170 or Hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tue.-Sun.

Quilts in a Material World: Selections from the Winterthur Collection Bedding, you say. Yes, bedding. But these quilts, dating from the 1700s to 1850 and on loan from Delaware's Winterthur Museum & Country Estate, are historical artifacts. Not only are they examples of the materials and technologies that were available to their makers, they also bear witness to the evolving cultural lives of women. One, for instance, represents "The Deserted Village," a poem by Oliver Goldsmith celebrating rural life. Others were status symbols whose imagery reflected their makers' worldliness or whose content more blatantly referenced their well-placed acquaintances by simply listing their names. Also showing: A Stitch in Time: Images of Needleworking, 1850-1920, images of women engaged in knitting, sewing, embroidering, etc. Quilts shows through May 26 in the main exhibition gallery, Stitch through June 8 in Gallery 321 of the Saint Louis Art Museum, 1 Fine Arts Drive; 314-721-0072 ( Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sun. (10 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri.).

Things That Matter: Art by Children with Autism The premise: Artistic creation can help children with autism to better express themselves. The disorder, which affects a person's ability to communicate, often includes intense fascinations with things: stoves, Hello Kitty, dinosaurs. Harnessing this fascination, coordinators Bevin Early and Nancy Pierson asked children to make art about their obsessions. So we have a video of a teenager dancing to Willy Wonka's "The Golden Ticket," a collection of found objects from a boy who collects everything he can and repeated self-portraits of a young boy. Also showing: the work of Don Koster and Jen Maigret, the 2007-'08 Cynthia Weese Teaching Fellows at Wash. U.'s Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. Through September 6 (Koster and Maigret) and September 13 (Autism) at the Sheldon Art Galleries, 3648 Washington Boulevard; 314-533-9900 ( 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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