Michael Byron: Cosmic Tears Nebulous and atmospheric, Washington University professor Michael Byron's series of paintings meditates on the intricacy and immensity of the cosmos. Half of the exhibit is rendered in watery sky blues, while the other half roils in scarlet, black and other incendiary hues, suggesting the binary nature of the exhibition's larger-than-life focus. Perhaps in an effort to match this conceptual scope, these works on paper and canvas dwell predominantly in the expansive diffusions of abstraction — swirls and painterly textures created by curious procedural experiments — and only occasionally give way to finite depiction. (The latter takes the form of trompe l'oeil water droplets and single golden tears.) Considering the space the show inhabits — a repurposed chapel — the experience of the work seems less about conclusive explanations or climactic revelations than about the contemplative rituals associated with that other profound mystery known as faith. Through December 13 at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, 3700 West Pine Boulevard (on the Saint Louis University campus); 314-977-7170 or http://mocra.slu.edu. Hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tue.-Sun.
American Framing In the three photographic series that make up Jessika Miekeley's first solo exhibition in St. Louis, images appear less as landscapes, portraits or objects captured than as subtle evocations of ideas and the emotive mind. In Jacket various coats — made of fur, quilted cotton, bright red wool — are pictured in empty repose on a chair and assume qualities of the body without a body to fill them. In American Framing an imposing male figure, his back turned to the viewer, contemplates assorted nightscapes, but neither the specifics of his character nor the peculiar import of the vaguely suburban and industrial scenery are the points of focus. Rather, this work has a wholly conceptual presence, wherein the slightest misalignments of folded cloth, torn fur or night's saturated darkness describe nuances of absence, isolation and the unutterable vicissitudes of thought. Here, in these crisp and mysterious images, objects or scenes are recognizable not by their common name and purpose, but by the ineffable messages they imply. Through January 9, 2010, at the Sheldon Art Galleries, 3648 Washington Boulevard; 314-533-9900 or www.thesheldon.org. Hours: noon-8 p.m. Tue., noon-5 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat.
Chance Aesthetics A seeming paradox — codifying the unpredictable — this selective but comprehensive exhibit focuses primarily on Modernist creative experiments that privileged chance over deliberation and makes a persuasive argument for certain aesthetic similarities in such exercises. Beyond the inimitable work of Marcel Duchamp, highlights include Ray Johnson's twine-and-brown-bag bundles of envelopes, their contents intended for infinite reconfiguration and distribution. The moldering and molding "drawings" by Dieter Roth use bagged and smeared perishables that yield dry humor and a weird, debased beauty. The collages of colored scrap paper and automatic ink drawings by Ellsworth Kelly may be the artist's best work for their searching intimacy and organic possibility. And Robert Motherwell's Lyric Suite — a grid of automatically rendered ink-on-paper drawings — breathes with a nimbleness similar to Kelly's paper experiments. Tending toward the small and ephemeral, the works here slyly suggest that great contemporary art isn't mere fortuitous accident, after all. Carefully and articulately curated by Meredith Malone. Through January 4, 2010, at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Forsyth & Skinker boulevards (on the campus of Washington University); 314-935-4523 or www.kemperartmuseum.wustl.edu. Hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. daily (closed Tue., open till 8 p.m. Fri.).
Empire of Dust St. Louis-based Jon Cournoyer crafts this series of silkscreened collages with such a high degree of compositional finesse and graphic clarity that one could miss the bleak cultural critique he's issuing. His subject is America, rendered as a place with a mythic, dreamlike history tragically corroded by a commerce-fueled death drive. In these pieces, where enlarged, etching-like images of bucks' heads, street waifs, Huck Finn-like canoers and clusters of night-flying bats are printed centrally upon dense underlayers of antique ephemera — ink-scrawled poems, union paraphernalia, discarded postcards — the past seems both enshrined in idyllic sentiment and fraught with bad intentions soon to be realized. Tidily dignified behind glass and frame, the work, ironically, appears desirable in a way that a dollar bill would be, were it presented not as currency but as a beautifully executed print. Through November 14 at Hoffman LaChance Contemporary, 2713 Sutton Boulevard, Maplewood; 314-960-5322 or www.hoffmanlachancefineart.com. Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Wed.-Fri., noon-5 p.m. Sat and by appointment.
For the blind man in the dark room looking for the black cat that isn't there Perception is given close study in this elegant exhibit of work by an international (and historically broad) cast of artists. Positing itself in the Socratic tradition of inquiry limned only by endless discussion, the exhibit proposes that art, at best, is a speculative rather than declarative industry. In an audio piece, Marcel Broodthaers seeks answers to the hard questions of art's worth and purpose from a cat, who responds simply and perhaps wisely: meow. Coffee grounds are divined for larger meaning in a video by Ayse Erkmen (though the deepest wisdom seems to come from the mute chow dog, calmly surveying the chatty humans in his company). The meticulous and obsessive study of objects in themselves, in Giorgio Morandi's inimitable painted still lifes, appear twice and feel like hinge lines in the exhibit's extended villanelle. And the thousand and one drawn charts by Matt Mullican — parsing birth, life and death like a mathematical equation — proliferate with the promise of solutions, albeit eternally elided. Antiquity flashes in a video of the Metropolitan Museum's Greek and Roman wing after dark, and the Renaissance Wunderkammer makes a requisite appearance in the form of an etching — suggesting at once the complementary truths of historical return and non-linearity. One leaves this exhibit — lightly, eruditely and playfully curated by Anthony Huberman — with a fresh faith in art's philosophical capacity and essential mystery. Through January 3, 2010, at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, 3750 Washington Boulevard; 314-535-4660 or www.contemporarystl.org. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed.-Sat., 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sun.
The Language of Objects: New Works by Jane Birdsall-Lander and Jo Stealey In Jane Birdsall-Lander's Bound Alphabet, salvaged wooden canes and scythe handles are bent into smoothly undulating pieces that recall the curves of the body or the bodies of musical instruments; the forms branch out into hands, repurposed from wooden drawing models or join to create, say, an eyelike shape with cello-peg lashes. Each piece in the series was crafted to correspond with a letter and to the physical symbols from which that letter was derived, evoking a primitive communicative sense somewhere between music and poetry. In Jo Stealey's Forest, parched and leafless tree trunks and massive blanched stones cluster in outsize proportions and appear like a dark children's-book illustration made surreally three-dimensional. The work is crafted out of paper pulp, and while it looks leaden, it is in fact nearly weightless. There's something essentially elemental about these works, which repurpose nature in order to plumb nature, and which, simultaneously, reveal themselves as wholes to be comprehensively marveled upon and as collections of meticulous acts and essential elements to be read for intricate meaning. Through January 16, 2010, at the Sheldon Art Galleries, 3648 Washington Boulevard; 314-533-9900 or www.thesheldon.org. Hours: noon-8 p.m. Tue., noon-5 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat.
Tom Huck and the Rebellious Tradition of Printmaking Brandy Baghead is going through major changes in Tom Huck's new triptych, on view at the Saint Louis Art Museum after two years in meticulous production. The printmaker from the self-fabled rural backwaters of Potosi hewed The Transformation of Brandy Baghead as the centerpiece of his third series of woodcuts, "Booger Stew," which vivisects contemporary phenomena such as reality television and self-actualization by way of Barbie doll beauty. Modeled after three-part altarpieces (a form that reached its gruesome apogee in the gnarled crucifixions of the Northern Renaissance), Brandy Baghead is equal parts Matthias Grünewald, Garbage Pail Kids and House of 1,000 Corpses. Once a wholesome beauty queen, Brandy subjects herself to the nails, crowbars, cat intestines and electrical tape of mad surgeons giddy to transform her into their world's prevailing physical ideal: a breast-enhanced ice-skating chicken-oid. They succeed, to the frothing admiration of the populace, who wave signs of such high accolades as "cooz" and "skank" as she skates, proudly cross-eyed and feathered, on black ice. The uncomfortably gorgeous trio of images appears amid a selection of historical prints chosen by Huck to illustrate his influences, each annotated with his plainspoken take on the work. This short history of printed art, which includes Albrecht Dürer, William Hogarth, James Ensor, José Posada and Max Beckmann, depicts a medium hell-bent on disseminating images of bourgeois grotesqueries, rampages of moral vindication and the human herd as a macabre carnival of souls. Huck comes across as not only the real deal but a worthy inheritor of the legacy — thanks to the ambitious and obsessive scale of his work. These prints add up to truly fucked-up stuff of the highest order. (Ian Froeb's profile of Tom Huck, "Evil Ink," was published January 18, 2007, and is available at www.riverfronttimes.com.) Through November 15 at the Saint Louis Art Museum, 1 Fine Arts Drive (in Forest Park); 314-721-0072 or www.slam.org. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sun. (10 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri.).
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