RBMBKESHKM Design's ubiquity has never been more felt than in this commercially saturated age, wherein the most successful big-box stores (Target) flatter our taste for aesthetics while complimenting our sense of thrift. This front room exhibit curated by artist and designer Bruce Burton has all the charm of a niche boutique. Eponymously titled with the initials of the five participating designers (Roy Brooks, Mikey Burton, Kelly English, Sybille Hagmann and Kindra Murphy), it surveys the work of Middle American firms whose projects range from the client-driven to the personally artful. Exhibition books (of Jasper John's Grey Paintings, for instance), pamphlets (for MFA programs), and posters (for the band Wilco, among others) paper the room in artful density. Sheets displaying typographical proposals have the same smooth and cogent appeal as proposals for new book covers for classic novels. It's a decidedly good-looking world of things that reek of the covetously commodifiable, which is the persistent conundrum of the art of design: It appeals to a semiotic system as complicated and formidable as the alphabet at the same moment that it plays directly to our basest receptors for superficiality. Posters for all of this summer's Front Room exhibits — designed by this show's participants — are available free as takeaways. Through August 29 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.
Recession Rejuvenations This quintessential summer show, displaying salable selections from the gallery's holdings while frankly forgoing non-mercantile ambitions, nonetheless manages to present an interesting inventory of small works. A wet tangle of a Brice Marden-esque abstract painting by Kelley Johnson appears unaffected and fresh. Sandra Marchewa's watery resin piece is like an illustration for a macabre, not-for-children children's book, in which a girl in a floral print dress and blond braids smiles manically as she gathers chickens' severed legs. A Tatlin tower-like piece by Gary Passanise, made from cut-up chopsticks and sawed-down rulers, is a convincing throwback to Modernist constructions and oddly compelling in itself. Two miniature carnivalesque structures by Christina Shmigel suggest a larger world of similar relics, or a kind of mini-museum in which such pieces would be collected. Through August 28 at Bruno David Gallery, 3721 Washington Boulevard; 314-531-3030 or www.brunodavidgallery.com. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed.-Sat., noon-5 p.m.
Screwed Again This massive, collaborative wall mural — executed in black, white and gray by a lengthy list of local graffiti/street-inspired artists (Christopher Burch, Daniel Burnett, Stan Chisholm, Daniel Jefferson, Kris Mosby, Chris Sabatino, Jason Spencer, Justin Tolentino and Bryan Walsh) — is an unlikely homage to the power of restraint. The work was created on panels of plywood that tile the gallery and obscure its permanently installed stained glass. A bizarre entanglement of a mournful, urban vignettes appears to be eulogized: headstones crop up amid a menacing parade of white-hooded figures; Cheshire smiles float between stenciled dollar signs; cutout drawings of singed paper airplanes fly above mailboxes, bones and tears. A malicious-looking worm burrows its way through the piled, graphic debris. The message relayed is one of pessimistic resignation: "Too late to make history"; "Impending Doom"; and "Kiss the Weeds, the Flowers May Never Return." Bottles are plentiful, suggesting that deranging consumption, in this climate, is advised. But this is no place to look for wisdom. The best point made seems to be about working together — wherein subduing and subsuming distinct identities and approaches clearly benefits a shared whole. Through October 3 at the Regional Arts Commission, 6128 Delmar Boulevard; 314-863-5811 or www.art-stl.com. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri., noon-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun.Ongoing
Erik Spehn: Tape Drawings Strips of masking tape used in the creation of this St. Louis-based painter's signature woven-pattern acrylics on canvas are reused in this series of small works on matte board. While calling these pieces "drawings" may imply that they're not as formidable as their painted counterparts, the exhibit proves otherwise. Arranged in chromatic groups, crosshatchings of red-, then maroon-, then blue-flecked strips appear to explore different approaches to pattern. Wide swaths of tape overlap in loose diffusions, while minute, finely cut pieces interweave in tight grids. As one moves through the gallery, the palette brightens, opening up to a full room of yellow- and golden-hued pieces that seem to be uttering among themselves a complicated language in lines, layers and other distinct and serial marks. Through September 18 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.
Jay Wolke: Architecture of Resignation While traveling through the southern Italian region of Mezzogiorno, Chicago-based photographer Jay Wolke documented the incongruous encroachment of contemporary architecture (often in decay) on the elegant ruins and natural landscape of this historic countryside. A crumbling terracotta brick structure is punched through and re-settled into with a teal mattress and a nest of fast-food paper waste; a cliffside of cascading villas is overlooked by what appears to be a spankin'-new restaurant terrace outfitted with white plastic porch furniture; a lush botanical garden is edged by the garden's offices, the exteriors of which are girded by a hedgerow of electrical power sources, each sporting the company logo. The inelegance of the modern era's material culture (predominantly an American export) is made plain in these images by its harsh juxtaposition with the earthen stock of ancient structures. In a previous series, Wolke juxtaposed the congested Dan Ryan Expressway with its Chicago environs; the current project is a compelling analogue, only with a wider historical gap between its polar elements. Through September 4 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.
Killbox This sculptural installation by local artist and Washington University sculpture instructor Noah Kirby uses the eponymous military strategy to engage the gallery space and dictate form. The strategy, invented by the United States in the 1980s and first used a decade later in the Gulf War, is a way of gridding targeted areas to plan for their optimal occupation by armed troops. Removed from its military function, the Kill Box can also serve as a way for any entity to optimally occupy a given space, which is how Kirby deploys it here. The central welded-steel form — an abstracted variation of a small, five-man squad — has the disconcerting dual presence of both an arresting art form and an entity poised for aggression, wherein you (the viewer) are the target. The planar, faceted form rests against a cut vinyl wall mural, which appears to be at once a reflection of the central sculpture and a disorienting variety of camouflage. The cool, blue-black palette, vinyl sheen and brushed-metal surfaces all put one in the absolute mind of viewing art. And yet the undercurrent of tactical maneuvering offsets the conventional experience with an art object. It's a compelling tension — and refreshingly nebulous, as politically charged work too often fails to be. Through August 28 at Good Citizen Gallery, 2247 Gravois Avenue; 314-348-4587 or www.goodcitizenstl.com. Hours: noon-5 p.m. Fri.-Sat. and by appointment.
The Mourners: Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy Carefully extracted from their otherwise permanent context in the base of the elaborate tomb of the medieval French duke John the Fearless, these 40 alabaster sculptures exude a presence and formidable craft beyond their two-foot scale. Portrayed in a kind of perpetual procession, led by a choirboy, several deacons and a bishop, the series of heavily cloaked monks appear in various states of ritualistic or personal mourning — consulting small, opened scriptural tomes or entirely enshrouded in ceremonial dress. The pieces are modest and elegant but sculpted to such an articulate degree that they withstand being taken each on their own silent terms. And yet the oppressive apparatus of this traveling exhibition, which reiterates at every opportunity the pieces' power and skill in portraying grief, so far overstates the work's merit that one almost feels compelled to deny them it. Shown in tandem with Bill Viola's contemporary (2008) video installation Visitation, the effect feels even more bombastic. In the video two older women lead one another into and out of a deluge of water and then into the grainy ether of the far distance. It's a haunting and ethereal piece that nonetheless feels overly literal when coupled with the equally direct symbolism of the tomb sculptures. Through September 6 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.)
Recent Acquisitions I The first in a series of shows featuring art recently acquired through benefactors of the Saint Louis University Museum of Art, this exhibit focuses on prints, collages and other works on paper. Alex Katz's Olympic Swimmer from 1976; Flash Back 3, a 1981 abstract lithograph in neon and metallic inks by John Chamberlain; Donald Sultan's Orange Flowers; and Evan's Twins, a 1982 lithograph by Alice Neel — all appear startlingly fresh in their flat planes of color, contemporary palette and angular formalism. While they mark classic points in the 20th-century canon, these works could also be examples of the most immediate currents in artmaking. Other notable moments include an untitled watercolor by Herta Muller, whose tenuous marks and saturated diffusions have the presence of a sensate tangle of cut threads. A room of small collages from 1978 by Erro, an Icelandic artist, feels similarly intimate and trenchant beyond its scale — where minute cut-outs of militaristic formations, dictatorial gestures, political propaganda and glimpses of modern industry combine to embody something at once intimate and historic. Also showing: Urban Wanderers, a benefit exhibition of art celebrating the lost and reclaimed animal companions of St. Louis' Stray Rescue (through August 29). Through September 26 at the Saint Louis University Museum of Art, 3663 Lindell Boulevard; 314-977-2666 or www.slu.edu/x16374.xml. Hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Wed.-Sun.
Vatican Splendors: A Journey Through Faith and Art This traveling exhibit of papal artifacts is a tour de force of high kitsch. Multimedia displays selectively detail the grandeur of the Catholic Church in a manner that alternately suspends and dismantles disbelief. Genuine items from the Vatican's collection are outnumbered by simulacra intended for spiritual transport, including a full-scale reproduction of Michelangelo's Pietà, a walk-through re-creation of the scaffolding used to paint the Sistine Chapel, a cast of Pope John Paul II's hand (which you can touch), a plaster cast of a fragment of the "red wall" from the sepulcher of St. Peter and innumerable digital reprints of immersive building environments, historic documents and artwork. There are moments of true beauty: fragments of Roman and Byzantine-era mosaics; two gold chalices and other papal liturgical items; a maddeningly intricate reliquary containing minuscule bodily fragments of Saints Peter, Paul and Anne; and Deposition in the Sepulcher, painted by the first art gossip, Giorgio Vasari. Strangest of all is the section devoted to global proselytizing; depictions of the conversion of non-Catholic cultures would seem to be something to shield one's eyes from. Suffice to say it's a trip, complete with gift shop. Through September 12 at the Missouri History Museum, Lindell Boulevard and DeBaliviere Avenue; 314-746-4599 or www.mohistory.org. Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily (open till 8 p.m. Tue.).
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