St. Louis Art Capsules 

Jessica Baran encapsulates the St. Louis art scene

Newly Reviewed
Featured Review: Cosima von Bonin: Character Appropriation A giant stuffed chick, slumped and vomiting on itself while straddling an enormous rocket; a large stuffed lobster, its heavy claws flopped over what appears to be the base of a chic, modern table; two tires trapped in a custom, wall-hanging white cage: Scale is everything — a means to the humorous and pathetic alike — for German conceptual artist Cosima von Bonin. In this mini-survey of work from the past ten years, certain material themes re-emerge — fabric, most significantly, and music-related electronics — as well as situational ones — the flaccid, the frayed, the privately composed. In von Bonin's world everyone has a theme song, often of a looped and electronic variety, optimally heard through large headphones. Sound works by her collaborator, electronic music producer Moritz von Oswald, accompany nearly every piece. Dense with stuff, the exhibit takes on a new dimension: With its mildly bubbly, mildly hypnotic score, it begins to feel like a high-end boutique, artfully staged and filled with desirable objects. Here's where von Bonin excels: "appropriating" the motifs that are so common to our everyday experience that they're no longer recognizable, and reconfiguring them in odd, endearing and darkly comic ways. And how tired it leaves us — like that big chick, sick and hanging its head. Through August 1 at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Forsyth & Skinker boulevards (on the campus of Washington University); 314-935-4523 or Hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. daily (closed Tue., open till 8 p.m. Fri.).

Ruptures This exhibit of small, intimate abstract pieces by eleven contemporary painters once again raises the question of what, really, should be talked about when trying to talk about contemporary abstract painting. Curator and artist Michael Wille has assembled a sensitive and skilled cast of practitioners whose mediums vary widely — from oil and acrylic, to plaster, glitter, and casein mixed with ground marble dust. The scale of all of the work — which never exceeds hand-holdable dimensions — is distinctly anti-grandiose, mirroring the shared tenor of subtle, rustling abstraction practiced. Both Wille and Philadelphia-based Thomas Vance take cues from architecture, leaving on their pieces the imprint of structural elements (Wille) or re-presenting fragmented aspects of architectural plans (Vance). Chicago-based Zachary Buchner explores a painting's object status by building the surfaces of his pieces with plaster and spraying them with metallic and neon enamel; they hang on the wall like the melted remains of former icons. Sampling is prevalent in a number of the works, in which the artist extracts bits and pieces of the representational world or art-historical canon, suggesting the impossibility of novelty or escape from Modernism's shadow. The two paintings by Knoxville-based Jered Sprecher appear as if they could have been made by two different artists: one by a Hans Hoffmann acolyte and the other by a midcentury silk screener. Their way of quoting and reprising shades of culture has a charm not unlike a mixtape full of new covers of songs by long-gone bands. A true gem is a piece by Kent, Ohio-based Gianna Commito; it bends and refracts with knotted ribbons of stripes in muted, earthy hues that also feel distinctly midcentury, of a kind the Eameses would have favored in their work. Even the piece's surface has an aged quality that resurrects the sense of history as a burden. But the weight here is exquisite — as though beauty holds a vital stake in something, and not merely a distinguished lineage. Through May 28 at Hoffman LaChance Contemporary, 2713 Sutton Boulevard, Maplewood; 314-960-5322 or Hours: noon-5 p.m. Fri.-Sat. and by appointment.

Alison Jackson: Kate and Wills In grainy resolution, as though through a covert camera, Prince William in his dress military suit is captured heroically lifting Kate Middleton, whose floral gown drapes over him as she smiles and angles his hat on her head. The fresh and strangely banal faces of royalty, whose recent nuptials have debatably enflamed an American craze commensurate with the one on their native isles, could not have a less scandalous private life imagined for them than the one depicted in this orchestrated photograph. British artist Alison Jackson, known for generating ersatz images of celebrities in their off hours — Bill Gates using a Macintosh, Queen Elizabeth using the toilet, Michael Jackson smearing lipstick on his baby, George W. puzzling over a Rubik's Cube — takes an unusual turn in this piece by playing on her subjects' very dullness. The image seems to probe the heart of the relentless curiosity about Kate and Wills: i.e., their lack of fascinating qualities. But as Jackson's larger body of work attests, this is the consistent truth of the hollow idols that comprise the celebrity class. They're mere canvases, reflecting our own pathetic projections. As the author Will Self laments in an essay about Jackson's work, "...poor Prince Wills and Bill Gates, poor hacked-about Michael Jackson, and poor, dumb Dubya. ... Poor all of them — and poor us, for, just as the flowers and the fruit in vanitas paintings were depicted rotting, so we are all in a process of decay, our faces being corroded either by our fame or our obscurity." Through May 28 at Isolation Room/Gallery Kit, 5723 Dewey Avenue; 314-660-6295 or Hours: by appointment.

Currents 105: Ian Monroe Washington University alum Ian Monroe returns as this year's Freund Fellow, exhibiting a new body of work inspired by Minoru Yamasaki's original 1956 design for Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. Using sheets of aluminum, upon which pristinely cut pieces of colored vinyl are applied, these austere, painterly collages depict a nearly obsolete culture of flight populated by immaculate fountains, phone banks, lounges and business-attired travelers. Scenes of the architect and his design team at work, pens in hand and sleeves rolled up, appear as abstract reductions of original archival photographs. Monroe's slick renditions heighten the original utopian ambitions for the terminal. While perhaps it's difficult to recall amid an era of groping security checks and dim anxiety, traveling by air was once a crowning progressive achievement. Monroe's works are rife with nostalgia for this older era's Modernist faith in technology, his attentive craftsmanship and bold, midcentury palette drawing out the timelessness of its design. The exhibit — which includes a large-scale sculptural installation — exudes a material presence that complements the stuff of the airport accoutrements depicted, aligning itself in tactile spirit with this pre-digital culture of architecture and design. Through July 31 at the Saint 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.)

Dreamscapes This exhibit subtly trains the viewer to navigate the Pulitzer's inimitable space as though it were an exquisite dream recalled. De Chirico's Transformed Dream sets the stage: a train in the painting's high horizon line directing one to unforeseeable locales. Nearby sits a piece by Janet Cardiff: a black rotary phone you pick up to hear the voice of the artist relaying her dreams. A golden, recumbent Brancusi head rests on a plinth, while at the gallery's far end, Magritte's Invisible World hints at a watery vista beyond its French doors and the imposing gray stone that blocks them. Here is where you reach the hinge in this surreal sonnet: Arriving at the Pulitzer's water court, you see Magritte's stone in solid form: Scott Burton's Rock Settee, which overlooks the narrow, placid reflecting pool and a swath of city beyond. Only now do you pause to consider the multitude of portentous cues inhabiting the masterworks curator Francesca Herndon-Consagra has assembled, transforming the museum into a dreamlike tableau vivant. Highlights include Do Ho Suh's diaphanous fabric staircase to nowhere, two late, dark paintings by Philip Guston, an early suite of Max Klinger's Glove etchings and the nebulous Wolfgang Tillmans forestscape that marks the dream's end. (A series of programs exploring the exhibition's theme will unfold through the spring and summer, on Saturdays at 1 p.m.) Through August 13 at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, 3716 Washington Boulevard; 314-754-1850 or Hours: noon-5 p.m. Wed., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.

Georges Rouault: Miserere et Guerre This suite of 58 etchings by the anomalous French-Catholic artist George Rouault was created between 1914 and 1927, while the artist witnessed the ravages of World War I. They're once again on view, testing the durability of their impact and their consideration as the masterwork of their maker. Formerly a stained-glass artisan, Rouault employs a heavy black outline that, when liberated from metal and glass, wavers with crude sincerity and expressive imprecision. The figures in this series — often depicted in intimate or solitary groups against depthless backdrops — are saturated in deep, sooty tones of a sort that only printmaking can create. A liturgical sensibility suffuses the pieces, beyond outright biblical allusions; all subjects appear frozen in mute pantomime of every heavier variety of suffering, their bodies arced in symbolic gestures of penance or endurance of man's plight. While Rouault never fit comfortably in any of the codified artistic movements of his time, it's clear that his influence was felt among German Expressionists — Max Beckmann particularly. That said, Rouault is utterly his own — creating a strange, wrought world of Christ figures, carnival clowns, kings and weary skeletons cloaked in every black shade. Through July 31 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.

Grab grassy this moment your I's It is difficult to create a sense of cohesive inevitability from a music stand, fluorescent light, electrical cord and a metal can and to make these materials convey sculptural and painterly sophistication. But such are the materials and their miraculous, galvanizing effect in artist Jessica Stockholder's pioneering craft, once again made startlingly apparent in this exhibit of recent work. Presaging the contemporary "unmonumental" aesthetic of repurposing disparate consumer materials to poetic ends, Stockholder has been mining this space between conceptual and traditional practices since the onset of her career, finding her forebears in Rauschenberg, Picasso and Judd. Each assemblage here creates a giddy, self-sufficient landscape complete with its own lighting scheme, its parameters dictated by the familiar living-room logic of a rug. While the elements included are discrete and stark (an orange extension cord that powers a neon light fixture dangles down and snakes into a wall socket), they combine to create an intractable whole at once sculptural and painterly in which a raw stroke of paint will move from the rug to an end table to the bulb of a lamp. It's a maniacally determined world of high-end formalism colliding with blue-light specials that, amid its cacophony of plastic, neon hues and shag, manages to communicate a clear, intuitive utterance not unlike the Dylan Thomas-like directive of the exhibition's title. Through May 29 at Laumeier Sculpture Park, 12580 Rott Road, Sunset Hills; 314-615-5278 or Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Fri., noon-5 p.m. Sat. and Sun. (outdoor grounds open daily from 8 a.m. to a half-hour past sunset).

How to Disappear This show, titled after Seth Price's self-published book How to Disappear in America, brings together seven contemporary artists whose work explores the removal or dissolution of personal identity. Paris-based conceptual art collective Claire Fontaine contributes a pile of quarters with box-cutter blades soldered onto them, a riff on the notion of "constructed" identity. Tatiana Grigorenko presents a haunting group of old family photographs, the images enlarged to painterly proportions, sections of them literally painted out to remove a number of those depicted. A strip of camouflage-patterned carpet trails across the gallery floor in a work by Cayetano Ferrer, with a book bound in identical fashion lying on top of it so as to appear invisible. Ben Alper's photographs display pages of photo albums from which snapshots have been removed, leaving holes and yellowed tape, magnified nearly to the point of abstraction. In a text-based video animation by Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, a noir-esque narrative unfolds, an air of suspense emerging from its suggestions of character, plot and displaced intrigue. Amid all the vanishing, the show leaves the viewer with an impression — that we are all identifiable by the traces left behind in our absence. Also showing — Charles Gick's Three Clouds in Waiting, a site-specific installation involving a floor cover of parched and crackling red earth, on which sit three large black-framed encaustic paintings of blue sky and clouds. Mesmerizing and tactile, it feels like a Magritte-themed diorama — if the French Surrealist had gone through a Southwestern phase — evoking at once pneumatic dreams and rough-handed American realism. Through May 20 at the Luminary Center for the Arts, 4900 Reber Place; 314-807-5984 or Hours: noon-6 p.m. Wed.-Sat.

Jane Birdsall-Lander: The Poetry of Objects This new body of work by St. Louis-based artist, writer and educator continues her inquiry into language's pictographic roots and its relationship to physical form. The undulating wall sculptures that predominantly comprise the show are works of expert craft: Wooden canes, truncated and affixed to other cane parts, form branch-, eye-, or wishbone-like shapes. Where the parts conjoin, they're bound with colored, waxed linen thread wrapped in taut circles. A piece resembling a wavering ladder ends in outstretched wooden hands; another spine-like form spouts fronds made of viola and cello pegs. The objects bear a vague resemblance to primitive instruments or tools, yet all have the linear quality of a handwritten mark, which draws them back to their point of origin: the alphabet. In one large-scale work, a grid of 26 square paintings serves as an index for the exhibit: Each piece represents a letter of the alphabet, its form revealed amid a swarm of other marks that represent the character's historical forebears. Broken down to their constituent parts, the marks begin to resonate with the core forms of the wall sculptures. The work itself appears to formulate a new language, speaking in curves, lines and staccato endpoints. Through June 11 at Duane Reed Gallery, 4729 McPherson Avenue; 314-361-4100 or Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tue.-Sat. and by appointment.

Larry Fink: Attraction and Desire — 50 Years in Photography This generous survey of the notable Brooklyn-born artist reaffirms the durable pleasures of black-and-white figural photography. A nimble chronicler of society's more extreme coteries, Fink moved among New York beatniks, Vegas gamblers, mid-century jazz musicians, the young Mike Tyson and other boxing strivers, rural Pennsylvanians and the lacquered elite of fashion, art and Hollywood. His preference for Caravaggio-esque high contrast dramatizes what is essentially an obsession with fugitive detail: the long, alabaster, manicured hands of a man clutching the back of a black-dressed blonde; a silver radiator in an angled swath of daylight; the heavy-lidded eyes of a lone woman in a crowd at the Cedar Bar; drops of rain on the black sedan bearing Coretta Scott King to the 1968 Poor People's Campaign. It would be easy to marvel at the fabled personalities and events chronicled here, but Fink's most anonymous subjects serve as the firmest testament to his peculiar eye — a complex gaze that is at once empathetic, excoriating and salacious. Intimate and disarmingly wearied self-portraits of himself, his wife, his child and dogs reframe a narrative that might otherwise tip completely into an obsession with cultural novelty. In the end, the show functions much like that other beleaguered medium — the novel — telling stories about living, loving and other less conclusive failures. Through August 20 at the Sheldon Art Galleries, 3648 Washington Boulevard; 314-533-9900 or Hours: noon-8 p.m. Tue., noon-5 p.m.

Poems by Bobby Thiel In this elegant suite of collaborative works on paper by local artists Gina Alvarez and Jana Harper, a too-often-lost sense of innocent wonderment is harnessed and safe-kept in line, color and texture. Inspired by a child's notebook made in the 1940s by one of Alvarez's distant relatives, the artists used the titles of Thiel's poems to generate new imagery, combining their own photographs with found images, along with shapes and hues drawn from Japanese prints and Indian miniatures. Beginning with digital prints, they applied printmaking techniques and handwork to each unique piece, drawing, stitching and collaging elements into to the imagery. An aerial image of plotted land, as one would see from an airplane window, is punctuated by inset rhinestones, washing those squares of fields in emerald and yellow. The blurred impression of a figure behind a shower curtain turns spectral, with the dappled mist punched through with multicolored dots. A rain cloud hovering over a cityscape swirls with minute circular gestures, emitting a dotted-line rainfall, as a child would render it. Memory, here, is embodied in the impressionistic mark, amassing a gestural journal of days defined by changes of light, shifts in weather and all-but-ephemeral glimpses of the modestly sublime. Through June 4 at the Sheldon Art Galleries, 3648 Washington Boulevard; 314-533-9900 or Hours: noon-8 p.m. Tue., noon-5 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 10 a.m.- 2 p.m. Sat.

Wandering Thomas Titled after Caravaggio's The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, this exhibit by Chicago-based artist Jose Ferreira explores doubt and other liminal states of being. Composed of several suites of work in different mediums — from contact photographs to ink-on-paper drawings to silkscreen prints — each portion of the exhibit explores a variation on the theme of unknowing, using the body as a measure for experiencing place and emotion. In Locating, black-and white-photographs of the artist's vacant bed, recorded first thing every morning, create a journal of previous nights. In Complex, blots of black ink soak into white paper, leaving amorphous shapes, which in turn are annotated with handwritten suppositions about the artist's mind. A series of almost entirely gray photographs trace the route of the artist's daily commute in fog, the high-rises and narrow corridors between barely taking shape beneath the humidity. While the parts appear disparate and widely varied, a spirit of nonverbal sense-making pervades the exhibit — as if what we see are pieces of evidence that, when assembled, would communicate something deeply felt. Through May 28 at Good Citizen Gallery, 2247 Gravois Avenue; 314-348-4587 or Hours: noon-5 p.m. Fri.-Sat. and by appointment.

William Kentridge: Two Films The animated shorts Weighing...and Wanting (1998) and Journey to the Moon (2003) embody South African artist William Kentridge's signature stop-motion technique, in which single charcoal drawings are erased and redrawn to form atmospheric narratives of a post-apartheid culture. Moving between the personal and political, Kentridge's invented alter-ego, the industrialist Soho Eckstein, rises and falls in from the small heaps of charcoal detritus, allegorizing attempts to resurrect personal integrity, if not a fresh national identity. Also showing — Visual Musings: Prints by William Kentridge Two recent series of hybrid aquatint, drypoint and engraved prints are also on view, one inspired by Nikolai Gogol's short story "The Nose"; the other, Thinking Aloud, a fantasia of personal imagery. Other prints explore Kentridge's long-time relationship to theater and, in this case, opera, with themes from Mozart's Magic Flute and Shostakovich's adaptation of "The Nose" putting in frequent appearances. Through May 22 at the Saint 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.

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