Monet's Water Lilies Before collectible magnets, waiting-room posters, silk-screened mugs, T-shirts and hotel wallpaper turned his work into deplorable kitsch, Claude Monet was a bona fide revolutionary. A proto-abstract expressionist (and before that a rough-hewn countercultural innovator who literally reimagined the way we see), the Father of Impressionism can lay claim to a staggering number of not-ready-for-gift-shop achievements, despite considerable efforts to persuade us of the contrary. Seeing the three massive panels of Agapanthus (1915-1926) reunited for the first time in 30 years communicates an almost jarring order to stop, look closely and reconsider all of one's rigid preconceptions. One of his "Grand Decorations" (as he referred to them), the seven-by-fourteen-foot depiction of the artist's beloved water-lily pond is wild, rough and, at the same time, luminous and narcotically tranquil. Allow your eye to see beyond the teal and lilac that we long ago made crass with our consumerism, and he palette is for the most part muddy, the pond’s murky depths occasionally shot through with mad swipes of yellow or cadmium red. The scope, Confronted in person rather than via reprint, the scope is staggering; it dwarfs and engulfs the viewer, creating a spectacle that bears no relation to turn-of-the-century plein air painting. The exhibition prefaces the triptych with a display of studies, which give a sense of the final work's agonized evolution. Tracing the process from its descriptive, fathomable beginnings to an endpoint that's depthless and nearly abstract, the viewer is able to appreciate the enormous risks the artist embraced as he moved from the comfortably conventional to the twilight zone of invention. Not everyone will leave a convert, but it's impossible not to absorb this effort — so huge, strange and, yes, beautiful. Through January 22, 2012, at the St. 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.)Ongoing
Commonwealth Time Bandits — the 1981 Terry Gilliam film about technology, treasure hunting and time-traveling dwarves — isn't a bad aesthetic analogy for this far-out multimedia installation by Derek Larson. Using video projection and freestanding screens cut to fit the projected imagery, Larson creates a dense virtual garden of Greek statuary, in which fountains and figures pulse with all the frenetic insistence of the Las Vegas Strip. The lascivious Barberini Faun, for instance, surrounded by twitching bulbs, a faux rustling shrub and neon-hued throbbing fractals. And a precarious-looking bridgelike arrangement that features a life-size marble bust, a cascade of men's dress shoes, and a pearl necklace that dangles from a chain of drastically scaled-down piles of fresh timber. On the gallery walls, framed prints take up the theme in two dimensions: grid-patterned 1980s-era landscapes that depict antiquities amid a techno-ether of conspicuous commodities and shades of hot pink. Close inspection of the prints, however, reveals that each contains a digital watermark: All of the works are property of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. It's not hard to glom onto the dialectic of the publicly sharable versus the privately owned, but it's far more rewarding simply to enjoy it as playful absurdity. In the event you're still dubious, there's a series of crude pig drawings in one far corner of the gallery that ends in a pile of miniature money bags. How evil can evil be, if it has such a goofy face? Through November 5 at Good Citizen Gallery, 2247 Gravois Avenue; 314-348-4587 or www.goodcitizenstl.com. Hours: noon-5 p.m. Fri.-Sat. and by appointment.
Follow the Leader All the assaulting joys of navigating an amply stocked thrift store are harnessed here in this large-scale sculptural assemblage by Guerra de la Paz (a punny but accurate composite moniker for Cuban artists Alain Guerra and Neraldo de la Paz). Using cast-off items accrued through a local clothing donation drive, the artists crafted an enormous snake of piled shirts, pants, skirts, ties and then some, all set precariously atop a static marching line of boot-clad mannequin legs. Like the children's game of the show's title, the hollow and headless ensemble follows itself through the gallery space with mindless and aimless propulsion. Those polyester neon paisley bell-bottoms that looked so great (and terrible) at Goodwill? They're here, along with every other species of absurdly loud, outmoded fabric pattern, tossed in dessert-topping heaps. At the mouth of the gallery, the otherwise orderly chaos collapses as the now-legless mass becomes a solid mound that confronts you with the imperious scale of collective wastefulness. So much stuff, so few excuses for it. Through January 29, 2012, at the Craft Alliance Gallery (Grand Center), 501 North Grand Boulevard; 314-534-7528 or www.craftalliance.org. Hours: noon-6 p.m. Wed.-Sat., noon-5 p.m. Sun.
I'll Be Your Mirror Taking its title from Nico's ethereally creepy Velvet Underground ballad, this group exhibition of work by artists near and far delves into the realm and refractory meaning of doubles, doubling and dopplegängers. According to curator Daniel McGrath, look-alikes aren't just deeply unsettling; they're harbingers of evil. It sounds forbidding, but do not fear: The artwork assembled is strangely melancholic yet elegant. From his Drawings from the Cave series, Juan Chávez contributes two pieces that riff on the sci-fi film Blade Runner; the pairing and the film itself create both a cross-historic dialogue and one about real and ersatz versions of the human. Bookending the interior gallery is an inspired pairing: Slater Bradley's Dark Night of the Soul, a video in which the artist's doppelgänger, dressed in a space suit, wanders New York's Museum of Natural History; and B.j. Vogt's Trespasses, a video in which two crudely and identically masked characters (in fact, the artist and his brother) harass one another in alternately comic and sadistic ways. Projected at opposite ends of the space, the two pieces seem to illustrate the pendulum swing of any given interior life: fraught by duality, at once lost and contemplative, or aggressive and confounded by action. The reverberations continue with works by Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson, Hannah Greely, Pablo Helguera, Gunther Herbst, Charles Ray and Darren Harvey-Regan. Through February 11, 2012, at the Sheldon Art Galleries, 3648 Washington Boulevard; 314-533-9900 or www .sheldonconcerthall.org. Hours: noon-8 p.m. Tue., noon-5 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat.
David Noonan The extent to which the world is a stage and all of us mere actors is wisdom darkly revisited in this solo exhibition of recent works by London-based Australian artist David Noonan. Using found imagery of theatrical performances from the '60s and '70s, Noonan creates large-scale screen prints on linen that's patched together in textures that recall Japanese Boro textiles (an intuitive patchwork clothing style from the late 19th century). Noonan constrains his palette to inky black and the earthen tones of the fabric, which imbues his works with a saturated, macabre character, amplified by the black-painted eyes and mouths of the sinister performers he depicts. Suggestive of extreme avant-gardism and occult ritual, the players in these fractured scenes are at once frozen in bizarre contortions and animated by the frayed and tactile nature of their substance: The torn swaths of linen beg to be touched, if not worn, like a costume. Abstract patterns printed over the images underscore the work's identity as fabric and artifact of the past, resembling both stitch lines and the marks of distress. A roomful of just-beyond-life-size dancers, also printed on linen but affixed to freestanding pieces of wood cut to the figures' silhouettes, is more physically confrontational in real time. The specter of the past — when experimentalists' utopian aspirations were sincere and hopeful — thickly permeates the show like a sinister symbol of misguided folly, vain indulgence or worse. Also showing: Sick Serena and Dregs and Wreck and Wreck In this Gothic-inspired 16mm film, British artist Emily Wardill uses the morality-tale paradigm as an absurdist analogy for the mis-education espoused by contemporary media, wherein the common phrases we use to communicate with one another (e.g., "sex and drugs and rock & roll," which is mangled and re-imagined as the film's title) are reduced to hollow rituals and empty acts of aimless devotion. Through December 30 at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, 3750 Washington Boulevard; 314-535-4660 or www.camstl.org. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed.-Sat., 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sun.
Out of the Box: Artists Play Chess To inaugurate the contemporary gallery in the newly minted World Chess Hall of Fame, Bradley Bailey has curated a thoughtful yet cacophonous exhibit of 21st-century artworks that exploit the cerebral game's sculptural and conceptual possibilities. Drawing on chess' militaristic identity, the exhibit abounds with warring audio tracks — Liliya Lifánova's expertly stitched costumes from an interpretative live performance of the game may hang empty and mute, but video footage of the event booms with moans and growls. Diana Thater restages a famous 1920 match between chess showman Georges Koltanowski and conceptual artist/chess enthusiast Marcel Duchamp (the artist won): Two female chess novices re-enact the moves on four video screens, the action and audio twitching at a frenetically sped-up pace, the twice-bisected image nearing abstraction. Looking on as a mute foil, Yoko Ono's all-white chess board, Play It by Trust, suggests there's an antidote to all the heady antagonism: communication and collaboration. And St. Louis native Tom Friedman offers another pacific salve: sheer absurdity. His fantastically bizarre and meticulous set confounds any attempt at studied fastidiousness, even as it creates the most impossible game of all. Through February 12, 2012, at the World Chess Hall of Fame, 4652 Maryland Avenue; 314-367-9243 or www.worldchesshof.org. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed. and Sat., 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thu.-Fri. and noon-5 p.m. Sun.
Reflections of the Buddha Drawing on the Zen Buddhist principles that informed Tadao Ando's design for the Pulitzer Foundation headquarters in which it is housed, this exhibition (which marks the foundation's tenth anniversary) places 22 Buddhist art objects in the Pulitzer's serene galleries to revelatory effect. An assortment of art from several major Buddhist traditions — some dating as far back as the second century CE — the exhibit reaffirms the subtle distinctions between the various spaces in the museum while surveying the exquisite and subtle nuances of this historically and philosophically profound genre. One needn't be versed in Buddhist culture to appreciate this show: The works communicate with the viewer on an intuitive level and in dialogue with the space; simply taking them in incites a sense of elemental pleasure. Those familiar with Buddhist art history won't fail to note the sheer quality of the artworks presented, on loan from several major museums. The handful of contemporary works that punctuate the exhibit — a photographic diptych by Takashi Murakami, a lilting video by Oscar Munoz and Ellsworth Kelly's Blue Black — serve as artful ties to the aesthetic and temporal present while underscoring the focus on reflection and ephemerality. Yet a sense of the present is most vividly evoked by the vicissitudes of the natural light that is such an integral element of Ando's design. Reflecting off sculpted folds of cloth, highlighted in gold, and dimly glimmering in jeweled insets, the Pulitzer's choreographed light imbues these pieces with a placid sense of enlightened interiority that places the viewer firmly in the moment and, simultaneously of a piece with something calmly unknowable. Through March 10, 2012, at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, 3716 Washington Boulevard; 314-754-1850 or www.pulitzerarts.org. Hours: noon-5 p.m. Wed., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.
Tomás Saraceno: Cloud-Specific Working at the impossible intersection of pragmatism and practicality, Argentinean-born, Frankfurt-based artist and architect Tomás Saraceno creates prototypes for a future city in the sky, a buoyant cloud of molecule-like modules amiably drifting above the overburdened environs below. In this installation Saraceno presents a massive aluminum framework encasing a similarly massive clear-plastic bubble. Viewers are invited to climb inside (after divesting themselves of shoes, rings, keys — anything that might pop Saraceno's balloon), lie on their backs and admire the silver solar cookers affixed to the capsule's upper regions or peruse one of Saraceno's source texts: The Cloudspotter's Guide, Biology of Spiders and R. Buckminster Fuller's seminal essay Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. The reclining visitor may also take in the view of the gallery outside Saraceno's One Cloud Module: a cluster of iridescent bubbles that resemble Gothic stained glass, bound in black webbing and elastic ropes; a massive mural depicting a model cloud city, with our digitally rendered descendants in their modules, going about their daily tasks; a video projected on another wall that shows Saraceno and a team of collaborators attempting to send aloft his tessellated objects in the manner of NASA test flights. At once whimsical, revolutionary and nostalgic, the work hovers between the absurdly cerebral and the elementally alluring. It's hard not to succumb to the artist's ambitious vision while you're lying on a cloud and contemplating the sky. Through January 9, 2012, at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Forsyth and 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.).
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