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Ivy Cooper encapsulates the St. Louis art scene

Airstream! An Architectural History of a Land Yacht Sure, everyone recognizes an Airstream when they see it: that shiny, bullet-shape "land yacht," the American Dream on wheels. But the Airstream trailer is more than just midcentury kitsch. This modest exhibition traces the history of the Airstream from its 1931 Art Deco design to its state-of-the-art aluminum alloy construction to the life of its colorful founder Wally Byam all the way up to contemporary designers Christopher Deam and Nic Bailey, who have proposed contemporary reworkings of the interior. "Building Dreams Is Our Business," a short company film, plays alongside photos of Airstreams on classic family vacations -- to the lake and the forest, to Moscow, Egypt and beyond. What a trip! Through August 20 at the Sheldon Art Galleries, 3648 Washington Boulevard; 314-533-9900. Gallery hours noon-8 p.m. Tue. and Thu., noon.-5 p.m. Wed. and Fri., 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat.

Ambivalent Domain Photographs by Steve Brown and Jay Fram and wire constructions by Andy van der Tuin combine to consider nature, the landscape, possession and control. Fram's tableaux of taxidermied animals offer a heartbreaking commentary on the commodification of "the wild." Brown's more cerebral "Stack" series records in black-and-white the contingent architectures of brambles and piles of cut logs and tree limbs. Caught at the intersection of accident and intention, and occupying the margins of the controlled landscape, these mute stacks somehow speak volumes. Van der Tuin's wire sculptures are a welcome three-dimensional relief to the photographs, describing spheres, architectures and brambles of their own. Through July 1 at Mad Art Gallery, 2727 South 12th Street; 314-771-8230. Gallery hours by appointment 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tue.-Fri., 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Sat.

Art Struck: The William D. Merwin Collection The first of what is to be a regular showcasing of art from local collections features Merwin's interest in post-1960s artists and works on paper. Jaw-dropping color prints by the likes of David Hockney, Robert Motherwell, Jim Dine and Roy Lichtenstein anchor the show; subtler pieces such as some exquisite Kiki Smiths and Christo collages round it out nicely. Topping it off are a small-scale sculpture by Mark DiSuvero, a gorgeous Jane Sauer birch piece and glass by Dale Chihuly and Dante Marioni (once, he was a local) -- plus dozens more. There's an overriding sense of the joy Merwin must take in collecting -- each of these works is ebullient. Through July 17 at the Saint Louis University Museum of Art, 3663 Lindell Boulevard; 314-977-3399. Museum hours 1-4 p.m. Tue.-Sun.

Brancusi and Serra in Dialogue The Pulitzer is getting a lot of mileage out of Richard Serra, particularly a few large-scale pieces (Joplin and Standpoint in particular) that have graced the main gallery since the Serra solo show opened two years ago. (They're really heavy; I wouldn't move them either.) Now Serra's sculptures and drawings are paired with sculptures and photographs by Constantin Brancusi, whose interests intersect with Serra's in some fascinating ways. Their approaches to materials couldn't be more different -- Brancusi hacked away at wood and polished stone and bronze to a high, classical finish -- but all kinds of intriguing observations emerge out of this "dialogue," including the ways in which both artists treat (or dispense with) the pedestal, their interest in stacking pieces and relating individual parts to the sculptural whole. The small Cube Gallery now features an intense confrontation between Serra's Pacific Judson Murphy (1978), a black paint-stick piece that spans two walls; and Brancusi's Agnes E. Meyer (1929), a stately, totemic polished work of black marble. It's an inspired pairing, equaled by the strong juxtapositions throughout the show. Through July 23 at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, 3716 Washington Boulevard; 314-754-1850. Museum hours noon-5 p.m. Wed., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat.

The Conceptual View: Stan Strembicki, Robin Assner, Alison Slein Works by these three artists aren't necessarily more conceptual than others of their kind, but they are far better -- in fact, they're some of the best works you're likely to see all summer. Local artist Assner and Buffalo's Slein haunt the main space with large-scale photographic grotesques. Slein fashions little sculptures, silhouettes them against vast panoramas of sky and captures scenes right out of dreams and myths. They're reminiscent of Kara Walker's work -- charming at first glance, wrenching upon scrutiny. Assner covers faces and bodies in marshmallow crème, oatmeal, frosting and pie filling, then focuses the camera in tight; viewing them, you're caught between horror and delight. Strembicki's works are set apart formally and physically, which is probably a good thing. His contemplative and subtle "Body, Soul, Science" digital prints would be eaten alive if they were any closer to the other artists' works. Through June 18 at Philip Slein Gallery, 1319 Washington Avenue; 314-621-4634. Gallery hours 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat.

Hurrell's Men As chief photographer at MGM Studios in the 1930s, and as owner of his own studio after that, George Hurrell (1904-1992) developed a signature style that epitomized glamour, grace and the glory of old Hollywood. Though he photographed dozens of women throughout his career, this exhibition concentrates on his gorgeous, bronze-toned portraits of actors. Hurrell's subjects -- like Clark Gable, Johnny Weissmuller, Tyrone Power and Ramon Navarro -- are posed and in character, yet they appear intimate and genuine at the same time. Anyone who can make David Soul look sexy has got to be a genius! Don't miss the text panel on Pancho Barns, the flamboyant aviatrix who befriended Hurrell in the 1920s and collected all these photos. Through August 13 at the Sheldon Art Galleries, 3648 Washington Boulevard; 314-533-9900. Gallery hours noon-8 p.m. Tue. and Thu., noon.-5 p.m. Wed. and Fri., 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat.

Junko Chodos: The Breath of Consciousness This California-based artist enjoys her first Midwest showing with this exhibition, curated by museum director Terrence Dempsey. It's a beautiful survey of three decades of work engaging heady questions of spirituality and the intersection between living beings and machines. Junko, who grew up in Japan during World War II, has plenty of visual and visceral experiences from which to draw inspiration for her wildly expressive prints, paintings and drawings. The "Concerning Art and Religion" series (2003) plots photographs of engines amid a roiling chaos of inky waves and drips -- it's nigh apocalyptic, and quite effective in the context of the museum's ecclesiastical design. "Compact Universe" features smaller versions of earlier abstract paintings and collages enclosed in CD jewel cases -- the ultimate in portable art. Most intriguing of all are the elegiac paintings in the "Requiem for an Executed Bird" series, and the collection of collages that layer minuscule cutout images into dense, frenzied fields. Through July 31 at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, Fusz Hall, Saint Louis University, 3700 West Pine Boulevard; 314-977-7170. Gallery hours 11 a.m.- 4 p.m. Tue.-Sun.

Ray Charles White: Recent Work This New York artist possesses the prodigious technical prowess that comes from having worked with Ansel Adams, but his images offer an inviting warmth that will transport you beyond their cold precision. White photographs water and plants in reflecting pools, then prints the pictures on anodized aluminum panels. Illusion abounds: What is above the water? below it? reflected? refracted? He also captures a delicate sense of nostalgia by employing inks in colors associated with old photogravure processes -- mossy green, aubergine and cyanotype. This is White's first St. Louis show -- here's hoping it's not his last. Through June 18 at William Shearburn Gallery 4735 McPherson Avenue; 314-367-8020. Gallery hours 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tue.-Sat. -- Ivy Cooper

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