Off the Beaten Path

Sprague's unorthodox spirit shines in retrospective; Keith's use of kitsch and nostalgia is breathtaking

Drawings and Paintings: 1960-2000 / Effective

Drawings and Paintings: 1960-2000-Mary Sprague's retrospective is at the City Museum, 701 North 15th Street, through August 31.

Effective-Kit Keith's exhibition is at William Shearburn, 4740A McPherson Avenue, through May 10.

In her sprawling retrospective at the City Museum, St. Louis painter Mary Sprague takes us along on a trip through four decades of her work. And what a long, strange trip it is, moving from sweet renditions of chickens and flowers to some oddly psychedelic scenes of the 1970s to the hauntingly deserted interiors and dreamlike horse imagery she has developed over the past twenty years. There are dozens of works here, some intimate in scale, some bombastic, all combining a host of drawing and painting media. If it weren't for her name on the wall, a visitor might mistake this for a good group show that lacks a coherent theme.

Thank God for Mary Sprague. In her 40-plus years as an artist, she hasn't simply developed along a banal, linear path. Rather, she careers from theme to theme, from medium to medium, and boomerangs back again. And there's no more fitting venue for her retrospective than the City Museum, an unwieldy institution that likewise refuses to sit still long enough to be categorized. (One thing the City Museum is not is a traditional art gallery. The third-floor space where Sprague's show is hung is only sometimes fully lit, and even then the viewing conditions aren't ideal. On the other hand, this could be seen a plus -- the space serves to underscore the unorthodox spirit of Sprague's work.)

A series of bird and flower images, dating from the 1960s through the '90s, opens the show and beckons visitors to the dark reaches of the gallery. There, they'll find more chilling imagery: beautifully rendered abandoned interiors, with vaguely archaic tools and machines and windows opening onto a foggy nowhere. "Sink" and "Wringer" (both 1982) represent empty spaces that are still rife with invisible presence, the kind you'd find in paintings by the Wyeths or Edward Hopper.

This exhibition features several of Sprague's surrealist paintings of horses behaving improbably. In "Elevator" (1989), the animals tumble from a freight elevator into an empty loft office space; in "Animals Inside" (1996), zebras scramble across a nightstand toward an empty bed. But in two other works, "Transporting the Horse (Slipped Rig)" (1988) and "Hooked" (1987), horses are rendered in all their real, sometimes terrifying physical presence. Works such as the latter may come as a surprise to visitors -- one of many in this strong retrospective.

There's a small oil-on-canvas painting near the entrance to the gallery whose title sums up this show best. "What a Person Would Look Like if She Moved to Missouri and Taught for Thirty Years" is a colorful self-portrait from 1968, depicting the artist looking slightly disjointed, like an uncooperative subject painted by a novice cubist. It seems to contain all the cheerful doubt and wry optimism that mark an artist embarking on her career. Sprague has earned the right to look back on her oeuvre with the same spirit intact -- quite an accomplishment in this business.

Effective, Kit Keith's show of new works at William Shearburn, catches the New York-based artist at an extraordinary phase in her career. These works revisit Keith's favorite artistic territory -- bygone business and dusty domiciles dating back to an unspecified past that looks something like the 1940s. And it's populated by the characters we have come to know from the artist, those sad sacks and beauties who find themselves plastered across mattresses, wrapping paper, ledgers and other evocative detritus, conjuring up an image from long ago that nonetheless touches a nerve today.

But there's something else going on with this group of works. Keith appears here to have fleshed out one of the most potent strains in her work -- the theme of social maladjustment and the dubious remedies that are typically offered up for its correction. Her current cast of maladjusted characters includes a rebellious adolescent girl, clad in a babydoll dress, with a cigarette jammed in her mouth; an awkward young man who needs a how-to kit to learn to dance a waltz; and several others, convinced that they need one fix or another simply to fit in.

"Effective #2" suggests one such fix. The preoccupied face of a woman floats above a series of bra buckles that make the tacit claim that a simple piece of lingerie could solve all her problems. And if the bra doesn't work, there's always another fix -- nearby, an untitled painting represents a bottle of lithium caplets that promise to soothe, calm and revitalize.

Keith's treatment of her canvases makes a lie of such promises. She works them over assiduously, distressing the layers of paint and introducing a sense of age and nostalgia. On top of this, she introduces a new feature into selected works: bright round circles that might be polka dots, balloons or bubbles. They float across the untitled painting of the lithium bottle, lending a measure of carnivalesque absurdity to the very notion of the quick remedy in pill form.

A new feature of Keith's work is the drawing portfolio, several examples of which are included in this show. The portfolios are constructed out of old vinyl record box sets, their contents replaced with drawings. Viewers are invited to untie the red ribbons securing the boxes, open them up and page through the individual pieces inside. The portfolios introduce a new level of intimacy for Keith and new possibilities for sustaining a motif throughout several individual components.

The portfolios are somehow heartbreaking -- vintage Keith, they take full advantage of the sensual and associative properties of their aging materials. But one of them, "Untitled (Lithium and Oatmeal)" (2001), is particularly moving. It paints a devastating portrait of psychological clichés through the lens of 1930s and 1940s popular illustrations, with biting captions provided by Keith.

In one image, a man in a hospital bed reaches out to a doctor and nurse; the caption informs us that he is "getting his monthly injection." Another paper sheet has a crystalline substance glued to the surface, with the word "HEAVEN" typed underneath. A serious-looking man glares from the next page, and we are informed that he is a "psychiatrist at work."

The images are kitschy and good for a giggle, but "Untitled (Lithium and Oatmeal)" doesn't allow anyone to dismiss the overarching issues it evokes -- social definitions of disease and dysfunction, and medication as psychological remedy, to name just a couple. Kitsch and nostalgia are tools in Keith's toolbox, but she wields them like weapons. The works in Effective will knock the wind out of you.

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