Action/Abstraction A re-examination of the defining mid-20th-century movement that distilled art-making to its raw elements. The show opens with work by Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning and words by their respective critical defenders, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, then follows other artists' consequent paths of influence and argumentation. Unlike abstraction's fundamental inarticulateness, this exhibit is verbosely didactic, deploying the visual work as representative specimens of heavily scripted tendencies, all of which are plotted out in the galleries like the simplest of road maps. While it leaves little room for the purely aesthetic or inventive (as often tumultuously experienced by abstraction's acolytes), the show does offer a capacious portrait of an important historical moment, when popular culture became suddenly smitten with "high art" and dead set on democratizing it. It's this co-incidence of a largely immigrant cast of painters vigorously striving for a new common language in color and composition, and an American plain-speak emerging in wide-reaching media, that unwittingly forms the show's most compelling hypothesis: that maybe it's best for some things to remain quietly misunderstood. Through January 1, 2009, 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.)
Gina Alvarez: New Works on Paper In four page-based series that employ elements of collage, print and fiber, St. Louis artist Alvarez surveys a personal canon of traces left by intricate communicative impulses. Each series considers the discrete space of a single page and its relationship to the page adjacent, truncating imagery at hard edges, reusing a small vocabulary of overlapping shapes from piece to piece. A red stitch reaffirms a white perimeter, a dense white grid of woven paper strips unspools in a free-moving black fray, a cut-and-pasted oval thinly obscures several underlayers of monoprinted ovals. Painted in a muted palette in the tonal range of flesh and bruise, the predominantly abstract show forms a portrait of the unappeasable self-corrective urge. Through December 5 at the Morton J. May Foundation Gallery, 13550 Conway Road (on the campus of Maryville University), Town & Country; 314-529-9595. Hours: 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.
Brandon Anschultz: Transmission/Destination This is a show about control, and like the sartorially futuristic Janet Jackson, Anschultz has lots of it. Though they're far more elegant than the overexposed megasongstress, Anschultz's lush, chromatic abstract paintings share a similar utopian ambition of severe, orderly élan. Each canvas portrays a glossy, single-color micro-universe, sparsely populated by one or two razor-striped planetary shapes. These shapes — or, as they're labeled, "No-Ships," a reference to Frank Herbert's Dune — bristle with narrow, tensely precise swaths of color that occasionally sputter out in one or two deviant (but measured) strands. Accompanying the canvases are contrastingly crude sculptural objects dangling from frayed anchors and pencil-line schematic drawings. The overall effect is that of the artist-as-astronaut marveling at his own unfathomable capacity for cruel disorder and near-stiflingly exquisiteness. While the artist's painterly expertise dominates the exhibit, the crux clearly seems to lie in the small but rough tears in the pristine seams, which expose a flash of something with arena-size appeal: the salubriously naughty. Through November 23 at the Millstone Gallery at COCA, 524 Trinity Avenue, University City; 314-725-6555 or www.cocastl.org. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri., noon-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun.
Lutz Bacher and Aida Ruilova The cultural diagnosis is grim: Ours is an era either endlessly complicated or senseless. The spare alien landscape of Lutz Bacher's large-scale installation Spill makes every effort to defy the sensible and sensual. Darkly lighted on the main gallery's cold slate terrain, the sculptural elements are few and far between: a large, untreadable cul-de-sac leading nowhere; four life-size Deep Space Nine cardboard cutouts standing mute and detached; the delicate parts of a smashed black Fender Stratocaster thinly scattered; and, behind a glossy black plastic curtain, several pallets of Budweiser looming with strange formality. What do all of these random pop artifacts add up to? One wall of the installation attempts to explain, in densely checker-tiled Xerox prints of celebrities, atrocities, revolutionaries and choice critical addenda. Perhaps summing it up best is an image of Jane Fonda in her peace-activist prime with a text bubble that reads, "I'm weird. I'm really fucked up." Alternatively, the compulsive guttural utterances of Aida Ruilova's brief, claustrophobic videos — which bear titles such as "Um," "Ahhh" and "Oh No" — suggest that the solitary life, away from the pop-cultural onslaught, offers no more reprieve than the psychic equivalent of banging one's head against a wall. Through January 4, 2009, at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, 3750 Washington Boulevard; 314-535-4660 or www.contemporarystl.org. Hours: 10 a.m.-5p.m. Tue.-Sat. (open till 8 p.m. Thu.), 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sun.
Beacons Half-suggestive of World War II bunkers and Blade Runner set pieces, Arny Nadler's Beacons — towering cylindrical forms made of black-painted steel — loom like last-straw dystopian asylums, the darker kin of bright bastions of hope. Fabricated from industrial girding, bolts and air ducts, the formidable sculptures combine the cavernous secretiveness of the early works of Lee Bontecou and the clear structural menace of the mature Richard Serra's, and they beg to be liberated from their tame indoor confines. The stronger narrative evocations of the pieces break down as parts of them — specifically, the duct openings — are reiterated in small, framed works that line the gallery walls; in this form, the vocabulary of the sculptures suddenly becomes diminutive and decorative. Also showing: works on paper by selected artists, including a strangely affecting watercolor triptych of American historical figurines painted in pale imperial blue by Cameron Fuller. Through December 23 at Philip Slein Gallery; 1319 Washington Avenue; 314-621-4634 or www.philipsleingallery.com. Hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tue.-Sat.
Persuasive Politics: Presidential Campaign Memorabilia Mining southern Illinois flea markets and other sources, Cecelia and U.I. "Chick" Harris rescued from obscurity a passel of political campaign-related Americana. Then they donated their collection to the Saint Louis University Museum of Art — with the stipulation that the items be exhibited every four years, in conjunction with the presidential campaign calendar. In a warren of dimly lit rooms adorned with deconstructed stars and stripes, a chronological row of shadow boxes compels viewers to peer closely at the jewel-like items, built not to last. Doubling our national penchant for laissez-faire self-idolatry, the show invites us to ponder each era's sense of itself — from detailed Currier & Ives lithographs to McGovern toilet paper and "Nixon Now" paper dresses. Certain trends are timeless: the presidential aspiration to be both maverick and everyman; the indiscreet wielding of nastiness as a winning strategy; and the love of brazen superficiality in propaganda design. Like any good reflective surface, the stuff's hard to stop marveling at. Through December 21 at the Saint Louis University Museum of Art, 3663 Lindell Boulevard; 314-977-2666 (www.slu.edu/x16374.xml). Hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Wed.-Sun.
You're Invited Filling a small sliver of a gallery space, B.J. Vogt piles together his life's history-to-date of birthdays and Halloweens in an installation of celebratory artifacts. As the aftermath of an opening-night performance of repeated birthday/Halloween parties, the show appropriately reeks of the dilapidated elation of a post-sugar high. Cards are taped over other cards, drooping crepe paper twists obscure banner-size well-wishes, reprints of childhood photographs of a child marveling over digitally deleted birthday cakes punctuate over-festive walls. As bewildering as the little show's dense, decorative zeal is its way of underscoring Vogt's meticulous and early instinct for self-mythology; this fellow's been keeping stock of himself since day one. The biggest surprise lies in realizing that this piece is thoroughly devoted to the giddier side of experience. Art about happiness — how strange. Through December 12 at PSTL Window Gallery at Pace Framing; 632 North Grand Boulevard; 314-531-4304 or www.paceframing.com. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat.