Chance Aesthetics A seeming paradox — codifying the unpredictable — this selective but comprehensive exhibit focuses primarily on Modernist creative experiments that privileged chance over deliberation and makes a persuasive argument for certain aesthetic similarities in such exercises. Beyond the inimitable work of Marcel Duchamp, highlights include Ray Johnson's twine-and-brown-bag bundles of envelopes, their contents intended for infinite reconfiguration and distribution. The moldering and molding "drawings" by Dieter Roth use bagged and smeared perishables that yield dry humor and a weird, debased beauty. The collages of colored scrap paper and automatic ink drawings by Ellsworth Kelly may be the artist's best work for their searching intimacy and organic possibility. And Robert Motherwell's Lyric Suite — a grid of automatically rendered ink-on-paper drawings — breathes with a nimbleness similar to Kelly's paper experiments. Tending toward the small and ephemeral, the works here slyly suggest that great contemporary art isn't mere fortuitous accident, after all. Carefully and articulately curated by Meredith Malone. Through January 4, 2010, at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Forsyth & 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.).
For the blind man in the dark room looking for the black cat that isn't there Perception is given close study in this elegant exhibit of work by an international (and historically broad) cast of artists. Positing itself in the Socratic tradition of inquiry limned only by endless discussion, the exhibit proposes that art, at best, is a speculative rather than declarative industry. In an audio piece, Marcel Broodthaers seeks answers to the hard questions of art's worth and purpose from a cat, who responds simply and perhaps wisely: meow. Coffee grounds are divined for larger meaning in a video by Ayse Erkmen (though the deepest wisdom seems to come from the mute chow dog, calmly surveying the chatty humans in his company). The meticulous and obsessive study of objects in themselves, in Giorgio Morandi's inimitable painted still lifes, appear twice and feel like hinge lines in the exhibit's extended villanelle. And the thousand and one drawn charts by Matt Mullican — parsing birth, life and death like a mathematical equation — proliferate with the promise of solutions, albeit eternally elided. Antiquity flashes in a video of the Metropolitan Museum's Greek and Roman wing after dark, and the Renaissance Wunderkammer makes a requisite appearance in the form of an etching — suggesting at once the complementary truths of historical return and non-linearity. One leaves this exhibit — lightly, eruditely and playfully curated by Anthony Huberman — with a fresh faith in art's philosophical capacity and essential mystery. Through January 3, 2010, at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, 3750 Washington Boulevard; 314-535-4660 or www.contemporarystl.org. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed.-Sat., 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sun.
Tom Huck and the Rebellious Tradition of Printmaking Brandy Baghead is going through major changes in Tom Huck's new triptych, on view at the Saint Louis Art Museum after two years in meticulous production. The printmaker from the self-fabled rural backwaters of Potosi hewed The Transformation of Brandy Baghead as the centerpiece of his third series of woodcuts, "Booger Stew," which vivisects contemporary phenomena such as reality television and self-actualization by way of Barbie doll beauty. Modeled after three-part altarpieces (a form that reached its gruesome apogee in the gnarled crucifixions of the Northern Renaissance), Brandy Baghead is equal parts Matthias Grünewald, Garbage Pail Kids and House of 1,000 Corpses. Once a wholesome beauty queen, Brandy subjects herself to the nails, crowbars, cat intestines and electrical tape of mad surgeons giddy to transform her into their world's prevailing physical ideal: a breast-enhanced ice-skating chicken-oid. They succeed, to the frothing admiration of the populace, who wave signs of such high accolades as "cooz" and "skank" as she skates, proudly cross-eyed and feathered, on black ice. The uncomfortably gorgeous trio of images appears amid a selection of historical prints chosen by Huck to illustrate his influences, each annotated with his plainspoken take on the work. This short history of printed art, which includes Albrecht Dürer, William Hogarth, James Ensor, José Posada and Max Beckmann, depicts a medium hell-bent on disseminating images of bourgeois grotesqueries, rampages of moral vindication and the human herd as a macabre carnival of souls. Huck comes across as not only the real deal but a worthy inheritor of the legacy — thanks to the ambitious and obsessive scale of his work. These prints add up to truly fucked-up stuff of the highest order. (Ian Froeb's profile of Tom Huck, "Evil Ink," was published January 18, 2007, and is available at www.riverfronttimes.com.) Through November 15 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.)
Way Out of Line Distilling the art of drawing to its essence — the line — this group exhibition of work by Washington University MFA candidates presents a wide range of ways to make a mark without resorting to pencil-and-paper conventions. Mary Beth Hassan hangs two slightly mangled window screens side by side; their pairing, material modesty and mild derangement contribute a larger, if incidental depth to their simpler function as a linear grid. John Early's No Where Will These Two Lines Appear Further Apart Than at the Point You Stand Between Them consists of two parallel strips of black tape that bisect the gallery space and conclude in upright mirrors. Their path of infinite self-reflection speaks of larger, metaphysical concepts via a well-considered economy of means. A rhythmic thwacking noise permeates the gallery; its source, one discovers, is a mechanical mechanism that sends pieces of charcoal in a perpetual spiral, creating scuffs on a narrow constructed wall. The piece, by Andrew Cozzens, has great potential as a producer of the kind of incidental racket that, say, a neighbor's unlatched screen door makes, but it's overdesigned as a quirky drawing machine. The strongest works in the show are the simplest ones, the ones that betray the least whiff of formal, studio exercise and instead mine the peculiar nuances of the artist's personal realms, where lines are revealed as the material of everything intimately observable. Playfully curated by Mamie Korpela. Through October 25 at the Des Lee Gallery, 1627 Washington Avenue (University Lofts Building); 314-621-8735. Hours: 1-6 p.m. Thu.-Sat.
We Are Here This elegant and succinct show consists simply of two works: a pair of blue hooded sweatshirts on hangers, with their empty arms interlaced as though they were holding hands; and a series of twelve photographs. The photos depict the artist, Nathan Keay, sleeping on various friends' sofas. The lighting is uniformly diffuse; the only markers of the casual difference between households are the different assortments of floor lamps, coffee tables and strewn detritus. Created in the aftermath of his wife's unexpected death, Keay's work manages to negotiate the intimacy of autobiography and personal anguish with a generous and deft sense of making public art. Through the simplest of means, the broader realms of comfort and the quiet vagaries of loss are subtly yet amply expressed. Also showing (in Drive By): Bryan Eaton's Nothing Lasts Forever, a massive necklace of wooden chain saws, which functions as hard labor's ultimate merit badge. Through October 28 at Snowflake/Citystock, 3156 Cherokee Street (www.snowflakecitystock.com). Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sat.