A Is For... In this playful and affecting group exhibition curated by Gina Alvarez, the relationship between art-making and child-rearing is explored through that fundamental building block of communication: the alphabet. Twenty-six local artists were each assigned one letter as point of departure and, often in collaboration with their offspring and spouse, off they went. John Sarra has crafted a low-lying table with Fs for legs; Lindsey Obermeyer embroiders a swarm of Hs in the manner of old Americana; architect Matthew Jeans contributes a massive K made of engineered Plexiglas of the type used for building models; Jim Ibur crafts a porcelain vase full of eyes (for I). The array of materials and approaches are as diverse as the artists' concisely written reflections on their lives as parents. Tom Huck contributes a linocut tattoo design for one of his fictional characters (a crossed devil's tail that forms an X) and admits to envying his daughter for her imagination. His wife, Anne Teeger Huck, goes the linocut route as well, rendering swirling words that begin with Q — a nod to inquisitiveness that complements her assertion that her kids bring her back to the most basic joy of making art: beginning with a simple line. Eric Repice builds a massive M from handmade paper, explaining that he often borrows art supplies from his daughter. The list goes on, with letter-bearing gems contributed by John Early, Jana Harper, Robert Longyear, Jason Hoeing, Dionna and Daniel Raedeke, Ken Wood, Amy Rosen and more (not to mention a poster by Eric Woods of Firecracker Press). Through August 13 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.
Cryptic: The Use of Allegory in Contemporary Art with a Master Class from Goya Taking the late, surreally satiric prints by Francisco Goya as a point of departure, guest curator Laura Steward presents six contemporary artists as inheritors of the historic trope of the use of allegory. A tone of febrile foreboding is set from the get-go: At the entrance to the exhibition is a life-size, wild-eyed ape by Folkert de Jong, carved out of foam-core, dripped in oil-black paint and grinning widely, with a sidekick of sorts clinging to his back. In the next gallery, these same apes dance in an enormous ring, their elusive Cheshire gazes mirrored in two paintings by Allison Schulnik, "portraits" of demurely poised apes similarly slathered in inky and skin-like reticulating paint layers. Selections from Goya's "Los Caprichos" and "Los Disparates" frame these works in a tradition of dark satire: the ape appearing again, for instance, in an etching where he's painting the portrait of an ass. In the adjacent gallery, Erika Wanenmacher's truly horrifying human figures — one made of crudely stitched-together coyote coats, another pierced through with glass eyes — propose yet another fatalistic comment on the state of man. Their harrowing presences draw out the darker dimensions of Dana Schutz's oddly comic work — lush paintings of figures devouring or subjecting themselves to assorted forms of self-debasement. Bookending the exhibit are two films: one by Hiraki Sawa featuring a dreamlike interior haunted by the shadows of miniature carnival animals; and one by Javier Tellez in which the ancient allegory of six blind men describing an elephant is reinterpreted in contemporary New York. This closing work by Tellez holds the most optimism: The six New Yorkers approach the enormous animal with an affirming curiosity regarding the unknown — perhaps the most benevolent of human capacities: that of wonder. Through August 14 at 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.
Dreamscapes This exhibit subtly trains the viewer to navigate the Pulitzer's inimitable space as though it were an exquisite dream recalled. De Chirico's Transformed Dream sets the stage: a train in the painting's high horizon line directing one to unforeseeable locales. Nearby sits a piece by Janet Cardiff: a black rotary phone you pick up to hear the voice of the artist relaying her dreams. A golden, recumbent Brancusi head rests on a plinth, while at the gallery's far end, Magritte's Invisible World hints at a watery vista beyond its French doors and the imposing gray stone that blocks them. Here is where you reach the hinge in this surreal sonnet: Arriving at the Pulitzer's water court, you see Magritte's stone in solid form: Scott Burton's Rock Settee, which overlooks the narrow, placid reflecting pool and a swath of city beyond. Only now do you pause to consider the multitude of portentous cues inhabiting the masterworks curator Francesca Herndon-Consagra has assembled, transforming the museum into a dreamlike tableau vivant. Highlights include Do Ho Suh's diaphanous fabric staircase to nowhere, two late, dark paintings by Philip Guston, an early suite of Max Klinger's "Glove" etchings and the nebulous Wolfgang Tillmans forestscape that marks the dream's end. (A series of programs exploring the exhibition's theme will unfold through the spring and summer, on Saturdays at 1 p.m.) Through August 13 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.
Günther Herbst Blending the seemingly irreconcilable — high art and the economically disenfranchised — British artist Günther Herbst paints small, nearly photorealistic still lifes depicting the makeshift structures that shelter London's homeless. In Tottenham Court Road, the oil-on-board painting that's the exhibition's sole point of focus, an abandoned cardboard shelter capitulates to its own vulnerability, buckling under the weightless strain of autumn leaves and assorted blown refuse. Vacillating among meticulous realism, brushy expressionism, and Mondrian-hued geometric abstraction, the otherwise diminutive work capaciously embraces a wide amalgam of stylistic approaches, each bearing the freight of its own historic and theoretical associations. Close consideration (as this deliberately isolating venue invites) may allow for more inspection than the work can bear. Enjoying the aesthetic merits and art-historic pastiche of this undeniably skillful painting feels, well, wrong in light of its subject matter — as though one has unwittingly become complicit in an even larger lampoon of the politically aloof art world itself. What exactly would be the ultimate outcome of this work? Activism? That nebulously heightened state of being called "awareness"? Whatever the case, Herbst has succeeded in reopening the whole can of worms. Through August 11 at Isolation Room/Gallery Kit, 5723 Dewey Avenue; 314-660-6295 or www.isolationroom-gallerykit.com. Hours: by appointment.
Larry Fink: Attraction and Desire — 50 Years in Photography This generous survey of the notable Brooklyn-born artist reaffirms the durable pleasures of black-and-white figural photography. A nimble chronicler of society's more extreme coteries, Fink moved among New York beatniks, Vegas gamblers, mid-century jazz musicians, the young Mike Tyson and other boxing strivers, rural Pennsylvanians and the lacquered elite of fashion, art and Hollywood. His preference for Caravaggio-esque high contrast dramatizes what is essentially an obsession with fugitive detail: the long, alabaster, manicured hands of a man clutching the back of a black-dressed blonde; a silver radiator in an angled swath of daylight; the heavy-lidded eyes of a lone woman in a crowd at the Cedar Bar; drops of rain on the black sedan bearing Coretta Scott King to the 1968 Poor People's Campaign. It would be easy to marvel at the fabled personalities and events chronicled here, but Fink's most anonymous subjects serve as the firmest testament to his peculiar eye — a complex gaze that is at once empathetic, excoriating and salacious. Intimate and disarmingly wearied self-portraits of himself, his wife, his child and dogs reframe a narrative that might otherwise tip completely into an obsession with cultural novelty. In the end, the show functions much like that other beleaguered medium — the novel — telling stories about living, loving and other less conclusive failures. Through August 20 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.
The Lonely Rainbow Few artists have as distinct and unswerving a gift for recorded sincerity as St. Louis-based Peter Pranschke. He's easily identified by his draftsmanship: drawings influenced by classic comic books in which he portrays himself in seemingly infinite configurations of all-too-human compromise. But Pranschke's not limited to drawings; he has produced pieces out of spliced Bible pages, found erasers, dental floss, tree branches, Band-Aids and, in this case, sleeping bags and old books — all of which manage to embody the sensitivity and personality of the artist. As the exhibit's title suggests, an air of semisweet melancholy pervades. First comes a comic strip in which Pranschke recounts his initial ambition to have every piece in the show match the dark-green hue of the Sheldon gallery's carpet, his failure to have done so and his and apologetic caveat that these works are a departure from his usual self-portraits — these, he states, are fragmentary narratives drawn from life but shattered so as to become unrecognizable. The disarming intro likewise detonates any straightforward approach to "reading" the exhibit. Thereafter unfolds a half-blindly optimistic, half-doomed series of scenes rendered on green grid paper in colored pencil. A workday lunch break, the checkout lane in an art-supply store, an office cubicle, a sidewalk gathering of smokers outside a gallery opening — all banal on the surface but truncated in key areas to suggest that, sadly, everything is not quite right. Interspersed between the drawings are needle-point images stitched into swaths of old dishtowels or napkins and simply titled Sleeping Bag. An enormous green sleeping bag with smoke rings stitched in bisects the exhibit like a hinge — or perhaps the big sleep made wryly manifest. Through September 10 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.
Take 4 Drawing together otherwise radically disparate practices, this minimalist, elegant show highlights the elemental restraint and conceptual confidence shared in the work of local artists Juan William Chavez, Greg Edmondson, Jamie Kreher and Brett Williams. Chavez uses promotional shots from the dystopic 1980s sci-fi flick Blade Runner as his substrate and obscures the imagery in black charcoal dust and intuitive, iridescent brush marks; the effect is like a counter-clockwise historical loop, moving the items from their futuristic source back to the primeval theater of the cave. Edmondson's work has a raw simplicity that complements Chavez's appropriations, contributing delicate, abstract pencil renderings that alternately recall the patterns of nature or suburban sprawl; etched in small, fine lines, their arterial branches waver between cool precision and an apparent hand at work. Kreher has enlarged one of her signature portraits of architectural banality, focusing on a set of glass entrance/exit doors. Stacked and repeated on an enormous sheet of vinyl, the image takes on a more ominous dimension, suggesting ubiquitous surveillance or the overwhelming excess of similar nowhere zones in America. A colorful foil to all the rest, Williams' two videos (Blur 1 and Blur 2) feature bright-hued haloed lights that throb and flicker to an ambient soundscape. One is viewable on a flat video screen, while the other is projected from the gallery floor beneath an air duct grate. Both are evocative of memory's impressionistic focus — more sensory than specific — and lend an elegiac air to the exhibit, which seems, as a whole, bound by various forms of absence and attendant nostalgia. Currently showing at PSTL Gallery at Pace Framing, 3842 Washington Boulevard; 314-531-4304 or www.paceframing.com. Hours: 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat.
Triumph of the Wild Chronicling America's history of violence from the Revolution to the War on Terror, indie animator Martha Colburn compresses this durable urge into a ten-minute phantasmagoric onslaught in the most recent installment of Saint Louis Art Museum's New Media Series. Aligning hunters with soldiers, Colburn sketches a parallel between bloodlust in the natural world (where man seeks game) and the technology of war (where man seeks man). Using swatches of old magazines, discarded portions of advertisements, bright cartoon drawings and tiny jigsaw puzzle pieces, Colburn is a scavenger herself, mining vernacular cultural detritus to illustrate her grand theme and, in the process, creating yet another analogy: between war and waste. The self-trained New York-based artist, whose prolific career has involved many musical collaborators — from Jad Fair and Serj Tankian to the band Deerhoof — here chooses a frenetic piano score written by Thollem McDonas, lending the brief film a retro-patina. Bombs explode, fires ravage forests and platoons and animals plot against one another in a jagged, sped-up pace that recalls Buster Keaton slapstick. What initially appears to be a twee montage of colorful cartoons and coupon-book clip-outs proves to be nothing of the kind. Limbs fly, corpses disintegrate and Jesus blooms from the clouds to carry a soldier to darker fates, all in a swift, relentless sequence that complicates whatever awkward beauty gilds the film's surface. Through September 5 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.)