Christopher Orr & J. Parker Valentine & Rezi Van Lankveld Reviewed in this issue.
Taking a Ride There's nothing wrong with straightforward simplicity. Verdant hills, winding two-lane roads, the occasional uprooted tree, the requisite companion dog — an imagined car ride through the upstate New York countryside appears precisely as one would expect in these modest oil paintings by Peter Charlap. A professor of painting at Vassar College since 1979, Charlap brushes in the bright details of what is clearly a landscape long observed, enough that it can be re-invoked with a sense of specificity even when the narrative taking place in it is a fictional one. The show makes for a kind of Lake Woebegon effect in painting: an approach that was never novel, but that's sometimes overly cloying, waxing, by virtue of time, into a near-deadpan approach to nostalgia and (in Charlap's case) the visual plain sense of things. Through July 5 at Atrium Gallery, 4728 McPherson Avenue; 314-367-1076 or www.atriumgallery.net. Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tue.-Sat., noon-4 p.m. Sun.
Chantal Akerman: Moving Through Time and Space An explicit treatment of film as art, this survey of two decades' worth of the Belgian documentarian's work distills the medium to two essential parts: narration and gaze. Projected and screened in truncated swatches in a dark warren of loosely partitioned spaces, Akerman's work appears as a menagerie of endless highways, anonymous passersby and the overlapping cadences of the cigarette-ravaged voiceover of the filmmaker herself. Because two of her films explore canonically familiar American subjects — the culture of the Deep South and the Mexican immigrant experience — the issue of otherness, or how someone else's perspective can transform the well known, becomes saliently relevant. How much, actually, is different when seeing the familiar through another's eyes? Complementing Akerman's work is British artist Carey Young's Speech Acts, a series of pieces capitalizing on the creative potential of call centers, telephone operators and that disembodied voice at the end of a long line that calmly leads you through the nebulous airspace of critical questions and their ostensibly revelatory answers. It's an attractive form that suggests perhaps all of us have a need for the ritual of bureaucratic help — as a kind of general panacea, with nothing actually resulting from its use. Through August 2 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.
Currents 103: Claudia Schmacke Time is rendered physical in this site-specific installation, Time Reel. Schmacke, a Berlin-based artist who was this year's Henry L. and Natalie E. Freund fellow at Washington University's School of Art, has threaded clear plastic tubing in a neat line through the gallery wall. Behind the wall, a pump throbs, pushing green water through the long-looped tubes, which subtly flinch with the water's pressure on the gallery floor. It's an eerie motion, like that of something being resuscitated or still twitching, post-mortem. While the piece, at face value, leans toward mad-scientist spectacle, with an agenda as familiar as a pop song, its dead animism thrusts it somewhere more disconcerting — into the realm of institutional critique. The tubes' fading life throes seem to suggest that all things current, strange and elusive must struggle to retain their spirit amid static and vivisecting overdetermination. Through July 5 at the Saint Louis Art Museum, One 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.)
Marcel Duchamp: Chess Master This thorough and engaging re-examination of the father of conceptual art's sudden choice to resign from making art to become a full-time chess player sees Duchamp's ostensible career change as yet another brilliant creative maneuver. Duchamp, who was responsible for some of the most formidable innovations in twentieth-century art — most resonant, the idea that choice-making itself is an artistic act — found chess to be not only a universal language but the ultimate distillation of his fundamental interests: winning, losing and fastidious strategy. The exhibition presents ephemera and art related to the artist's late years as a chess champion, chess writer, chess correspondent and chess aesthetician (even the chessboard and pieces held particular interest for Duchamp and his like-minded contemporaries), the sum of which is an elegant argument for the game's expansive and allegorical merits, as well as the boundless intellectual agility of the ever-clever master himself. Through August 16 at the Saint Louis University Museum of Art, 3663 Lindell Boulevard; 314-977-2666 or www.sluma.slu.edu. Hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Wed.-Sun.
Ideal (Dis-) Placements: Old Masters at the Pulitzer This exhibition of canonical canvases of slain martyrs, pious virgins and other grand dilemmas borrowed from two encyclopedic museums and replaced in naturally lit contemporary galleries is a reaffirmation of the human scale. The minimalism of Tadao Ando's building design is diffused by ornate, gilt-framed compositions that date from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century, the two historical extremes meeting precisely at the fragile effects of daylight on the predominantly figural pieces. Contemplative and reverent, the show fulfills its premise so well that it seems capable of providing a discretely intimate experience for each and every viewer. Through October 3 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.
Craig Norton: Shot and Killed A reporter, photo-realistically rendered in Bic pen and collaged wallpaper, instructs us that the United States averages 30,000 deaths by gun annually and that 48 percent of the victims are African American. What follows is a series of mural-like depictions of African Americans amid or in the aftermath of firearm-related violence, played out in 2-D dioramas of high tragedy and occasionally punctuated with reportage-like text in a wavering pencil scrawl. How is the viewer to assess this critical but statically breaking news, relayed, most perplexingly, via obsessively crafted and well-composed visuals in a commercial gallery? Norton, a St. Louis native whose biography describes him as a self-taught artist (though he briefly studied art at St. Louis Community College-Meramec), has made a show that unwittingly probes a host of salient dilemmas — notably, the role of topicality and marginality in art, and to what degree aesthetic appeal mitigates overt prosaic concerns, however naively stirred up. The show ultimately seems effective in advocating the solutions born of cold empiricism, and all that goes against slippery, creative permissiveness. Through June 21 at William Shearburn Gallery, 4735 McPherson Avenue; 314-367-8020 or www.shearburngallery.com. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat.
Relics of a Glorious Past: Imperial Russian Artifacts from the Collection of Dr. James F. Cooper This assemblage of orthodox icons and the daily stuff of royalty forms a two-part essay on lost cultural splendor and the bygone transcendent art object. Framed in gilt halos, pounded metal and semiprecious stones, the small tempera-on-wood devotional paintings exemplify an anonymous milieu in which studied replication was prized over innovation, and communion with the immaterial was the subject matter of choice. Similarly, the gold-rimmed teaspoons, military regalia and assorted decorative pieces from the show's secular portion involve such an engaged level of tactile detail that they could be considered devotionally crafted. The exhibit as a whole serves as a useful reference point for contemporary art's renewed interest in gold, which seems to signify a nostalgia for creative acts deemed sacred and authentic. Through December 20 at the Saint Louis University Museum of Art, 3663 Lindell Boulevard; 314-977-2666 or sluma.slu.edu. Hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Wed.-Sun.
Saudade Cracked eggshells, cleared of yolk, pile into the crevices of chunks of salvaged Sheetrock, bolted together in half-closed, half-ravaged shelflike units. A tin can, nearly entirely gnawed out by rust, serves as a small pedestal for two shells; two found pieces of scrap wood, crudely nailed together, cradle another broken set. These small assemblages by St. Louis-based artist Jessica Kiel-Wornson make nests of industrial refuse, importing a romantic delicacy to the otherwise abused, abandoned and rough-hewn. It's a familiar ambition of a sweeping love-song variety, but Kiel-Wornson seems aware of this (the exhibition's title is a Portuguese word that describes a kind of longing, which the artist discovered via the singer Nick Cave). The pieces, as a result, act like sketches of a proposal to plumb high sentiment to its unapologetic depth — a proposal worth accepting. Through June 13 at PSTL Gallery at Pace Framing, 3842 Washington Boulevard; 314-531-4304 or www.paceframing.com. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat.
Rirkrit Tiravanija: Chew the Fat Friendship, we're reminded, is as much an art as it is a political act, in this documentary/installation by internationally renowned artist Rirkrit Tiravanija. Here, the viewer is invited to take his shoes off, assume a floor-cushion seat and watch a film screened on floor-mounted TV monitors, depicting casual discussions with the artist's well-established artist friends. The artist-on-artist approach is somewhat misleading — the piece feels less about insights into the creative practice than a study of the informal behaviors that signify intimacy. But a sense of removed formality is hard to ignore — no amount of casualness can dissuade a gallerygoer from wanting to judge the mythical inner life of successful artists, and the knowing edits in the film itself do little to suspend this disbelief. Equal parts sit-back-and-relax and rigid self-consciousness, the piece presents the uninnocent conundrum of treating life as art and heeding that familiar wisdom about choosing one's friends carefully. Also showing: 2009 MFA Thesis Exhibition, featuring work from Washington University School of Art graduate students. Through July 27 at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Forsyth and 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.).