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Ivy Cooper encapsulates the St. Louis art scene

Art St. Louis XX: The Exhibition Art St. Louis shows tend to be mixed bags and this is no exception, save for the fact that it was juried by New York-based Chakaia Booker, one of the finest artists working today in mixed-media sculpture. Booker's criteria appear to have been diffuse, as the exhibition includes just about everything but the kitchen sink. Nevertheless, it's all quite strong and there's always something to be said for variety. Jesse Thomas' large oil painting The Studio (2003) makes a scathing, humorous comment on art and popular culture, and painter Chris Kahler (Colony 69, 2004) just can't go wrong these days. Several very strong ceramic artists are represented, among them Ron Johnson, Tim Eberhardt, Jimmy Liu and Brock Rumohr. Among the five Awards of Excellence winners are the polymer photogravure by Khanh H. Le and the mixed-media piece by Sharon Davie-Barrett. Through January 7 at Art St. Louis, 917 Locust Street, Suite 300; 314-241-4810. Gallery hours 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat.

Hubblevision: New Sculptures New York-based Jill Viney has produced some startling hybrid forms that seem to morph undersea creatures with structures for exploring outer space. Drifter 2 (1999), Vigil 3 and Vigil 4 (both 2004) appear to float in the gallery like manned satellites, but their fiberglass skins look fleshy and organic. Out on the gallery's lawn, a multicolored fiberglass Dwelling (2004) invites you to enter its uncanny, bejeweled interior. Whether these things belong to this world or another is not altogether clear, but it is a world of wonder -- dreamlike, a little creepy and totally enchanting. Through January 15 at Gallery 210, TeleCommunity Center, UM-St. Louis, 1 University Boulevard (at Natural Bridge Road), Normandy; 314-516-5976. Gallery hours 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat.

Image and Identity: Portraits by Philip Kwame Apagya, Samuel Fosso, Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe The theme of identity in postcolonial Africa continues to be all the rage at art venues across the nation; this photography exhibition provides a fresh look at some lesser-known African artists. Viewers may be familiar with Keita's small, black-and-white images from the 1950s, but they look altogether new in the context of Apagya's large-scale, staged color scenes, such as After the Funeral (1998) and So What? (1996). Fosso's self-portraits as karate expert, businessman and pirate are disarming; Sidibe's snapshots from the 1960s and 1970s possess a fascinating, unscripted realism. Through January 8 at the Sheldon Art Galleries (Gallery of Photography), 3648 Washington Boulevard; 314-533-9900. Gallery hours noon-8 p.m. Tue. and Thu., noon-5 p.m. Wed. and Fri., 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat.

Belinda Lee: Portraits Once upon a time portraits were standard practice for painters, their bread and butter. These days portrait painting is dangerous territory, peppered with land mines of contemporary theory -- issues of the authoritarian gaze, subjection and subjectivity and role-playing. Belinda Lee deftly sidesteps it all and delivers direct, no-frills images with dignity and a measure of humor. Her full-figure portraits float the subjects against dense fields of color, dispensing with the distinction between ground and background. The choice of color seems determined by the subject's wardrobe -- a detail in a dress or bathing suit or shirt. Lee treats each subject's face with the same fond attention she pays to the clothes, and the results are wonderfully surreal, yet honest and matter-of-fact portraits that are hard to forget. Through January 8 at William Shearburn Gallery, 4735 McPherson Avenue; 314-367-8020. Gallery hours 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tue.-Sat.

Sol LeWitt Sol LeWitt's wall pieces are like symphony scores: He wrote them in notation form; they're performed by different people for audiences all over the world. It's funny that people still get bothered when the artist's hand isn't literally involved in the work's realization -- evidently it's hard for some to extend to conceptual artists the same generosity they extend to composers. Thankfully, no such complaints have been generated by the black-and-white Wall Drawing #1141 and Wall Drawing #1142 (both 2004), now on view in the Laumeier Sculpture Park galleries. These are brilliant, bold eyefuls of overlapping arcs and lines that activate the entire space. Also on view are several lovely gouache paintings titled Lines in Color (2003-04) and a maquette for the mazelike sculpture Intricate Wall (2001-04), installed outdoors (on long-term loan from the artist). All this aside, the best work in the exhibition is A sphere lit from the top, four sides, and all their combinations (2004), a grid of 28 photographs of, well, exactly that. This is conceptual/minimalist art at its finest: repetitive, non-hierarchical, non-narrative, quasi-documentary and possessed of the classical, formal beauty that the best minimalist works try -- and, happily, fail -- to suppress. Through January 16 at Laumeier Sculpture Park, 12580 Rott Road, Sunset Hills; 314-821-1209. Gallery hours 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat., noon-5 p.m. Sun.

Ernest Trova: Three Drawings and Paul Shank: Recent Work One of the best-known and most highly esteemed of all St. Louis artists, Trova still has the power to surprise and delight. With a mere three "drawings," he energizes the back gallery at Elliot Smith. Red Head and Black Head (both 2002) are painted aluminum outline images that charge their negative space and achieve a grace one does tend to associate with drawing. If the heads seem to converse with one another across the gallery, Variation (Hand) (2002) mediates the conversation. A thick, stacked steel form, the hand rests on a pedestal and gestures gently. Trova's inclination toward the boundaries of abstraction is taken to another level by Paul Shank, whose nineteen gouache and pastel works on paper animate the main gallery. Shank's compositions swing between flatness and depth, control and spontaneity. Rapid-fire strokes are hemmed in by an overriding logic. The clear reference here is Kandinsky, but Shank's finely tuned sensibilities and a sense of quiet color are all his own. Through January 8 at Elliot Smith Contemporary Art, 4729 McPherson Avenue; 314-361-4800. Gallery hours 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tue.-Sat. -- Ivy Cooper

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