Mary Jo Bang: Until Was Mickey Mouse and his ragtag gang of dogs and ducks are the Everymen of poet and photographer Mary Jo Bang's debut exhibition of delicate collages. Angular swaths of truncated comic dialogue appear amid bits of leafy, illustrative foliage and Mickey in sweat-beaded exasperation, while Alice, of Lewis Carroll's surreal children's book, slyly intervenes. It's a world of pratfalls underpinned by the unsettlingly bizarre — more like Beckett than Walt Disney. Assembled with the same incisive precision as Bang's poems, these small works portray a pantheon of comic and vintage characters that slip in and out of their familiar roles. As one piece — entitled For Freud and foregrounding a medical dissection of the brain — suggests, here the seemingly innocent rustles with the darkly trenchant import of memory and dreams. Through November 6 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. Kit Keith: New and Used Discarded naval maps of the Bahamas, West Indies, Australia and other far-flung locales serve as the substrate for this new series of mixed-media works by local artist Kit Keith. On the maps' surface, the faces of black-haired women with lipsticked mouths appear in an odd blend of period vogue and frayed distress. Magazine images of birds or orange blossoms or Campbell's soup cans are cut with pinking shears into triangular shapes that crown the various portrait heads, asserting a kind of heroism to otherwise anonymous characters. A pink ribbon frames one piece, while a large, cutout "F-" is affixed to another. The formal expertise — grafted from sign painting to mid-century illustration to a well-mastered brand of aesthetics entirely Keith's own — does little to hold at bay a raw sense of the sincerely autobiographical in these works. No matter how many guises the portraits borrow and wear, a vulnerably complex persona is clearly and consistently betrayed. Through October 16 at William Shearburn Gallery, 4735 McPherson Avenue; 314-367-8020 or www.shearburngallery.com. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat.
Featured Review: Mary Sprague: Rhinoceros! This gnarled and otherwise inelegant beast is rendered almost pyrotechnic in this exuberantly expressive series of drawings and paintings by local painter, printer and ceramicist Mary Sprague. With a palette reminiscent of the acid hues of Matta and a similar penchant for surreal abstraction, these pieces move in and out of their totem animal, becoming at once portraits of a vibrant state of being and compendiums of every nervous variety of gestural mark. A wry sense of absurdity underscores the work via titles such as Decorated Veteran, Out from the Spa and How Much Does a Rhino Charge. High art treads on hard ground here — where pure joy is experienced with abandon and a wise half-smirk. Through October 16 at Duane Reed Gallery, 4729 McPherson Avenue; 314-361-4100 or www.duanereedgallery.com. Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tue.-Sat. and by appointment.
Brandon Anschultz: Stick Around for Joy Compulsive exercises in the deconstruction of painting yield new forms of painterly pleasure in this year's Kranzberg exhibition, which features St. Louis-based painter, sculptor and printmaker Brandon Anschultz. Canvas is removed from the stretcher frame and wrapped into amorphous, folded sculptures; wall-hung canvases are flipped, revealing seeped-through imprints of paint; canvas is forgone altogether and replaced with fiberboard or plaster as the painting substrate, which then occasionally takes a sculptural shape; canvas is chewed into or severed in half by saw cuts. In the supreme act of creative desperation, piles of paintings on wood appear in a life-size bag after having been fed through a wood chipper. In challenging every method for taking apart and re-inventing the traditional parameters of painting, Anschultz illustrates both a capricious compendium of the medium's history and the peculiar plight of the artist at odds with his own expertise. An intense desire to unearth something both fundamental and fresh seems to lie at the heart of this exhibition. Whether that desire is fulfilled is not entirely the issue; rather, the rigorous and playful spirit that pervades the exhibit is its most rare discovery — and one made solely on the work's own terms. Through September 26 at Laumeier Sculpture Park, 12580 Rott Road, Sunset Hills; 314-821-1209 or www.laumeier.com. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat., noon-5 p.m. Sun. (Outdoor grounds open daily from 8 a.m. to a half-hour past sunset).
Crossing Paths A swarm of yellow-bellied finches pursues two gray foxes; a hippo is strangled by a python; a herd of deer is beset by predatory orangutans; a flock of black falcons pluck up a pack of warthogs. Brian Depauli executes this suite of large-scale landscape paintings, in which unlikely animal pairings confront one another on an otherwise placid field, with the kind of awkward expertise borne of prolonged intimacy with one's subject. Minute blades of grass and tufts of coarse fur articulate a world that's implausible without being a caricature, and oddly naturalistic without being anthropological. Nor is there any sustained sense of allegory for these strange spates of aggression, though the blue sky and hazy horizon line — steadfastly consistent from scene to scene — suggest that the subjects are secondary to more portentous weather. Coupled with Depauli's paintings is a series of small collages by Bevin Early. Tiny pedestrians, fastidiously cut from '60s- and '70s-era National Geographics, appear in mute isolation on single cubes of wood. Cubes dot the wall in a line, staggered like poetic stanzas; some bear images, others are blank. At the end of the line, in a corner alcove, the figures give way to cutouts of dappled light, producing an effect not unlike turning a corner and being struck by blinding sun. Like Depauli's vanishing distances, these works seem to murmur something about an alternative realm where more elemental states of being hold dominion, waxing far larger than their common lot as dismissible minutiae. Also showing — Nicole Stevens: Swelter, an installation in which a block of burnt candy melts on a plinth, keeping pace with the radical summer heat and perspiring passersby. Through October 2 at Snowflake/City Stock, 3156 Cherokee Street; www.snowflakecitystock.com. Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sat.
Exposure 13 Concise and spare, this year's annual exhibition of notable local talent focuses on the work of Martin Brief, Joe Chesla and Asma Kazmi. Brief's pencil drawings trace the bare outlines of the entries on dictionary pages revealing empty shapes reminiscent of bar graphs or, perhaps floor plans. Joe Chesla's installation involves a gridwork of small plastic bags filled with water and affixed to a massive, transparent plastic sheet; the sheet is bound at its lower corners with rope, which peels the piece partially from the wall and toward the ceiling, revealing an underlayer of watery light. Asma Kazmi crafted several dozen clay pinch pots — or kashkol, hand-formed ceramic begging bowls — that rest on an unfinished pine table like a collection of autumn leaves or discarded half-shells. Taken together, the three artists amplify one another's interest in absence, resulting in a suite of frames for words, substances or currency that isn't there. Through December 4 at Gallery 210, TeleCommunity Center, University of Missouri-St. Louis, 1 University Boulevard (at Natural Bridge Road); 314-516-5976 or www.umsl.edu/~gallery. Gallery hours 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat.
Recent Acquisitions I The first in a series of shows featuring art recently acquired through benefactors of the Saint Louis University Museum of Art, this exhibit focuses on prints, collages and other works on paper. Alex Katz's Olympic Swimmer from 1976; Flash Back 3, a 1981 abstract lithograph in neon and metallic inks by John Chamberlain; Donald Sultan's Orange Flowers; and Evan's Twins, a 1982 lithograph by Alice Neel — all appear startlingly fresh in their flat planes of color, contemporary palette and angular formalism. While they mark classic points in the 20th-century canon, these works could also be examples of the most immediate currents in artmaking. Other notable moments include an untitled water color by Herta Muller, whose tenuous marks and saturated diffusions have the presence of a sensate tangle of cut threads. A room of small collages from 1978 by Erro, an Icelandic artist, feels similarly intimate and trenchant beyond its scale — where minute cutouts of militaristic formations, dictatorial gestures, political propaganda and glimpses of modern industry combine to embody something at once intimate and historic. Through September 26 at the Saint Louis University Museum of Art, 3663 Lindell Boulevard; 314-977-2666 or www.slu.edu/x16374.xml. Hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Wed.-Sun.
Screwed Again This massive, collaborative wall mural — executed in black, white and gray by a lengthy list of local graffiti/street-inspired artists (Christopher Burch, Daniel Burnett, Stan Chisholm, Daniel Jefferson, Kris Mosby, Chris Sabatino, Jason Spencer, Justin Tolentino and Bryan Walsh) — is an unlikely homage to the power of restraint. The work was created on panels of plywood that tile the gallery and obscure its permanently installed stained glass. A bizarre entanglement of a mournful, urban vignettes appears to be eulogized: headstones crop up amid a menacing parade of white-hooded figures; Cheshire smiles float between stenciled dollar signs; cutout drawings of singed paper airplanes fly above mailboxes, bones and tears. A malicious-looking worm burrows its way through the piled, graphic debris. The message relayed is one of pessimistic resignation: "Too late to make history"; "Impending Doom"; and "Kiss the Weeds, the Flowers May Never Return." Bottles are plentiful, suggesting that deranging consumption, in this climate, is advised. But this is no place to look for wisdom. The best point made seems to be about working together — wherein subduing and subsuming distinct identities and approaches clearly benefits a shared whole. Through October 3 at the Regional Arts Commission, 6128 Delmar Boulevard; 314-863-5811 or www.art-stl.com. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri., noon-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun.
Smarter/Faster/Higher A clutch of wire-woven human forms crawl, run and gaze at their own images displayed on video screens in Elizabeth Keithline's site-specific installation. Wire-formed trees sprout from the hexagonal white tiles that carpet the areas on which the figural armatures pose. It's a skeletal world of reductive shapes and symbolic forms, suggesting a kind of Darwinian attrition from wildlife and infancy to the technocratic and ostensibly "adult." In this case maturity equals self-reflection, which is either an act of heightened consciousness or narcissism. Either way, whatever these characters discern in themselves must be yet one more reduction of humanity, like the hollow and de-gendered objects they are, despite their finely knotted nuance. Which is to say that this is one direly cynical diorama, lovingly handcrafted. Through January 16, 2011, at the Craft Alliance Gallery (Grand Center), 501 North Grand Boulevard; 314-534-7528 or www.craftalliance.org. Hours: noon-6 p.m. Wed.-Sat., noon-5 p.m. Sun.