Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design and Culture at Midcentury The easy abstractions and sunny utopianism that quantified "cool" in the West Coast of the 1950s are presented here in dense stock of contextual artifacts ranging from furniture to film to photos. Chet Baker's jazz, Saul Bass' graphic title sequences and the industrial design of Charles and Ray Eames appear not only as key stylistic originals but as familiar contemporaries. But while the exhibit labors to clarify its rationale for connecting its constituent parts, it fails to recognize that this is the ur-text material for Ikea, Target and Starbucks — for better or worse, the '50s brand of "cool" has long since been devoured by American material culture. With close inspection, the exhibit does resurrect the fact that once upon a time, style was a means of broadly conveying social agendas (as well as other information of uncommodifiable substance). Through January 5, 2009, 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.).
Carmon Colangelo: From Big Bang to Big Melt The best end-of-world theories are compiled and impressionistically realized in this show of repetitively processed, large-format screen prints. Webs, grids, bursts and other universal abstractions undergird more personal imagery — totem animals, favorite art historical samples, salient phrases — all of which appear in the color range of neon viewed by daylight. The riot of topicality-meets-whimsy reaches its apex in the series titled Mondrian Skies; in these roiling two-tone cloudscapes framed in primary-colored ledger lines, the accretive froth of compositional and conceptual excess crests into something weirdly luminous. Also showing: Sandra Marchewa: Work; Kathryn Neale: Recent Paintings; Eleanor Dubinsky: New Videos. Through January 17, 2009, at Bruno David Gallery; 3721 Washington Boulevard; 314-531-3030 or www.brunodavidgallery.com. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed.-Sat. and by appointment.
Action/Abstraction A re-examination of the defining mid-20th-century movement that distilled art-making to its raw elements. The show opens with work by Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning and words by their respective critical defenders, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, then follows other artists' consequent paths of influence and argumentation. Unlike abstraction's fundamental inarticulateness, this exhibit is verbosely didactic, deploying the visual work as representative specimens of heavily scripted tendencies, all of which are plotted out in the galleries like the simplest of road maps. While it leaves little room for the purely aesthetic or inventive (as often tumultuously experienced by abstraction's acolytes), the show does offer a capacious portrait of an important historical moment, when popular culture became suddenly smitten with "high art" and dead set on democratizing it. It's this co-incidence of a largely immigrant cast of painters vigorously striving for a new common language in color and composition, and an American plain-speak emerging in wide-reaching media, that unwittingly forms the show's most compelling hypothesis: that maybe it's best for some things to remain quietly misunderstood. Through January 11, 2009, 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.)
Artistically Incorrect: The Photographs and Sculpture of John Waters Cult film director Waters, whose B-grade "Trash Trilogy" of the late 1970s — Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Desperate Living — defined him as the auteur of extreme taboo, tones down his act in this show of mass-produced sculptural objects and screen-snapshot assemblages. While imagery of stock social mores abound — puke, Charles Manson, the World Trade Center in flames — it remains safely behind glass and frame, the antagonistic subject matter dissolving in the service of traditional aesthetics. In spite of the exhibition's title, Waters possesses a scrupulous eye for beauty and good design, as evidenced by his obsessive photo-tracking of, say, a white-gloved elbow, Farrah Fawcett's blown-out hair or Sophia Loren's bare neck and shoulders. Each snapshot sequence ultimately betrays the act of someone re-watching a film he has watched innumerable times, using his still camera to capture a new, private film within it — one that is a distillation of an almost voyeuristic fascination. To this end the show is a sympathetic ode to Waters' childlike adoration of cinema — its way of rendering sensuality, gore and everything in between lushly spectacular — and the requisite humiliations that come of loving something for reasons one can't always justify. Through January 11, 2009, 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).
Lutz Bacher and Aida Ruilova The cultural diagnosis is grim: Ours is an era either endlessly complicated or senseless. The spare alien landscape of Lutz Bacher's large-scale installation Spill makes every effort to defy the sensible and sensual. Darkly lighted on the main gallery's cold slate terrain, the sculptural elements are few and far between: a large, untreadable cul-de-sac leading nowhere; the delicate parts of a smashed black Fender Stratocaster thinly scattered; and, behind a glossy black plastic curtain, several pallets of Budweiser looming with strange formality. What do all of these random pop artifacts add up to? One wall of the installation attempts to explain, in densely checker-tiled Xerox prints of celebrities, atrocities, revolutionaries and choice critical addenda. Perhaps summing it up best is an image of Jane Fonda in her peace-activist prime with a text bubble that reads, "I'm weird. I'm really fucked up." Alternatively, the compulsive guttural utterances of Aida Ruilova's brief, claustrophobic videos suggest that the solitary life, away from the pop-cultural onslaught, offers no more reprieve than the psychic equivalent of banging one's head against a wall. Through January 4, 2009, at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, 3750 Washington Boulevard; 314-535-4660 or www.contemporarystl.org. Hours: 10 a.m.-5p.m. Tue.-Sat. (open till 8 p.m. Thu.), 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sun.
Beacons Half-suggestive of World War II bunkers and Blade Runner set pieces, Arny Nadler's Beacons — towering cylindrical forms made of black-painted steel — loom like last-straw dystopian asylums, the darker kin of bright bastions of hope. Fabricated from industrial girding, bolts and air ducts, the formidable sculptures combine the cavernous secretiveness of the early works of Lee Bontecou and the clear structural menace of the mature Richard Serra's, and they beg to be liberated from their tame indoor confines. The stronger narrative evocations of the pieces break down as parts of them — specifically, the duct openings — are reiterated in small, framed works that line the gallery walls; in this form, the vocabulary of the sculptures suddenly becomes diminutive and decorative. Through December 23 at Philip Slein Gallery, 1319 Washington Avenue; www.philipsleingallery.com or 314-621-4634. Hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tue.-Sat.
Persuasive Politics: Presidential Campaign Memorabilia Mining southern Illinois flea markets and other sources, Cecelia and U.I. "Chick" Harris rescued from obscurity a passel of political campaign-related Americana. Then they donated their collection to the Saint Louis University Museum of Art — with the stipulation that the items be exhibited every four years, in conjunction with the presidential campaign calendar. In a warren of dimly lit rooms adorned with deconstructed stars and stripes, a chronological row of shadow boxes compels viewers to peer closely at the jewel-like items, built not to last. Doubling our national penchant for laissez-faire self-idolatry, the show invites us to ponder each era's sense of itself — from detailed Currier & Ives lithographs to McGovern toilet paper and "Nixon Now" paper dresses. Certain trends are timeless: the presidential aspiration to be both maverick and everyman; the indiscreet wielding of nastiness as a winning strategy; and the love of brazen superficiality in propaganda design. Like any good reflective surface, the stuff's hard to stop marveling at. Through December 21 at the Saint Louis University Museum of Art, 3663 Lindell Boulevard; 314-977-2666 (www.slu.edu/x16374.xml). Hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Wed.-Sun.
Bill Smith: Loop Web In the small corner gallery that houses SLAM's "New Media Series," Belleville artist Smith contributes a video and sculptural installation that defies easy description but rewards the most fundamental instinct for wonderment. Between two projections — one of a simulated millennium-length journey through the universe, the other of apes in their native habitat — dangles a 3-D evocation of a single cell made from "blackberry bush limbs, waste plastic, and soy wax." To the booming sound of Harlem Renaissance writer James Weldon Johnson reciting his oracular poem "The Creation," the hovering sculpture flickers with the saturated colors of the simulated cosmos, the spiked and twisted branches catching the fine beams of the video projection in such a way that they appear miraculously lit from within. The intersection of larger-than-life conceptual agenda and classic trick-of-light effect makes for something undeniably awesome of the ilk of Charlton Heston's Moses parting the Red Sea in DeMille's classic Ten Commandments. Through January 1, 2009, 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.)