American Framing Reviewed in this issue.
Empire of Dust St. Louis-based Jon Cournoyer crafts this series of silkscreened collages with such a high degree of compositional finesse and graphic clarity that one could miss the bleak cultural critique he's issuing. His subject is America, rendered as a place with a mythic, dreamlike history tragically corroded by a commerce-fueled death drive. In these pieces, where enlarged, etching-like images of bucks' heads, street waifs, Huck Finn-like canoers and clusters of night-flying bats are printed centrally upon dense underlayers of antique ephemera — ink-scrawled poems, union paraphernalia, discarded postcards — the past seems both enshrined in idyllic sentiment and fraught with bad intentions soon to be realized. Tidily dignified behind glass and frame, the work, ironically, appears desirable in a way that a dollar bill would be, were it presented not as currency but as a beautifully executed print. Through November 14 at Hoffman LaChance Contemporary, 2713 Sutton Boulevard, Maplewood; 314-960-5322 or www.hoffmanlachancefineart.com. Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Wed.-Fri., noon-5 p.m. Sat and by appointment.
The Language of Objects: New Works by Jane Birdsall-Lander and Jo Stealey Reviewed in this issue.
Chance Aesthetics A seeming paradox — codifying the unpredictable — this selective but comprehensive exhibit focuses primarily on Modernist creative experiments that privileged chance over deliberation and makes a persuasive argument for certain aesthetic similarities in such exercises. Beyond the inimitable work of Marcel Duchamp, highlights include Ray Johnson's twine-and-brown-bag bundles of envelopes, their contents intended for infinite reconfiguration and distribution. The moldering and molding "drawings" by Dieter Roth use bagged and smeared perishables that yield dry humor and a weird, debased beauty. The collages of colored scrap paper and automatic ink drawings by Ellsworth Kelly may be the artist's best work for their searching intimacy and organic possibility. And Robert Motherwell's Lyric Suite — a grid of automatically rendered ink-on-paper drawings — breathes with a nimbleness similar to Kelly's paper experiments. Tending toward the small and ephemeral, the works here slyly suggest that great contemporary art isn't mere fortuitous accident, after all. Carefully and articulately curated by Meredith Malone. Through January 4, 2010, 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.).
For the blind man in the dark room looking for the black cat that isn't there Perception is given close study in this elegant exhibit of work by an international (and historically broad) cast of artists. Positing itself in the Socratic tradition of inquiry limned only by endless discussion, the exhibit proposes that art, at best, is a speculative rather than declarative industry. In an audio piece, Marcel Broodthaers seeks answers to the hard questions of art's worth and purpose from a cat, who responds simply and perhaps wisely: meow. Coffee grounds are divined for larger meaning in a video by Ayse Erkmen (though the deepest wisdom seems to come from the mute chow dog, calmly surveying the chatty humans in his company). The meticulous and obsessive study of objects in themselves, in Giorgio Morandi's inimitable painted still lifes, appear twice and feel like hinge lines in the exhibit's extended villanelle. And the thousand and one drawn charts by Matt Mullican — parsing birth, life and death like a mathematical equation — proliferate with the promise of solutions, albeit eternally elided. Antiquity flashes in a video of the Metropolitan Museum's Greek and Roman wing after dark, and the Renaissance Wunderkammer makes a requisite appearance in the form of an etching — suggesting at once the complementary truths of historical return and non-linearity. One leaves this exhibit — lightly, eruditely and playfully curated by Anthony Huberman — with a fresh faith in art's philosophical capacity and essential mystery. Through January 3, 2010, 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.
Fred Stonehouse: Den of Secrets This menagerie of self-portraits — as a bat, in lucha libre masks, beset by demons or as a demon — plumbs the curious ways one sees oneself or attempts to see oneself more clearly. Borrowing elements of carnival sideshow banner motifs, the iconography of Latino and Northern Renaissance religious iconography, and vestiges of spray-painted street art, this Wisconsin-based artist illustrates a world of self-mythology that is at once wistful and phantasmagoric. Small wavering pencil lines carve out meticulous little eyes exuding jewel-like tears; the head of a goateed man (a shade of the artist) is affixed to the shrunken body of a round-bellied infant; snow falls on Christmas pines while the sky, white with flurries, glows with red letters proclaiming "The Measure of a Man." Self-validation, here, is self-defeating: It comes in the length of a demon's long-swinging tail. While whiffs of the flat, crude but essentialist brand of rendering associated with folk artists inform the work, Stonehouse's paintings and drawings are anything but unstudied or incidentally realized. As a whole they read as a familiar epic long retold with the assurance of maturity, in which the idiosyncratic details merit more patient attention, and the broad strokes of childhood angst are subdued into melancholy lyricism. Through October 31 at Philip Slein Gallery, 1319 Washington Avenue; 314-621-4634 or www.philipsleingallery.com. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat.
Tom Huck and the Rebellious Tradition of Printmaking Brandy Baghead is going through major changes in Tom Huck's new triptych, on view at the Saint Louis Art Museum after two years in meticulous production. The printmaker from the self-fabled rural backwaters of Potosi hewed The Transformation of Brandy Baghead as the centerpiece of his third series of woodcuts, "Booger Stew," which vivisects contemporary phenomena such as reality television and self-actualization by way of Barbie doll beauty. Modeled after three-part altarpieces (a form that reached its gruesome apogee in the gnarled crucifixions of the Northern Renaissance), Brandy Baghead is equal parts Matthias Grünewald, Garbage Pail Kids and House of 1,000 Corpses. Once a wholesome beauty queen, Brandy subjects herself to the nails, crowbars, cat intestines and electrical tape of mad surgeons giddy to transform her into their world's prevailing physical ideal: a breast-enhanced ice-skating chicken-oid. They succeed, to the frothing admiration of the populace, who wave signs of such high accolades as "cooz" and "skank" as she skates, proudly cross-eyed and feathered, on black ice. The uncomfortably gorgeous trio of images appears amid a selection of historical prints chosen by Huck to illustrate his influences, each annotated with his plainspoken take on the work. This short history of printed art, which includes Albrecht Dürer, William Hogarth, James Ensor, José Posada and Max Beckmann, depicts a medium hell-bent on disseminating images of bourgeois grotesqueries, rampages of moral vindication and the human herd as a macabre carnival of souls. Huck comes across as not only the real deal but a worthy inheritor of the legacy — thanks to the ambitious and obsessive scale of his work. These prints add up to truly fucked-up stuff of the highest order. (Ian Froeb's profile of Tom Huck, "Evil Ink," was published January 18, 2007, and is available at www.riverfronttimes.com.) Through November 15 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.).