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.
The Language of Objects: New Works by Jane Birdsall-Lander and Jo Stealey In Jane Birdsall-Lander's Bound Alphabet, salvaged wooden canes and scythe handles are bent into smoothly undulating pieces that recall the curves of the body or the bodies of musical instruments; the forms branch out into hands, repurposed from wooden drawing models or join to create, say, an eyelike shape with cello-peg lashes. Each piece in the series was crafted to correspond with a letter and to the physical symbols from which that letter was derived, evoking a primitive communicative sense somewhere between music and poetry. In Jo Stealey's Forest, parched and leafless tree trunks and massive blanched stones cluster in outsize proportions and appear like a dark children's-book illustration made surreally three-dimensional. The work is crafted out of paper pulp, and while it looks leaden, it is in fact nearly weightless. There's something essentially elemental about these works, which repurpose nature in order to plumb nature, and which, simultaneously, reveal themselves as wholes to be comprehensively marveled upon and as collections of meticulous acts and essential elements to be read for intricate meaning. Through January 16, 2010, at the Sheldon Art Galleries, 3648 Washington Boulevard; 314-533-9900 or www.thesheldon.org. Hours: noon-8 p.m. Tue., noon-5 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat.
Mi-Kyoung Lee: Bound Lines Cotton string, human hair and other basic materials are meticulously knotted into complex and delicate forms in this solo exhibition by Philadelphia-based fiber artist Lee. These supple sculptures and meticulous works on paper, made specifically for this exhibit, explore the theme of interconnectivity — particularly the variety inspired by childbearing. A pile of beeswax-dipped paper towels appears punctured through with tiny needle holes that bloom into a tree-like shape; red pipe cleaners intertwine to create a dangling cellular shape that suggests a womblike cage. The connective potential of materials appears, here, as an allegory for all salutary relationships: They're the product of many small but patient and nurturing acts. Through January 17, 2010, 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.
Michael Byron: Cosmic Tears Nebulous and atmospheric, Washington University professor Michael Byron's series of paintings meditates on the intricacy and immensity of the cosmos. Half of the exhibit is rendered in watery sky blues, while the other half roils in scarlet, black and other incendiary hues, suggesting the binary nature of the exhibition's larger-than-life focus. Perhaps in an effort to match this conceptual scope, these works on paper and canvas dwell predominantly in the expansive diffusions of abstraction — swirls and painterly textures created by curious procedural experiments — and only occasionally give way to finite depiction. (The latter takes the form of trompe l'oeil water droplets and single golden tears.) Considering the space the show inhabits — a repurposed chapel — the experience of the work seems less about conclusive explanations or climactic revelations than about the contemplative rituals associated with that other profound mystery known as faith. Through December 13 at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, 3700 West Pine Boulevard (on the Saint Louis University campus); 314-977-7170 or http://mocra.slu.edu. Hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tue.-Sun.
Roberley Bell: Inside Out Bell takes the surplus toy stock that crowds today's craft-store shelves — chartreuse, hot pink and electric blue foam blobs, flocked plastic birds, bright inflated inner tubes, and enlarged Gerber daisies — and piles it into tenuous heaps. The teetering sculptures resemble 3-D versions of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki's lurid fantasyscapes, but they might just as well be compared to the recreation-grade woods and wildlife in Laumeier's non-virtual park, observable through the gallery windows. Whether the art transports the viewer somewhere bright, light and entertaining may depend on one's taste for guilty pleasures. And perhaps that's the point: Pitting nature against its candy-colored counterpart, the exhibit seems to discourage the impulse to easy complicity. Through January 10, 2010, at Laumeier Sculpture Park, 12580 Rott Road, Sunset Hills; 314-821-1209 or www.laumeier.com. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Fri., noon-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun. (Outdoor grounds open daily from 8 a.m. to a half-hour past sunset.)