Erik Spehn: Six Whites/Three Reds This St. Louis artist's subtle and exquisite exhibition of abstract paintings provides, with slow scrutiny, a compact education in a singular abstract visual vocabulary. Grid lines, canvas edges and suffused luminosity emerge from this work — divided chromatically between (as the title suggests) shades of red and white. At first glance the methodically woven surface textures of these pieces appear like single color fields, but on closer inspection they open to intricately dense variety: An under-painted swath of black lines reveals itself from beneath a stratum of scarlet; a rigid grid slides away from reaching a flush edge or slowly swerves away from linearity; the space between weaves widens, contracts or itself becomes the foregrounded mark. For every rigorously repeated gesture there is a counter-gesture, and each piece corresponds to a necessary other. Thus the exhibit rewards a slow, considered read with alternating meditative stillness and raw vibrancy. Through January 23 at Schmidt Contemporary Art, 615 North Grand Boulevard; 314-575-2648 or www.schmidtcontemporaryart.com. Hours: noon-5 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat.
Yinka Shonibare: Mother and Father Worked Hard So I Can Play Placing his signature life-size mannequins, clothed in Dutch wax-printed cotton (otherwise known as "African print"), in the period rooms on the museum's lower level, the notable British-Nigerian conceptual artist re-illuminates these fossilized moments of material history with fresh paradoxes. It is not Shonibare's figures — child-size, eerily static...and guillotined — that are the focal curiosities here, but rather the cultural incoherence of the historic rooms they inhabit. You suddenly notice how the quintessential American, English and French living spaces here are in reality odd collections of cultural artifacts: an ancient Greek krater in a British country manor; Qing dynasty vases and a Russian carpet in a South Carolina parlor. Ethnic authenticity, is a fallacy, it seems, and social status a mere material import — validated by stuff made or acquired from any place (and time) other than one's own. The installation's multicultural theme may feel tiredly familiar, but the exhibit succeeds in making its point fresh. Household furnishings never appeared more bizarre. Through March 14 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. (open till 9 p.m. Fri.)Ongoing
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 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 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.
Tom Friedman: REAM Noses, dates, dotted lines, the stars, sun, lollipops, and a vaguely copulating couple — the furious flotsam of all things daily and then some appear in thin black lines on a stark white background in this seemingly simple film loop, the latest installment of the New Media series. St. Louis-born Tom Friedman made 500 drawings on 500 pages of standard paper and animated the images in a 500-frame film sequence. Which is to say, a determined and meticulous order underscores disorder in this piece and as such reveals a brutally true portrait of the reasonably well-intended mind. The frenetic tumbleweed of lines — flying into concrete form and just as rapidly expiring in a knotted and confounding tangle — looks like any valiant attempt to make common sense: foiled by absurdity, carnality or just plain boredom. The linearity of time, mathematical rationale, lips, balloons, sex — whether you like it or not, it's all inextricably part of the same mix, Friedman seems to say. Through January 31 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.)
Urban Alchemy/Gordon Matta-Clark The late New York-area artist who used entire blighted buildings as his sculptural material could not have found a more apt (temporary) home. The architectural stock Matta-Clark repurposed finds innumerable analogues beyond the Pulitzer's walls; each instance serves as a brief visual lesson in the aesthetics of simple dwelling spaces. Like archaeological strata, the layers of linoleum, plaster, wood beams, shingles, wallpaper and paint attest to the intricacy of the quotidian and the accretive elegance of all things driven by necessity. The message seems to be: Look closely and let nothing be taken for granted. Beyond the diffusions of daylight so scrupulously choreographed by the museum's celebrated architecture, siting this survey in St. Louis does a service to both artist and city. Matta-Clark was an innovator in the synthesis of architecture, activism and art — a catalyst of exactly the sort this town could use. Through June 5 at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, 3716 Washington Boulevard; 314-754-1850 or www.pulitzerarts.org. Hours: noon-5 p.m. Wed., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat.