Decadense The alternately lauded and disparaged work of Cindy Tower is the result of a practice divided between traditional mimetic painting and the anti-institutional contemporary ephemera that is performance art. This new exhibit of large-format oil paintings, which captures the grandeur and decrepitude of abandoned St. Louis-area industrial buildings, continues her defiant and often dangerous plein-air practice. The question is: Must the work be of two minds? The performative aspect of Tower's work seems compromised by its painterly traditionalism; the painterly aspect seems compromised by the restrictions the performative elements impose. Yet the ruddy, white-based palette and thick application simultaneously recall Impressionist land- and cityscapes and the corpulent portraits of Ivan Albright and Lucian Freud. The latter reference adds a compelling dimension to Tower's work: Her paintings begin to tell a story of the body in space, the body in decay, the architecture of the body and the analogue between the manual labor of painting and the lost functionality of defunct factories. In this light, a deeper, more personal narrative emerges, eschewing the generalizations of punditry and opting for the intimate, small and wholly singular. Through May 8 at Bruno David Gallery, 3721 Washington Boulevard; 314-531-3030 or www.brunodavidgallery.com. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed.-Sat.
A Tiger's Tale Chicago-based Michael Hernandez de Luna exposes the moral misconduct of popularly perceived moral authorities, from Tiger Woods to Bill Clinton, in this series of digitally manipulated stamps. Yes, stamps: The work is part conceptual, the residue of an unwitting collaboration with the postal service in which Hernandez de Luna would send self-addressed stamped envelopes to friends, who'd mail them back. The twist: The artist had drastically altered the return-mail stamps, transforming them into a graphic critique of societal trends, including body enhancement, gross infidelity and appalling public stunts and/or stumbles. The stamps themselves now constitute the exhibition. Bear in mind that as crass, overt and inelegant as it is, the work displayed here is the residue of an otherwise nearly anonymous venture, wherein found envelopes (from People magazine, the Mallory Hotel, the American Philatelic Society, etc.) were affixed with images of, say, Tiger flanked by naked blondes and swarms of corporate logos, and all but silently passed from mailbox to mailbox, the brazen images perhaps eliciting a brief flash of reconsideration of what would otherwise be taken as rote and banal. Also showing: Cheonae Kim, whose paintings are assembled like brightly colored toy blocks, wherein the stacked-together pieces create small, geometric abstractions; and Michael Byron's collages from India: small, intimate works that piece together subtly patterned and partly figural swatches of delicate Indian periodicals, creating atmospheric abstractions of hybrid beasts and imaginary ethers. Through April 24 at Philip Slein Gallery, 1319 Washington Avenue; 314-621-4634 or www.philipsleingallery.com. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat.
Allison Smith: Needlework Hand-sewn replicas of gas masks and other forms of head coverings worn in military, terrorist or personal crisis are photographed in disconcertingly straightforward and unsentimental images. The rough fabric textures and imprecise stitchwork — misaligned eyeholes, rendering mouths and head shapes amorphous — create a tension between the intimately handmade and brutally subjugating. Parachutes, printed with the images of masks, hover throughout the gallery with cloudlike buoyancy. They offset the stifling effect of the photographed objects and create yet another elegant disjunction — as though conflict can be lighter than air. Through April 19 at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Forsyth and 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.).
Barry Leibman: Mahler Suite This exhibit of collaged paintings by artist and former Left Bank Books co-owner Barry Leibman uses Mahler's final Ninth Symphony as its point of reflection. The musical piece, which straddled Romanticism and the atonality of the burgeoning modern movement, is a study of a spirit divided. Similarly, Leibman's work seems at once to memorialize life's discarded ephemera — from swatches of floral fabric, prayer shawls, color samples and x-rays — and to underscore its temporality and potential to be lost. The work, in its piled, geometric textures, enacts this continual pendulum swing, mirroring the emotive arcs of Mahler's mercurial work in artwork distilled to its black-and-white essence. Through May 29 at the Sheldon Art Galleries, 3648 Washington Boulevard; 314-533-9900 or www.sheldonconcerthall.org. Hours: noon-8 p.m. Tue., noon-5 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sat.
Bring Me a Lion: An Exhibition of Contemporary Indian Art Visual vibrancy, a palpable sense of political and spiritual volatility and a staunch cultural identity at odds with a post-colonial, global visual vocabulary all work in concert in this concise survey of contemporary Indian art. In Tushar Joag's Looking for Flora (a video and photographic series), a replication of a neo-gothic Mumbai monument is surreptitiously and rapidly assembled and disassembled in characteristically unmonumental Indian environments. Chitra Ganesh creates digital collages of popular Indian cartoons, surreal landscapes of half-grotesque, half-seductive figures. In Jitish Kallat's Onomatopoeia (Scar Park), an elegant photographic gridwork focuses on the nearly abstract details of automotive dents, misalignments and other accident-induced marks, creating a kind of taxonomy of inert but vivid abuse. The work, like many others in the show, speaks to an entrenched cultural idiom while utilizing familiarly international art materials and formats. And while words prevail in the majority of the work, they provide more questions than succinct summaries, to great effect. As co-curator (with Dana Turkovic) Jeffrey Hughes states in the exhibit's catalogue: This is a show summarized by the spirit of the lion, which is both grand and fraught with contradictions. Through April 17 at Webster University's Cecille R. Hunt Gallery, 8342 Big Bend Boulevard, Webster Groves; 314-968-7171 or www.webster.edu/depts/finearts/art. Hours: 10 a.m.- 4 p.m. Mon.-Sat. and by appointment.
Lee Friedlander These eight photographs, taken between 1962 and 2002, capture an America most alive when viewed askance. A main-street parade is a shop-window reflection, the shop's proprietor gazing sternly from the store's depopulated interior; a car's rear window reflects the length of street behind it, a parallel car in turn reflecting, in its tinted window, the height of buildings between which they pass. Pedestrians move unhurriedly past a World War I monument of a soldier crouching with a dead-aimed rifle; only a baby being pushed in a stroller looks over its shoulder, vaguely intimating caution. It's a silent, black-and-white world, documented so consistently over four decades that one wonders if there is, in fact, a distinct and consistent American character. If so, it's a solitary one — not of bombastic icons, but of peripheral uncanniness, available most to the passerby or the otherwise least expectant. Through May 30 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.).
Interface This survey of projects created at Amanda Verbeck's shop, Pele Prints, explores the dialogue between an artist's approach to printmaking and his or her studio practice, with an emphasis on the importance of collaboration in the process. A selection of studio work from each participant is juxtaposed next to pieces they produced at Pele; a text accompanies each suite and reflects on the experience they had with Verbeck and the connections they draw between their solitary and collaborative processes. Beyond the dialogic aspects, the exhibition presents an impressively rich body of work by artists who complement one another's aesthetics: The dense strata of Lora Fosberg's intricately introspective word-based work speaks to Gina Alvarez's intricate collection of marks, material nuances and fibrous effusions; Laura Berman's spectrum of organically shaped saturated hues speaks to Brandon Anschultz's formal abstractions, equally saturated with dense chromatic fields. And an impulse toward patterns emerges between Alicia LaChance and Grant W. Miller, whose works indebt themselves to the flatness of print-generated image making. Through April 25 at the Millstone Gallery at COCA, 524 Trinity Avenue, University City; 314-725-6555 or www.cocastl.org. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri., noon-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun.
Mark Newport: Self-Made Man Upending familiar caricatures from superpowers, spinsters and Mr. Moms to high and low art, this exhibit of limp, knitted comic-book-hero costumes marks the definitive end of the Bold Man of Action. Superman, Batman — they're all here, hanging like molted skins or discarded fruit rinds. While meticulously handcrafted, this collection of full-body woolens, emptied of form, is less suggestive of self-sufficiency than gentle dependency — that precious, humble concession necessary for maintaining family structure. Newport, then — seen in a video knitting (and wearing knitted suit) — could be super-normal, at ultimate peace with his domesticated role. The work speaks more to the truer root of the comic-book mythos, which was not about brawny power but the condition of being a misfit — socially dispossessed, precocious but alienated, scarred by trauma and hell-bent on being needed. In the loose musculature, flaccid ears and drooping emblems of Newport's pieces, comic-book luminaries are perhaps laid bare; having finally found human acceptance, they can be as vulnerable as they please. Through May 9 at Laumeier Sculpture Park, 12580 Rott Road, Sunset Hills; 314-615-5278 or www.laumeier.org. 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).
Sean Landers: 1991-1994, Improbable History This survey of relentlessly self-dissecting and blogosphere-portentous paintings, videos, sculptures and photographs by the New York-based conceptual artist Landers makes every attempt to get a hold of that elusive quality known as sincerity. Covering massive canvases, full legal pads and several years' worth of calendar pages with hand-scrawled text, Landers iterates himself as a desperately ambitious but ever-human everyman, a kind of modern-day St. Augustine confessing his trials with art and life in a mode of unedited profusion that traditional social courtesy was established to discourage. There's a sense of rigor in Landers' ability to tolerate himself, which is mirrored by the viewer's tolerance for the work — a rigor that most have perhaps become accustomed to through the sudden ubiquity of social media, modern memoirs and all the other contemporary variations of self-advertisement/acceptable voyeurism now available. In light of this "new normal" (term courtesy of Dick Cheney), Landers comes across as less transgressive than strangely classical — he uses paint and canvas, he's apologetic, and he references Blake, Narcissus and the lyric impulse. But is he sincere? He doesn't even claim to know. Crucial to motivating his furious desire to excavate earnestness is Landers' fraught identity as a working-class Irish Catholic, a fact that makes him incapable of escaping the crushing guilt of having committed the ultimate transgression: becoming an artist. Also showing: Stephen Prina: Modern Movie Pop, an elusive multimedia installation that's half snow-drenched, half-rainbowed, with flickering images of winter and bright, wavering watercolors that suggest an encrypted message continually slipping between blithe naiveté and the fiercely cerebral. Through April 11 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.
Sharon Lockhart: Lunch Break This suite of large-scale photographs and two film installations is a sustained meditation on the ecology of the industrial working class. The product of a year spent at General Dynamics-owned Bath Iron Works shipyard in Maine, Lockhart's exhibition catalogues a world of intimate ritual and discretely elegant detail. Lunchboxes stand in as portraits of the assorted workers, the well-worn items bearing emblems of their owners, their photographic presentation having all of the poise and saturated symbolism of Dutch still lifes. The films extend that observational attunement; Lunch Break follows the main artery of the factory at a pace slower than breathing, the immersive effect of which renders the space nearly abstract. Equally atmospheric, Exit follows the workers daily leave-taking on five consecutive days — a world punctuated by lunch pails, swinging in primary hues from obscured hands as they march beneath the ironwork of an underpass, the mass but unhurried movement suggesting exodus and elegy alike. Through April 19 at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Forsyth and 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.).
Tim Curtis: See How My Mind Works Small handmade chalkboards bearing chalk-written personal proclamations wallpaper the gallery space and accost the viewer with the artist's internal monologue. The elementary-school visual vernacular, combined with the puerile effusions of the unedited mind, make for a vexing experience. Maybe it's the myriad generalizations working in concert to craft a voice of plainspoken authenticity — from the schoolhouse aesthetic to the cynical wit of bumper-sticker clichés — but the show manages to engender a sense of disgust for all things popularly deemed "common." If the raw truth is that we Americans are petty, porn-loving, sexist, self-pitying, materialistic, superficial, depressed, addicted and fundamentally uncourageous — well, then, perhaps we deserve to perpetuate such anti-heroics by chuckling at our "humanness" and applauding ourselves for our tough but cute honesty. Through April 18 at Craft Alliance (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.
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.
What Pictures Want Local artist and Webster University professor Daniel McGrath offers an ironic response to art theorist W.J.T. Mitchell's question "What Do Pictures Want?" McGrath has assembled a miniature salon-style exhibition of text-based paintings that spoof the haute-elite culture of the art world. Precisely lettered in Helvetica and other museum-grade fonts, the white-on-black texts read: "Attracted to me? You probably possess all the properties of the upper class minus one: money"; "Don't read books, read magazines. You learn more from them anyway"; or (in French and English) "It's dangerous to wear Prada in here. You might get caught in the same outfit as one of the staff." A lumpily sculpted iPod and contact lens sit on a museum bench next to a bottle labeled "Really Cold Water." These awkwardly handmade objects are telling: The story being narrated here is not simply about high theory, the stereotypical fashion-conscious cosmopolitan upper crust and the nuances of auction-house repartee. Rather, the work seems to expose the handcrafted-ness of us-and-them tensions, how our distillations of others are distinctly thumbprinted with our own perceptions and desires. Through April 24 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.
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 July 5 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.)