Erik Spehn: Tape Drawings Strips of masking tape used in the creation of this St. Louis-based painter's signature woven-pattern acrylics on canvas are reused in this series of small works on matte board. While calling these pieces "drawings" may imply that they're not as formidable as their painted counterparts, the exhibit proves otherwise. Arranged in chromatic groups, crosshatchings of red-, then maroon-, then blue-flecked strips appear to explore different approaches to pattern. Wide swaths of tape overlap in loose diffusions, while minute, finely cut pieces interweave in tight grids. As one moves through the gallery, the palette brightens, opening up to a full room of yellow- and golden-hued pieces that seem to be uttering among themselves a complicated language in lines, layers and other distinct and serial marks. Through September 18 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.
Jay Wolke: Architecture of Resignation While traveling through the southern Italian region of Mezzogiorno, Chicago-based photographer Jay Wolke documented the incongruous encroachment of contemporary architecture (often in decay) on the elegant ruins and natural landscape of this historic countryside. A crumbling terracotta brick structure is punched through and re-settled into with a teal mattress and a nest of fast-food paper waste; a cliffside of cascading villas is overlooked by what appears to be a spankin'-new restaurant terrace outfitted with white plastic porch furniture; a lush botanical garden is edged by the garden's offices, the exteriors of which are girded by a hedgerow of electrical power sources, each sporting the company logo. The inelegance of the modern era's material culture (predominantly an American export) is made plain in these images by its harsh juxtaposition with the earthen stock of ancient structures. In a previous series, Wolke juxtaposed the congested Dan Ryan Expressway with its Chicago environs; the current project is a compelling analogue, only with a wider historical gap between its polar elements. Through September 4 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.
Killbox This sculptural installation by local artist and Washington University sculpture instructor Noah Kirby uses the eponymous military strategy to engage the gallery space and dictate form. The strategy, invented by the United States in the 1980s and first used a decade later in the Gulf War, is a way of gridding targeted areas to plan for their optimal occupation by armed troops. Removed from its military function, the Kill Box can also serve as a way for any entity to optimally occupy a given space, which is how Kirby deploys it here. The central welded-steel form — an abstracted variation of a small, five-man squad — has the disconcerting dual presence of both an arresting art form and an entity poised for aggression, wherein you (the viewer) are the target. The planar, faceted form rests against a cut vinyl wall mural, which appears to be at once a reflection of the central sculpture and a disorienting variety of camouflage. The cool, blue-black palette, vinyl sheen and brushed-metal surfaces all put one in the absolute mind of viewing art. And yet the undercurrent of tactical maneuvering offsets the conventional experience with an art object. It's a compelling tension — and refreshingly nebulous, as politically charged work too often fails to be. Through August 28 at Good Citizen Gallery, 2247 Gravois Avenue; 314-348-4587 or www.goodcitizenstl.com. Hours: noon-5 p.m. Fri.-Sat. and by appointment.
Marshall Plan: The Intra European Poster Competition of 1950 This artfully weathered collection of mid-century posters — the product of a juried contest held by the Intra-European Cooperation for a Better Standard of Living — displays the winning designs from participating European countries. The spare imagery in flag-bright colors tells multiple stories — of hardened hope in the wake of World War II devastation; of renewed faith in industry; and of an almost pragmatic faith in diplomacy and peace — that appear not as farfetched ideals but as necessary solutions. An enormous key drawn in hard lines bears an edge painted in interconnected global flags; barbed wire is cut by similarly globe-regaled shears. Smokestacks and brick patterns appear as decorative motifs, as elegantly portentous as branches of budding white flowers or firmly clasped interlocking hands. The collection, on loan from Joe and Vicki Stone of Foristell, Missouri, is a small gem of a certain kind of design, informed as much by the spare aesthetics of the era as by the imagery determined by momentous history. Whatever vestige of propaganda is displayed here, it seems not only warranted but far beyond the superficial flourishes, shallow styles and commodity-driven intentions of our current saturation in the glossily virtual and the ideologically anchor-less. Also showing: Regarding Place, a group exhibition of area art juried by Jana Harper, which includes work in a wide range of media that explores the notion of place. Highlights include pencil drawings of daily receipts by Joseph Lupo, charcoal and ink drawings by Mary Lamboly, paintings of domestic interiors by John Sarra, light drawings (photographs) by John Early and a video of passing traffic, distilled to a wash of colored lights, by Felicia Chen. Through August 20 at the St. Louis Artists' Guild and Galleries, 2 Oak Knoll Park, Clayton; 314-727-6266 or www.stlouisartistsguild.org. Hours: noon-4 p.m. Tue.-Sun.
The Mourners: Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy Carefully extracted from their otherwise permanent context in the base of the elaborate tomb of the medieval French duke John the Fearless, these 40 alabaster sculptures exude a presence and formidable craft beyond their two-foot scale. Portrayed in a kind of perpetual procession, led by a choirboy, several deacons and a bishop, the series of heavily cloaked monks appear in various states of ritualistic or personal mourning — consulting small, opened scriptural tomes or entirely enshrouded in ceremonial dress. The pieces are modest and elegant but sculpted to such an articulate degree that they withstand being taken each on their own silent terms. And yet the oppressive apparatus of this traveling exhibition, which reiterates at every opportunity the pieces' power and skill in portraying grief, so far overstates the work's merit that one almost feels compelled to deny them it. Shown in tandem with Bill Viola's contemporary (2008) video installation Visitation, the effect feels even more bombastic. In the video two older women lead one another into and out of a deluge of water and then into the grainy ether of the far distance. It's a haunting and ethereal piece that nonetheless feels overly literal when coupled with the equally direct symbolism of the tomb sculptures. Through September 6 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.)
Recent Acquisitions I The first in a series of shows featuring art recently acquired through benefactors of the Saint Louis University Museum of Art, this exhibit focuses on prints, collages and other works on paper. Alex Katz's Olympic Swimmer from 1976; Flash Back 3, a 1981 abstract lithograph in neon and metallic inks by John Chamberlain; Donald Sultan's Orange Flowers" and Evan's Twins, a 1982 lithograph by Alice Neel — all appear startlingly fresh in their flat planes of color, contemporary palette and angular formalism. While they mark classic points in the 20th-century canon, these works could also be examples of the most immediate currents in artmaking. Other notable moments include an untitled watercolor by Herta Muller, whose tenuous marks and saturated diffusions have the presence of a sensate tangle of cut threads. A room of small collages from 1978 by Erro, an Icelandic artist, feels similarly intimate and trenchant beyond its scale — where minute cut-outs of militaristic formations, dictatorial gestures, political propaganda and glimpses of modern industry combine to embody something at once intimate and historic. Also showing: Urban Wanderers, a benefit exhibition of art celebrating the lost and reclaimed animal companions of St. Louis' Stray Rescue (through August 29). Through September 26 at the Saint Louis University Museum of Art, 3663 Lindell Boulevard; 314-977-2666 or www.slu.edu/x16374.xml. Hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Wed.-Sun.
St. Louis Point of View UMSL's Public Policy Research Center Photography Project enlisted local community groups to document neighborhoods in photos, focusing on historic preservation, adult/youth enrichment and community revitalization. Culled from six years' worth of photographs, the resulting exhibit is nothing short of astonishing. Melva Taylor's Untitled (It Looks Like New York) depicts an angular corridor between high-rise housing complexes in JeffVanDerLou. Preshis Mosley turns a dislodged water fountain in a forlorn park off North Skinker Boulevard into No Water at All (What We Don't Like). Tanya Long captures Granite City's neglected downtown reflected in wavering glass. In After Keita and Sidibe: Ralph Tyler, Jenele Brooks poses a youth in the manner of mid-century African studio photography. One unsigned work, a self-portrait, consists of an image of the photographer's sole possession: a corduroy jacket. Again and again the "amateur" eye strips an environment of the usual aesthetic appeals and distills it to crucial essentials and unexpected details. Through August 22 at the Missouri History Museum, 5700 Lindell Boulevard; 314-746-4599 or www.mohistory.org. Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily (open till 8 p.m. Tue.).
Vatican Splendors: A Journey Through Faith and Art This traveling exhibit of papal artifacts is a tour de force of high kitsch. Multimedia displays selectively detail the grandeur of the Catholic Church in a manner that alternately suspends and dismantles disbelief. Genuine items from the Vatican's collection are outnumbered by simulacra intended for spiritual transport, including a full-scale reproduction of Michelangelo's Pietà, a walk-through re-creation of the scaffolding used to paint the Sistine Chapel, a cast of Pope John Paul II's hand (which you can touch), a plaster cast of a fragment of the "red wall" from the sepulcher of St. Peter and innumerable digital reprints of immersive building environments, historic documents and artwork. There are moments of true beauty: fragments of Roman and Byzantine-era mosaics; two gold chalices and other papal liturgical items; a maddeningly intricate reliquary containing minuscule bodily fragments of Saints Peter, Paul and Anne; and Deposition in the Sepulcher, painted by the first art gossip, Giorgio Vasari. Strangest of all is the section devoted to global proselytizing; depictions of the conversion of non-Catholic cultures would seem to be something to shield one's eyes from. Suffice to say it's a trip, complete with gift shop. Through September 12 at the Missouri History Museum, Lindell Boulevard and DeBaliviere Avenue; 314-746-4599 or www.mohistory.org. Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily (open till 8 p.m. Tue.).