Ab/Fig Curated by erstwhile Chicago gallerist Wendy Cooper, this group show focuses on work that deliberately straddles abstraction and figuration. With its signature blurring of an otherwise straightforward female nude, a piece by Gerhart Richter feels like the point of origin for this approach. A cursory glance at a print by Ellen Gallagher appears to explore geometric abstraction, while close inspection reveals a pale overall patterning of full, line-drawn lips, her definitive and racially charged motif. Three water colors by painter Barnaby Furnas feature figures shattered by war wounds or excess smoking; the vamping blonde in Girlfriend 1 and Girlfriend 2 has her vanity dismantled by her bad habit, while the stoic soldier in Bits and Pieces is shattered into blood-colored shards. A series of oil paintings by Katherine Bradford depicts swimmers in various states of wavering submergence, their bobbing heads barely discernible beneath thick passes of paint. Whether this show is yet another response to Clement Greenberg's now half-century-old dictates about the supremacy of abstraction (as the title's play on Ab/Ex suggests), it seems certainly to attest to the argument's persistence. Figuration is alive and well, and apparently living in blithe harmony with its non-objective antagonists, producing a new brand of perfectly acceptable if not altogether traditional contemporary art. Through January 15, 2011, at William Shearburn Gallery, 4735 McPherson Avenue; 314-367-8020 or www.shearburngallery.com. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat. The Thin Commandments "Being thin is more important than being healthy," reads one piece in this series of hyper-reductive silkscreen prints by German conceptual artist Johannes Wohnseifer. Consisting solely of puritanical epithets preaching the moral superiority of thinness and rendered in Helvetica bold, these works cause discomfort due to the unsettling reality of their literal meaning and the cramped, restrictive confines of the mini- gallery in which they're hung. Culled from a psychologist's research into eating disorders, the dictatorial monologue produces an onslaught of conflicting impressions: indignation, self-implication and -scrutiny, countered by the irresistible allure of such precise execution and an attractively hued, Bauhaus-informed color scheme. Whether one reads the text as indicative of the parasitical American ethos of self-control or as an allegory of the severity of design itself — an art of exactitude, propaganda and superficial appeal — a sense of unpleasantness prevails. Add to this the aspect of gender — a male artist targeting a topic that predominantly involves women — and the effect becomes even more complex. What saves this work from being yet another polemical indictment of a generically familiar societal ill is the religious aspect of the language. The "commandments" speak to a deeper cultural mindset, commenting not merely on the cult of perfection but on the power of the myth of self-made perfection — from asceticism's debatable spiritual worth to Ben Franklin's famous lists of daily self-improvements, all of which endorse the selfish supremacy of I, I, I. Through December 8 at Isolation Room/Gallery Kit, 5723 Dewey Avenue; 314-660-6295 or www.gallerykit.blogspot.com. Hours: by appointment. Ongoing
Ahmet Ogut: Underestimated Zones Amsterdam-based Turkish artist Ahmet Ogut stages a number of interventions that blend political activism with Buster Keaton-esque slapstick, highlighting the too-fine distinction between absurdity and moral efficacy. In one series of photographs, the artist has hung a sign, guerrilla-style, in undisclosed but distinctly urban St. Louis locations. The sign reads: "Under 23 Hour Surveillance," the Orwellian aura of ubiquitous intrusion undermined by the potential for a random hour of unsupervised chaos. Elsewhere, a dual slide projection transforms two unsuspecting commuter cars into a taxi and a police vehicle, via awkward paper appliqués the artist affixes surreptitiously. In spliced-together videos, Ogut reconfigures a sign that says "Amsterdam" so that it reads "Dreams," "Desert" and "Damned"; human figures slither through the life-size letters in a manner that suggests animals, or pestilence. And in a notable real-time infiltration, Ogut has paved one of Laumeier's galleries in fresh asphalt. The resurfaced space is as succinct in effect as it is multivalent: Appearing like an urban spoof of Walter De Maria's "Earth Rooms," the black granulated material glimmers like spilled precious stones and exudes a distinctly pungent scent that, to the modern senses, is as redolent as seasonal flowers. Also showing — Things We Count, a short dream-like film that pans through a boneyard of defunct WWII aircraft in the Arizona desert: The abandoned fighter planes look harrowingly gorgeous, like a collection of ominous antiques. Through January 9, 2011, at Laumeier Sculpture Park, 12580 Rott Road, Sunset Hills; 314-615-5278 or www.laumeier.org. Fall-winter hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed.-Fri., noon-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun. (Outdoor grounds open daily from 8 a.m. to a half-hour past sunset.)
Elad Lassry: Sum of Limited Views Israeli-born, Los Angeles-based artist Elad Lassry repurposes our collective sense of stock photography to bizarre and uncanny effect, creating still lifes and portraits that straddle popular advertising and surreal conceptualism. With their intimate, domestic scale, the pieces inhabit a snapshot realm even as they swerve away from the familiar. A series of open, pink lipsticks set on small green pedestals are presented against a green background within a green-painted frame. A well-groomed young man with a large white smile appears poised for product placement, but the image is double-exposed, giving him four eyes. The works appear simultaneously static and shaken — or on the verge of some subtle movement — an effect Lassry explores further in a series of sixteen-millimeter films. Also showing — Richard Artschwager: Hair A former furniture maker, Artschwager has employed rubberized horsehair of the type used in upholstery to create works that exist in a realm of inconclusiveness like that of Lassry's photos, where hard lines of exclamation points, thrones, tables and figural silhouettes blur in the frayed surface of their hirsute material. These pieces, made over the past three decades and rarely exhibited, expose a new dimension of this elusive artist's large and varied canon: an effort to soften the cerebral nature of the principal mid-century art movements. Through January 2, 2011, at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, 3750 Washington Boulevard; 314-535-4660 or www.contemporarystl .org. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 11 a.m.- 4 p.m. Sun.
Exposure 13 Concise and spare, this year's annual exhibition of notable local talent focuses on the work of Martin Brief, Joe Chesla and Asma Kazmi. Brief's pencil drawings trace the bare outlines of the entries on dictionary pages revealing empty shapes reminiscent of bar graphs or, perhaps floor plans. Joe Chesla's installation involves a gridwork of small plastic bags filled with water and affixed to a massive, transparent plastic sheet; the sheet is bound at its lower corners with rope, which peels the piece partially from the wall and toward the ceiling, revealing an underlayer of watery light. Asma Kazmi crafted several dozen clay pinch pots — or kashkol, hand-formed ceramic begging bowls — that rest on an unfinished pine table like a collection of autumn leaves or discarded half-shells. Taken together, the three artists amplify one another's interest in absence, resulting in a suite of frames for words, substances or currency that isn't there. Through December 4 at Gallery 210, TeleCommunity Center, University of Missouri-St. Louis, 1 University Boulevard (at Natural Bridge Road); 314-516-5976 or www .umsl.edu/~gallery. Gallery hours 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat.
James Rosen: The Artist and the Capable Observer With pieces selected from the artist's six-decade career, this exhibition of oil paintings and ink-on-paper sketches is a double homage: to the art-historical references Rosen draws from, and to the rarefied art of the figure. Focusing on liturgical masterworks of the Italian and Northern Renaissance (altarpieces by Giotto, Grunewald and Duccio, among others), Rosen paints diaphanous canvases that re-present the original compositions — literally — through the gauzy lens of memory. Rosen's modus operandi is a distinct one: He layers each canvas in nearly 60 "veils" of oil paint and wax, in successively less intense gradations of pigment, resulting in a ghostlike image of almost watery depth, where the more extreme hues surface and hint at the otherwise submerged imagery. The result is a work that straddles abstraction and realism: Given patient scrutiny, the nearly opaque gray surface reticently conveys a fully realized figural work. Several collections of works on paper accompany the paintings, illustrating Rosen's dedication to drawing as a means of homing in on his subjects. In their linear delicacy, these small studies may equal the impact of the completed works; here the dynamic of the paintings is reversed, as Rosen reveals himself to be a near supplicant to the faces, bodies, landscapes and shadowy details of the things he trains his eyes on. Through December 12 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.
Remembering Teddy An intimate reflection on an important friendship, this collection of photographs, needlepoint, cards and assorted other artifacts fondly exchanged and saved between two people is not merely a homage to Carla "Teddy" Trova, who died in 2008, but to the creative dimension of gift-giving. Assembled by local gallerist Jim Schmidt, the work included pays tribute to the wife of the late artist Ernest Trova, whom Schmidt befriended in the late 1960s, when he was employed as the sculptor's assistant. Teddy (as she was known as) taught Schmidt the art of needlepoint, along with, it seems, the other arts of living — cooking, greeting-card making and unconditional encouragement. What emerges is a portrait of two previously unsung talents: Teddy, it is clear, was a gifted collagist, deploying film stock from her casual practice as a photographer as a core material; and Schmidt reveals himself to be an inspired needlepoint maker whose work is both abstract and illustrative (enlarging panels of Buster Brown comics, which he collected). One of the most moving elements of the exhibit is a room dedicated to Schmidt's black-and-white photographs, which he developed, affixed to matte board and assembled in a box as a gift for Teddy. The imagery is largely composed of portraits of his former high school students (Schmidt, a native East St. Louisan, was an English teacher there for five years) and is accompanied by song lyrics by Bob Dylan, Jim Croce and other '60s-era singer-songwriters. The radiance of these portraits is almost shocking — the young people shine with a modest joy for life that can only be captured unself-consciously, by a friend or peer. Their fundamental artlessness encapsulates the tenor of this unique and moving exhibition of all that is impossible to commodify. Through January 8, 2011, at PSTL Gallery, 3842 Washington Boulevard; 314-531-4304 or www.paceframing.com. Hours: 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat.
Tiny Content Taking its title from the epigraph to Susan Sontag's pivotal essay "Against Interpretation," this small group show, sensitively curated by Bevin Early, explores art's capacity for earnestness and failure. Recent Washington University M.F.A. graduates John Early and Dan Solberg contribute works that mine the aesthetics of inconclusiveness. Early's Swivel Swing invites viewers to sit, take a pencil and draw a parenthetical arc around themselves on the gallery wall, describing their arms' reach. Solberg displays a series of failed faxes from a colleague, who was attempting to send him the text of a lecture by Michel Foucault. Half-eaten by digital noise, the pages are an apt analogue to the heading from beneath which they were extracted: poststructuralism. Peter Pranschke displays a suite of delicate sculptures wrought in used erasers, cut-up notebooks and the detritus of other "ordinary materials" used to correct or improve upon aspects of daily human well-being. The pieces are meaningfully laid out on a shiny white tabletop that resembles the blank expanse of a dry-erase board, suggesting a quixotic diagram or an abstract solution to an abstract problem. The collection of spare artworks seems to function as a mumbling chorus of stripped-down materials, most of them commonplace, estranged from their typical purpose and made elegant by their simplicity. Through December 5 at Snowflake, 3156 Cherokee Street or www.snowflakecitystock.com. Hours: noon-6 p.m.