Michael Hoffman Exploring little more than the lush properties of oil paint and color, this collection of recent abstract paintings by local painter Hoffman reaffirms the more fundamental joys of the beautiful. Taking cues from the natural landscape — particularly the Northern Pacific coastline near Seattle — these medium-scale works vacillate between intimate immediacy and cool, patterned abstraction. Each in a series of canvases utilizes vertical stripes as its primary mark, overlaying in dense proximity thin swaths of what resemble mid-century furniture hues: gray blues, moss greens, cadmium reds and white. Another series takes the striated lines of more familiarly wild, abstract-expressionist drips and tangles them in concentric knots, resembling the most precise tumbleweed or, conversely, a loose map of whirling atoms. Interspersed are watery landscapes that give a firmer sense of place. These works, which establish a horizon line and hints of landmasses amid an oceanscape, have the vitreous quality of manipulated Polaroids whose chemical properties have been jostled before properly setting, removing the captured scene from the grasp of quick apprehension. Through July 9 at Hoffman LaChance Contemporary, 2713 Sutton Boulevard, Maplewood; 314-960-5322 or www.hoffmanlachancefineart.com. Hours: noon-5 Fri.-Sat. and by appointment.
What's the Use? This affecting two-person show by local artist Wonder Koch and New York-based Eliza Newman-Saul presents an elegant ode to life's inanity in the manner of High Romantic humanism at its concise and philosophical best. Newman-Saul contributes a series of large-scale pencil drawings of massive sinking ships. From a distance they appear like old black-and-white photographs, but upon closer inspection they reveal a peculiar, wavering hand that almost colors in the image's tonal gradients and allows all incidental handprints to remain, like marks of humility or deep resignation to the inaccessibility of any manner of success. Accompanying these works is a lilting video of a man scouring the Coney Island beachfront with a metal detector. His quest, too, appears wholly quixotic, inviting the viewer to see more merit in the odd beauty of his movements and the video's haunting, bell-like score. Koch's pieces act as the straight men to her co-artist's more languorous proposals. Handcrafting a series of flags, she creates a world of awkwardly proclaimed defeat — a profusion of tiny red flags bursting from a white gallery wall, their small poles made of twigs, their pennants made of deflated balloons, tufts of felt and sections of red labels scavenged from streets. In a rear, cordoned-off area of the gallery dangles a white flag made from the white stripes of American flags, stitched with the words "you win" in yellow fabric. In the gallery window hangs a medieval-style flag in black with red letters that read "It's Too Late." Not all is deadly serious, here, but nor is it all crass sarcasm. Both artists seem to celebrate something historical about the world's long, sad story — reaching back to the patient media of pencil and needle while starkly confronting, with sober if winking clarity, the horrific spectacle of failure, observable from nearly any angle. Through August 1 at Snowflake, 3156 Cherokee Street; www.snowflakestl.com. Hours: by appointment only.Ongoing
Analogue Inverting the equation wherein mass-produced items are considered the antithesis of all things unique and handmade, this succinct group exhibit draws together a collection of artisan-crafted big-box items made by five contemporary artists. St. Louis-based Ryan Thayer's my building has every convenience fills three shopping carts with outsize hollow drywall forms. The tricolor lineup makes the familiar seem strange, the tall white inserts heightening the carts' bright colors, polished steel and elegant geometry. Caleb Larsen's One Person, Three Days — Survival Kit lays out the products suggested for inclusion in FEMA survival kits. Arranged on the gallery floor in descending size, the boxes, bottles and cans begin to express the bold formalism of their design, shape and palette, transforming items that were chosen for their critical usefulness into useless aesthetic objects. Juxtaposed behind them on the gallery wall are two vacuum-formed plastic molds of concrete sidewalk slabs by Ethan Greenbaum. The flattened and dirt-flecked hangings comprise an apt foil to the streamlined products otherwise on view, suggesting in their rough-hewn utilitarianism a rawer brand of abstraction. Helmut Smits fills a Coca-Cola bottle with 0.26 gallons of oil, which appears nearly indistinguishable from the soda. Conversely, Zoe Sheehan Saldana performs the most painstaking illusion in three items selected from her "Ersatz" series. Her lifejacket, for instance, crafted by hand to industry standards, elevates the notion of "machine-made" to a level of life or death, versus the lovely but functionally superfluous art object. Also showing: Terra Firma, an elegant site-specific installation by St. Louis-based artist John Early that points a pinewood bike ramp toward a skylight while the sounds of the Voyager space probe fill the space — suggesting the extremes of human limits and potential. Through July 22 at the Luminary Center for the Arts, 4900 Reber Place; 314-807-5984 or www.theluminaryarts.com. Hours: noon-6 p.m. Wed.-Sat.
Cosima von Bonin: Character Appropriation A giant stuffed chick, slumped and vomiting on itself while straddling an enormous rocket; a large stuffed lobster, its heavy claws flopped over what appears to be the base of a chic, modern table; two tires trapped in a custom, wall-hanging white cage: Scale is everything — a means to the humorous and pathetic alike — for German conceptual artist Cosima von Bonin. In this mini-survey of work from the past ten years, certain material themes re-emerge — fabric, most significantly, and music-related electronics — as well as situational ones — the flaccid, the frayed, the privately composed. In von Bonin's world everyone has a theme song, often of a looped and electronic variety, optimally heard through large headphones. Sound works by her collaborator, electronic music producer Moritz von Oswald, accompany nearly every piece. Dense with stuff, the exhibit takes on a new dimension: With its mildly bubbly, mildly hypnotic score, it begins to feel like a high-end boutique, artfully staged and filled with desirable objects. Here's where von Bonin excels: "appropriating" the motifs that are so common to our everyday experience that they're no longer recognizable, and reconfiguring them in odd, endearing and darkly comic ways. And how tired it leaves us — like that big chick, sick and hanging its head. Through August 1 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.).
Cryptic: The Use of Allegory in Contemporary Art with a Master Class from Goya Taking the late surreally satiric prints by Francisco Goya as a point of departure, guest curator Laura Steward presents six contemporary artists as inheritors of the historic trope of the use of allegory. A tone of febrile foreboding is set from the get-go: At the entrance to the exhibition is a life-size, wild-eyed ape by Folkert de Jong, carved out of foam-core, dripped in oil-black paint and grinning widely, with a sidekick of sorts clinging to his back. In the next gallery, these same apes dance in an enormous ring, their elusive Cheshire gazes mirrored in two paintings by Allison Schulnik, "portraits" of demurely poised apes similarly slathered in inky and skin-like reticulating paint layers. Selections from Goya's "Los Caprichos" and "Los Disparates" frame these works in a tradition of dark satire: the ape appearing again, for instance, in an etching where he's painting the portrait of an ass. In the adjacent gallery, Erika Wanenmacher's truly horrifying human figures — one made of crudely stitched-together coyote coats, another pierced through with glass eyes — propose yet another fatalistic comment on the state of man. Their harrowing presences draw out the darker dimensions of Dana Schutz's oddly comic work — lush paintings of figures devouring or subjecting themselves to assorted forms of self-debasement. Bookending the exhibit are two films: one by Hiraki Sawa featuring a dreamlike interior haunted by the shadows of miniature carnival animals; and one by Javier Tellez in which the ancient allegory of six blind men describing an elephant is reinterpreted in contemporary New York. This closing work by Tellez holds the most optimism: The six New Yorkers approach the enormous animal with an affirming curiosity regarding the unknown — perhaps the most benevolent of human capacities: that of wonder. Through August 14 at 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.
Currents 105: Ian Monroe Washington University alum Ian Monroe returns as this year's Freund Fellow, exhibiting a new body of work inspired by Minoru Yamasaki's original 1956 design for Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. Using sheets of aluminum, upon which pristinely cut pieces of colored vinyl are applied, these austere, painterly collages depict a nearly obsolete culture of flight populated by immaculate fountains, phone banks, lounges and business-attired travelers. Scenes of the architect and his design team at work, pens in hand and sleeves rolled up, appear as abstract reductions of original archival photographs. Monroe's slick renditions heighten the original utopian ambitions for the terminal. While perhaps it's difficult to recall amid an era of groping security checks and dim anxiety, traveling by air was once a crowning progressive achievement. Monroe's works are rife with nostalgia for this older era's Modernist faith in technology, his attentive craftsmanship and bold, midcentury palette drawing out the timelessness of its design. The exhibit — which includes a large-scale sculptural installation — exudes a material presence that complements the stuff of the airport accoutrements depicted, aligning itself in tactile spirit with this pre-digital culture of architecture and design. Through July 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.)
Dreamscapes This exhibit subtly trains the viewer to navigate the Pulitzer's inimitable space as though it were an exquisite dream recalled. De Chirico's Transformed Dream sets the stage: a train in the painting's high horizon line directing one to unforeseeable locales. Nearby sits a piece by Janet Cardiff: a black rotary phone you pick up to hear the voice of the artist relaying her dreams. A golden, recumbent Brancusi head rests on a plinth, while at the gallery's far end, Magritte's Invisible World hints at a watery vista beyond its French doors and the imposing gray stone that blocks them. Here is where you reach the hinge in this surreal sonnet: Arriving at the Pulitzer's water court, you see Magritte's stone in solid form: Scott Burton's Rock Settee, which overlooks the narrow, placid reflecting pool and a swath of city beyond. Only now do you pause to consider the multitude of portentous cues inhabiting the masterworks curator Francesca Herndon-Consagra has assembled, transforming the museum into a dreamlike tableau vivant. Highlights include Do Ho Suh's diaphanous fabric staircase to nowhere, two late, dark paintings by Philip Guston, an early suite of Max Klinger's "Glove" etchings and the nebulous Wolfgang Tillmans forestscape that marks the dream's end. (A series of programs exploring the exhibition's theme will unfold through the spring and summer, on Saturdays at 1 p.m.) Through August 13 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.-5 p.m. Sat.
Georges Rouault: Miserere et Guerre This suite of 58 etchings by the anomalous French-Catholic artist George Rouault was created between 1914 and 1927, while the artist witnessed the ravages of World War I. They're once again on view, testing the durability of their impact and their consideration as the masterwork of their maker. Formerly a stained-glass artisan, Rouault employs a heavy black outline that, when liberated from metal and glass, wavers with crude sincerity and expressive imprecision. The figures in this series — often depicted in intimate or solitary groups against depthless backdrops — are saturated in deep, sooty tones of a sort that only printmaking can create. A liturgical sensibility suffuses the pieces, beyond outright biblical allusions; all subjects appear frozen in mute pantomime of every heavier variety of suffering, their bodies arced in symbolic gestures of penance or endurance of man's plight. While Rouault never fit comfortably in any of the codified artistic movements of his time, it's clear that his influence was felt among German Expressionists — Max Beckmann particularly. That said, Rouault is utterly his own — creating a strange, wrought world of Christ figures, carnival clowns, kings and weary skeletons cloaked in every black shade. Through July 31 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.
Larry Fink: Attraction and Desire — 50 Years in Photography This generous survey of the notable Brooklyn-born artist reaffirms the durable pleasures of black-and-white figural photography. A nimble chronicler of society's more extreme coteries, Fink moved among New York beatniks, Vegas gamblers, mid-century jazz musicians, the young Mike Tyson and other boxing strivers, rural Pennsylvanians and the lacquered elite of fashion, art and Hollywood. His preference for Caravaggio-esque high contrast dramatizes what is essentially an obsession with fugitive detail: the long, alabaster, manicured hands of a man clutching the back of a black-dressed blonde; a silver radiator in an angled swath of daylight; the heavy-lidded eyes of a lone woman in a crowd at the Cedar Bar; drops of rain on the black sedan bearing Coretta Scott King to the 1968 Poor People's Campaign. It would be easy to marvel at the fabled personalities and events chronicled here, but Fink's most anonymous subjects serve as the firmest testament to his peculiar eye — a complex gaze that is at once empathetic, excoriating and salacious. Intimate and disarmingly wearied self-portraits of himself, his wife, his child and dogs reframe a narrative that might otherwise tip completely into an obsession with cultural novelty. In the end, the show functions much like that other beleaguered medium — the novel — telling stories about living, loving and other less conclusive failures. Through August 20 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.
partly cloudy with a chance of scattered showers In a series of candy-colored, tapestry-esque digital photographs titled "One Ordinary Day of an Ordinary Town," Mimi Kato portrays a world of petty daily rivalries, casual voyeurism and glossy brand-name consumerism, with herself as the sole actor. Wearing costumes as wildly varied as truant schoolgirl, meddling old neighbor and eerily ferocious giant rabbit, Kato enacts scenarios that draw upon traditional narratives of her native Japan as well as the stockpile of unfortunately universal pessimistic truisms about human behavior. In this pastel-hued, cookie-cutter town, nothing is safe from either minor calamity or corporate branding, be it laundry, the assessment of fresh produce at the market or an afternoon ice-cream break. As the sun rises and sets in this series, another suite of four images depicts the passing seasons, their imagery more spare and, as a result, more surreal. Spring brings cherry blossoms and bizarre drunken picnics; summer seems to lure hooded thieves and the urge to compare fresh cuts of red meat. Gifted with a seemingly limitless ability to assume every age, gender and small-animal species, Kato imbues this otherwise impossibly absurd world with enough shades of truth to keep it both freshly strange and unexpectedly trenchant. Through July 22 at Good Citizen Gallery, 2247 Gravois Avenue; 314-348-4587 or www.goodcitizenstl.com. Hours: noon-5 p.m. Fri.-Sat. and by appointment.