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Review: Sheldon galleries go together well

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 5, 2009 - It's always astonishing how consistently good the art exhibitions at the Sheldon are. The six separate art galleries may feel and look like an annexed afterthought of the concert hall, but the exhibitions that occupy them are always first-rate.

Quite often they even feel nicely coordinated with one another, as is the case with three of the current exhibitions, "The Language of Objects: New Works by Jane Birdsall-Lander and Jo Stealey," "William Christenberry: Southern Artifacts," and "Jessica Miekeley: American Framing."

Birdsall-Lander combines found objects bound with waxed linen thread in a series of primal alphabet forms, while Stealey uses mulberry pulp to cast trees, rocks and totems, transforming the Bellwether Gallery into a kind of primeval forest. The works of both St. Louis artists feel as if they are drawing on an ur-language of visual signification.

In this, there are fascinating connections to the photographs of William Christenberry, whose images of buildings in Hale County, Ala., read like a semiotics of Southern vernacular architecture.

Christenberry was clearly influenced by Walker Evans, who himself had a penchant for photographing signs and language inscribed on buildings. But Christenberry has managed distinguish his own style, capturing the peculiar symbols of that built environment.

The arrangement of his photographs, which date from the 1960s onward, establishes a visual syntax that nods to Birdsall-Landers' abstract alphabet and Stealey's poetic forest.

Downstairs in the Nancy Spirtas Kranzberg Gallery, photographs by Berlin-based artist Jessica Miekeley establish their own brand of mysterious semiotics. Selections from her series "American Framing," "Jacket" and "Ground" capture curiously mute moments -- jackets on chairs, anonymous figures against dark, indeterminate landscapes -- that nonetheless read like symbols and seem to contain oblique messages.

Ivy Cooper is a professor of art at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.