Sometimes art is uncriticizable even by a critic. This month at Pulliam Deffenbaugh, Baba Wagué Diakité offers folk-art ceramic sculptures that depict animals and spirit icongraphy from his native Mali. At the First Thursday opening, the artist held court with great charm, dressed in traditional robes and headdress. The vibes were warm, the ambiance genial, but the work was about as interesting as tepid bathwater. If I said you could buy better art at one-twentieth the price from any random street artist on Northeast Alberta—if I suggested that this work is monumentally boring, that folk art in general is more interesting to future archaeologists than present-day art collectors—would I become one of those culturally insensitive WASP imperialists, dismissing not only the present show, but also, by implication, the folkloric traditions of the Malian people themselves? Is this show effectively impossible to criticize? Well, no. But these tough, healthy questions highlight the gray area between art as aesthetic thesis and art as cultural document.

929 NW Flanders St., 228-6665. Closes Dec. 2.

A similar quandary is posed by Launch Pad's thought-provoking group show, Shrines, Altars, and Reliquaries, in which 13 artists play theme-and-variations on the Day of the Dead. The show's most moving piece is Ca-leb Shelley Lambides' Installation from the Museum of Sacred Subjects & Objects, an altar to the artist's brother Colin, who died last year at 29. Colin's ashes and a lock of his hair are inside a wooden box within the altar, balanced atop an empty hourglass. On a table sits a bottle of his favorite spirit, Grand Marnier, which viewers are invited to sip in his honor. Prominently displayed is a travel snapshot in which Colin crouches, brown-eyed and beatific, on the shores of the Ganges. If I observed that, formally speaking, this altar is an iconographic retread that breaks no new aesthetic ground whatsoever, would I be insulting the memory of the artist's brother? Well, no. But there is a point at which art rises above the critiquable into the inexpressible, and Lambides' installation has identified that point precisely. I was deeply moved by the altar, as were dozens of others on opening night who crowded around the picture of Colin with his brown hair and brown eyes, Colin soulful and beautiful and dead of causes unknown to me. Like music and dance, visual art is often strongest when it bypasses critical analysis and expresses what words cannot.

534 SE Oak St., (971) 227-0072. Closes Nov. 28.