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THE ART GALLERIES

April 19, 1985|WILLIAM WILSON

Jim Lawrence relentlessly carves figures and a niche for himself among California's most likable and least aggressive '80s-style artists. In his work he plays the role of a folky with a vast appreciation of high culture. One year he hews an homage to opera, the next Japanese drama. At present it is his new "Writers Series."

Eight wonderful tableaux depict Lawrence's favorite authors from Sylvia Plath to William Carlos Williams. As usual, wooden figures look as if they were sculpted with a Boy Scout ax and painted by the tail of a scalded cat. Their basic source is in megalithic grave posts erected to honor and placate ancestral spirits, making them perfect for the art of reverent reference, an effect heightened by their evocation of the sincerity of a bucolic self-taught sculptor.

The work wavers slightly toward New Yorker cover cuteness or the smug urbanity of an Alex Katz but never succumbs to either temptation.

If there is a tangible problem here, it is a perceptual and relational fissure between the figures and their painted landscape backgrounds. Try as he will to integrate dimensional and flat parts, Lawrence faces an uneasy disjunction that boils down simply to a problem of where to put the carvings. In front? Off to the side?

That notwithstanding, the art combines visual integrity with accurate aura. Insight ranges from the complex relationship of Thomas Mann to the fictional hero of "Death in Venice" to Malcomb Lawry's personal vulnerability and his flinty determination to finish "Under the Volcano."

Figures transform the rapt expressions and awkward poses of folk art into the endearing self-conscious humor of authors posing for photographs. Williams standing before the tomb of Walt Whitman is especially affecting. The Victorian postures of Lewis Carroll and Henry Liddel are particularly poignant and funny as they pose before a painting of virginal girls in white.

Jim Lawrence is one of those rare artists who inspires the simple hope that he will go on doing his gentle, forthright thing indefinitely. (Cirrus Gallery, 542 S. Alamenda St., to June 8.)

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