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THE ART GALLERIES

Santa Monica

January 09, 1987|SUZANNE MUCHNIC

A printed statement by Larry Gray says that his paintings and works on paper depict the burning of Southern towns during the Civil War, but all the action is in the skies. Great billowing poofs of color fill vast spaces above mere slivers of ground in his atmospheric landscapes. Though his words suggest a social agenda--or at least an allegorical one connecting his contempory work with history--Gray's art simply revels in the romance of seductive color and space.

Working in dry pigment and pastel on paper or oil on canvas, he revives the concept of the sublime by inventing a fabulous array of celestial drama. His most obvious predecessor is J. M. W. Turner, but he also owes a debt to Claude Lorraine and to 19th-Century romantics.

While Gray has tried to give his work contemporary relevance--showing the lure of fire and the distance between actual danger and spiritual awakening--his preoccupation with beauty belies this deeper purpose.

Hardly anyone can paint a prettier, more soul-stirring sky than Gray, but he has long since locked himself into an anachronistic formula. Though his recent works appear quite varied, about half of them gather theatrical force as they float from a bit of blue sky to soft whites and on into shining golds and deep violets. It would be a thrilling performance if it weren't so predictable. (Karl Bornstein Gallery, 1662 12th St., to Feb. 6.)

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