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THE ART GALLERIES

Santa Monica

April 24, 1987|WILLIAM WILSON

Like Rodney Dangerfield, Hassel Smith is well known for his inability to get respect. Smith helped forge Abstract Expressionism in California in the '50s. He has long since taken up residence in Cornwall, but people around here still think of him as a local hero, all the more valued for being undervalued. After all, to scorn fame in favor of personal integrity was a key ingredient in the Beatnik mentality.

Now 10 large paintings circa 1958-63 weight the evidence in favor of his champions. The work carries an aura of authenticity that is largely missing from present art.

Hassel Smith is not a highly original artist in formal terms, but he is in personal ones. The work's hallmark is a combination of irreverence and languor that is like the mood of ditching work to spend an afternoon drinking cheap Champagne, making love and talking inspired nonsense.

You get visual quips like "Mousehole Cornwall" that is almost too flippant to be more than a drawing. Then you get "Buffalo Dance," a rapt rap involving primitive cave painting, cool jazz and naughty jokes about testicles. It's like one of those breathtakingly inventive solos that used to spurt forth in the old jam sessions.

Smith never attains the heroic scale of, say, Clyfford Still, but he never sloshes into his ponderousness either. It's not that Smith can't work up a drama. In "Hommage to Bob Scobie," there is a border clash in a face-down between orange and yellow, but before it gets nasty Smith has the opposing forces fall away laughing. Hey, fighting is absurd, man.

This art is never representational, but there is imagery in its spirit. An untitled work from 1962 can only be correctly described as a few large dark biomorphs and glyphs on a light, slightly atmospheric ground. But if you can walk away from it without glimpsing a zaftig black odalisque, a grappling hook and a raven all being consumed in sunlight, you've probably missed the feeling. (BlumHelman, 916 Colorado Ave., to May 23.)

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