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THE ART GALLERIES

La Cienega Area

September 25, 1987|SUZANNE MUCHNIC

A wonderfully resonant exhibition of paintings, drawings and watercolors by the late Alice Neel is, at worst, a distressing testimony to how underrated her work has been. It's hard to fathom why examples as good as the best of these have not been snapped up by private collectors and museums. At best, the show affords a second look at an expressionistic portraitist who introduced herself to Los Angeles four years ago.

At 83, she was a quintessentially sweet-faced grandmother who astonished people with her unvarnished remarks and uncompromising portraits, then shown at Loyola Marymount University. Now, three years after her death, a different selection of work includes a couple of landscapes and stretches across 52 years (1926-1978). Small drawings from Neel's early years quaver but pulse with the same awareness of human frailty and what she called the Zeitgeist that would distinguish her oeuvre. Painting a crazed Joe Gould with three sets of genitals, she didn't flinch. A nude Ethel Ashton looks like a pile of overripe fruit, while Michael Rothschild, a little boy in a blue-and-white outfit, seems normally vulnerable. A portrait of a fellow called Moose segues to Neel's soft side as she almost allows him a smile. More typical are hollow-eyed faces that seem to belong to the depressed, deserted or shell-shocked.

In "The Family," a prime example of her late (1970) work, Neel gives us a girl who is all legs and nervous fingers, a horse-faced woman in a too-short skirt and a man whose feet seem to wander out of the picture. No wonder her subjects wanted out. As she skewered their imperfect bodies and apprehensive souls, she portrayed a pervasive desperation. At the same time, she established herself as an artist not to be left out of the annals of portraiture and expressionism. (Jan Turner Gallery, 8000 Melrose Ave., to Oct. 31.)

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