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October 16, 1987|Leah Ollman

SAN DIEGO — Reesey Shaw makes an impressive debut as curator at the Felicita Foundation Gallery (247 S. Kalmia, Escondido) with the show "The Current Landscape." In this consistently engaging selection of work, 17 artists match the physical landscape's potential to be challenging, mystifying, soothing and exciting.

The group aligns itself along two poles, one a conceptual, intellectual approach, the other a blend of the spiritual and the sensual. Constance Mallinson's "Plagiarism" (1983), an example of the first mode, frames a generic tropical seascape as if a photographic slide, with notations about the work's title, artist, date and dimensions. The packaging of the representation here becomes indistinguishable from the representation itself.

Christopher Pelley, William Leavitt and Sabina Ott likewise paint landscapes as much for the mind as for the senses. But the show's most seductive and enduring work belongs to artists who have rejuvenated the passionate, soulful aspects of painting.

Victoria Faust's large still-life, "The Secret Sharer" (1985), abounds in emotionally charged atmosphere. The painting's subjects are simple yet enigmatic--an ovoid stone and a curved gray object resting on a bed of straw. Faust's delicate rendering and dramatic use of light invest the objects with mystical presence, giving the scene a quiet power.

Paintings by Bruce Everett, Gillian Theobald and Suzanne Caporael all possess psychological and philosophical dimensions beyond their formal elegance, which, in itself, is stunning. The show continues through Oct. 31.

For at least the last five years, Janet Cooling has made paintings of women--women and animals, trains, burning candles, stacks of coins, rearing horses and more. Cooling's evolving style within this relatively constant format can be traced in her current show, "Brave New World," at Palomar College's Boehm Gallery (1140 W. Mission Road, San Marcos) through Oct. 29.

In 1982, Cooling's static, frontal portraits of women surrounded by celestial imagery were deliberately flat and simplistic. By 1986, she had adopted a sophisticated slickness, rendering women with the glamour and exaggerated vividness of magazine advertisements. The paintings became more complex spatially and iconographically as the portraits were densely overlaid with disjunctive forms.

In one untitled image, a young woman with a penetrating stare has a Buddha's head montaged upon her forehead, a rearing horse at her temple and a rushing locomotive across her shoulders. Though the crowded space forces connections between the disparate elements, their cumulative messages and meanings remain elusive. The jumbled references to popular imagery recall the paintings of James Rosenquist, and share some of their ambiguity, their simultaneous celebration and condemnation of material culture.

This year, Cooling, an assistant professor of art at San Diego State University, has opened up the space in her paintings and brought her figures back to nature. Some, seen from the back, luxuriate in a rich sunset and surrounding butterflies. Others, paired with birds or tigers, are portraits of blank pensiveness.

The faces in these paintings are symphonies of green, peach, yellow and blue brush strokes. This is lush painting, painting to sink one's teeth into. But the immense appeal of these surfaces is often diminished by the sappy sentimentality of much of the imagery. Cooling's glorified vision of woman's one-ness with nature divests the relationship between animal and human of any force or vibration. Both species simply coexist in a setting so harmonious, so Edenic and free of worldly tensions as to produce an unsettling blandness.

At Installation (930 E St.) through Oct. 30, seven artists are assembled under the rubric "Edict and Episode: Image as Meaning."

The show's title is meant to focus attention on the artists' scrutiny of the strategies and effects of media imagery. While all of the artists use the media's own weapons--photographic images and text--to construct their work, only two of the seven successfully convey a critical stance, a conviction that such imagery is questionable despite its veracious appearance.

Jeanne Finley's video/slide installation, "Common Mistakes," demonstrates with great impact how major social problems are downplayed by their description in the media as errors, accidents or blunders. Finley defines these terms first in a domestic context. Accident, for instance, is visualized as a young boy throwing gasoline, instead of water, on a fire. Examples of global-scaled incidents follow these clips. The child's accidental fire is paralleled by the Three Mile Island disaster; a blunder describes both a trivial, social faux pas and a 1985 statement by Reagan that segregation had ended in South Africa.

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