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November 06, 1987|Leah Ollman

SAN DIEGO — The Dietrich Jenny Gallery's (664 9th Ave.) inaugural show joins San Diego painter Steve Ilott with New York (formerly San Diego) sculptor Kenneth Johnston.

Ilott's paintings are variably sized and shaped, but all bear similarly distributed broad black brush strokes on solid brown or gray grounds. If taken seriously as expressive abstract paintings, these could easily be dismissed as poor cousins to the work of Franz Kline. But the artist seems to want them read as critiques of such paintings, declarations that painting itself is inadequate to express meaning and emotion.

Ilott clues us in to his intent through the use of titles that parody the presumed expressive potential of painting. The exaggerated poeticism of titles such as "The Edge of Reality," "Hope Sees the Invisible" and "If the Dead Forgive" could actually have meaning if joined with imagery of any substance. But Ilott's paintings purposely lack substance. Like Allan McCollum's generic "Surrogate" paintings, they feel random and mass-produced. Cumulatively, they have a deadening uniformity. This visual monotony and the excessively florid titles together make a clever team, but any conceptual premise, when carried to a tiresome extreme, can argue its own defeat.

Johnston, though also concerned with the art-making process, does not share Ilott's cynical "painting is dead" attitude. His work is guided more by wit than pessimism and is thus much more engaging as well as enduring. Using two of the most unassuming materials--cardboard and masking tape--Johnston constructs columns and pedestals supporting simple stacked shapes and kachina doll figures.

The process yields several evocative disjunctions. Setting the constructed forms on pedestals announces their importance, while the casual nature of their materials undermines it. Rendering the classical columnar bases, emblems of civilization's permanence, in such common, cheap materials furthers the contradiction. And the inclusion of kachina forms extends the contrast between quotidian materials and spiritual, ritual imagery. These dichotomies result in a visual richness that again belies the simplicity of materials.

The show continues through Nov. 24.

Joanne Julian's drawings and paintings make schizophrenic leaps among decorative simplicity, enigmatic elegance and tacky garishness.

The Los Angeles artist's work, on view at the Thomas Babeor Gallery (7470 Girard Ave.) through Nov. 21, has shed its evocative, Japanese-derived imagery for a somewhat tired array of floral subjects. Her drawings, in colored pencil on paper, add no new vision of these subjects, though those of large scale have some graphic power.

Julian's unusual painting technique rescues some of the painted works from the oblivion of the banal. Like her monoprint practice of finger-painting forms into a layer of black ink, her painting method involves both adding and subtracting layers of paint. The paintings appear to have a ground layer of greens or reds beneath a viscous coat of black, which Julian then wipes away selectively to reveal the stems, leaves and blossoms of exotic flora.

At their worst, these images resemble tacky black velvet paintings, dominated by artificially vivid hues. At their best, however, they evoke a rich atmosphere, within which the plants sway as if against slow, persistent waves or a nocturnal wind.

In "Calla Diptych," Julian finally applies her imagination to composition as well as technique, creating a mirror image of gently arching calla stems. Here, the underpainting of deep, burnt red soaks through the slick black surface, emitting a fiery glow. The grace and subtlety of both the composition and the palette, however, are not equalled in any other image shown.

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