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December 18, 1987|LEAH OLLMAN

Recent paintings from Norton Wisdom's "Pyramid" series, on display at the Nivada Gallery (428 Brookes Ave.), employ a uniform compositional format that could prove confining, if not for the knowledge that several artists have done much more with much less.

Wisdom varies the palette, scale and temperament from painting to painting, but in each a pyramidal form is seen as if from above or inside, its apex and four walls flattened to adhere to the two-dimensional constraints of the canvas.

Wisdom, who divides his time between Southern California and Germany, paints with a roughness that causes even the solid-toned shapes in his works to quiver with pent-up energy. Because of the constancy of the pyramidal structure, Wisdom's variations take on an air of obsessive urgency. He elongates, compresses and distorts the pyramid's components, subverting its reputed stability and geometric exactitude in favor of a more tenuous equilibrium.

In some of the paintings (all of which are untitled), five segments flatly painted in basic green, red, yellow, blue, black and white define the structure. In most, this simple definition of form serves as a foundation for Wisdom's aggressive scribblings and reiterations of the pyramid's skeletal framework.

These marks, applied in slaps, dashes and smears and occasionally squeezed directly from the tube, animate the canvases, which are thickly encrusted with paint. Not all of the works are equally satisfying, but as a group they have a certain cumulative magnetic effect. The compositional format repeatedly draws the eye into the core of each canvas, into the depths (or heights) of the semi-illusory pyramid structure, focusing one's vision and urging it to follow the artist's compulsive search.

The show continues through Dec. 27.

Laddie John Dill has been occupied with formal, material concerns for nearly two decades. His work has consistently engaged the senses of vision and touch through the creation of a compelling vocabulary of tones and textures.

In his newest work, on view at the Thomas Babeor Gallery (7470 Girard Ave., La Jolla) through Jan. 15, Dill uses his signature materials--glass and cement--together with wood, paper and acrylic polymer emulsion to establish dialogues between a heated, expressionist fervor and a cool, minimalist sense of removal.

Both the small, narrow paintings on paper and the more imposing wall pieces on wood displayed here rage internal wars between purgation and restraint. While some areas convey the grandeur of tumultuous earthly upheaval, with their thickly sculpted ridges of cement, tinged with burnt black or fiery lava red, adjacent sections feature delicate swirls of aqua pigment contained beneath cut panes of glass.

A two-panel work on wood in which Dill's process is partially exposed clarifies the dichotomies he evokes between free-form and geometric, spontaneous and controlled, in producing these images rich with texture and tension.

Two angular sheets of glass lie across the panels diagonally, imposing a minimalist geometric structure on the work, reinforced by a penciled grid visible on the wood foundation beneath the glass. Coexisting with, or perhaps overriding, this rigid angularity are fluid waves of black, gray and white pigment sandwiched between the wood and glass, and jagged crested waves of cement teeming against the piece's edges.

Here, as in much of Dill's work, the geometric and the seemingly organic converge with arresting beauty. Played out on the surface of each work is a modernist drama concerning the capacity of the painted surface to provoke, deceive or bear meaning, to threaten or seduce. Dill's achievement lies in his exploitation of all of these capacities simultaneously on the same lushly produced stage.

Scientific illustrators of this century and last are rescued from anonymity and given their artistic due in an exhibition at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography Aquarium-Museum (8602 La Jolla Shores Drive).

"Drawn from the Sea: Art in the Service of Ichthyology" presents a selection of renderings made to facilitate the scientific study of fish. The images, executed primarily in pen and ink or watercolor, display extraordinary technical finesse and, due to their subjects' natural splendor, are as beautiful as they are functional.

"Drawn from the Sea" was organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. It will remain on view through Jan. 3.

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