Artists expend so much energy on putting dissimilar things together these days that it's almost a shock to encounter a painting conceived as a harmonious unity. In that sense, Katie Phillips provides no surprises. She has long since joined the troops who pose metaphysical questions about the absurdity of life by juxtaposing such images as human likenesses and primary geometric shapes.
Within the large body of work currently on view, Phillips plies her trade most comfortably when using a limited, neutral palette and a construction-worker's aesthetic. While her small boxes are indebted to Joseph Cornell, the clarity of their visual poetry rings true. Wall pieces that contrast large figure drawings with sculptural forms or simple paintings of, say, targets or Spartan still lifes don't reveal themselves very effectively and often indulge in virtuosity for its own sake, but they are attractive objects.
When Phillips pushes into more traditional painting, however, she seems to be overcome by baroque fervor. Orchestrating stripes, furling swaths of bright pattern and human profiles on abutted canvases, she proves herself a deft designer who wants it all but can't quite manage it. She clings to the figure and vestiges of nature while moving toward abstraction. Meanwhile, the content that once seemed dear--if not clear--gets lost in a flamboyant struggle. (Simard & Halm gallery, 665 N. La Cienega Blvd., to March 19.)