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ART REVIEWS : Moodiness Gives In to Romanticism

January 27, 1994|SUSAN KANDEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the vestibule, a golden chandelier swings back and forth, round and round. It seems to be driven by a ghostly spirit, but it's actually an invisible motor.

Beyond the black curtains, a darkened room is filled with a sepulchral hum. It isn't a funeral dirge, but Jackie Gleason's best-loved trombone classics played on a Zenith console at half-speed.

Words that speak breathlessly of heart-heaving tumult appear on the surface of a reflecting pool. The disembodied voice of the poetic muse? No, merely a video projection.

For Lewis DeSoto, melancholia is euphoric, dizziness is exquisitely satisfying and darkness is merely a prelude to revelation--divine and otherwise. "Falling," his new installation at Christopher Grimes Gallery, is a textbook example of 11th-hour romanticism--obviously, DeSoto's thing.

It is, however, rather late in the game to enshrine moodiness as aesthetic doctrine. Luckily, DeSoto takes his lugubrious temperament with a modicum of humor--thus, the Jackie Gleason bit.

DeSoto could, however, stand to display a bit more--or a bit less--self-indulgence. Watching someone luxuriate in disaster can be unnecessarily wearying. Worse yet, it can translate into the kind of pretentiousness that marred another, recent example of retrograde romanticism: Krzystof Kieslowski's film "Blue."

Like Kieslowski, DeSoto is enamored of metaphors. For both, the color blue is particularly powerful insofar as it refers to ascension, as well as despair. But how long--and how successfully--can metaphors alone can sustain a work of art? They glide gracefully along the surface, but in the end, we all look for depth. DeSoto is a promising artist who needs to beware sacrificing substance for a deliciously decadent finish, which comes perhaps too easily to him.

* Christopher Grimes Gallery, 916 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 587-3373, through Feb. 12. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Tension From a Moralist: The dramatic tension in F. Scott Hess' new paintings at Ovsey Gallery comes less from the narratives depicted than from the artist's peculiar style.

Hess has achieved a reputation for rendering flesh as if it were flayed, with every tendon, ligament and muscle visible; for colors as lurid as any the Pre-Raphaelites attempted; and for perspectives so skewed and awkward they emblematize the nature of the scenes he favors: pool parties gone haywire, hysteria at Disneyland, the everyday dysfunctions of the American family.

This style continues to characterize the seven paintings Hess executed during a recent sojourn in Iran, though the colors have softened, as has the cynicism. As an observer from afar, Hess sees fit to rein in his sarcasm.

Yet he remains a moralist. His moralism is reflected less in the tales told than in a visual scrutiny so intense it's unforgiving. These paintings are obsessively observed.

A group of wrinkled, blemished men is gathered around a table, sipping cups of tea. Above their heads are portraits of two, bearded mullahs whose stern gazes mimic Hess' own.

Another painting features a bird's-eye view of a vast construction site, with every crane and piece of wood etched with crystalline clarity. Men work in the foreground; women pass by in the background.

These are scenes where nothing out of the ordinary takes place. They are interesting insofar as Hess assiduously resists turning representational painting into an occasion for cultural voyeurism. He doesn't want us to stare, so he strips the content bare.

The problem is that we stare anyway. The paintings are out of balance, his restraint in the face of "the exotic" at odds with an unrepentantly mannered technique. For all of Hess' attempts to ground his work in a historical time and place, these painterly exercises are seductive but misleading.

* Ovsey Gallery, 170 S. La Brea Ave., (213) 935-1883, through Feb. 26. Closed Sundays and Mondays. *

A Cyclical Character: When one thinks about painting cycles, Rubens' frothy glorification of the career of Marie de' Medici springs to mind; or Giotto's Arena Chapel frescoes, which document the trials and triumphs of Christ.

Suzanne Hardwick's cycle of paintings, "The Forest of Shame," probably shouldn't be thought of in the same breath. These large works at Robert Berman Gallery chronicle the criminal history, violent apotheosis and final redemption of "Woodie, the Log Dog," a considerably less savory character.

Woodie is, in fact, a rapist, something to which we are alerted in a painting called "Woodie Train in the Forest of Kodak Moments." The cartoon-like creature, rendered in leering, inter-linked multiples, like the cars of a freight train, barrels across the surface of the image, snaking between pairs of ripped panties, cracked eggs and popping flashbulbs. In the background is a white silhouette of a paper doll, a ghostly incarnation of Woodie's innocent victim.

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