For his first solo show, Carlos Mollura has placed a giant vinyl balloon in the back gallery at Food House. Filled with air, the clear plastic bubble presses tightly against the walls and floor, bulges out of the single entrance, and swells around the rafters above, completely filling the rectangular space. Made from almost nothing but air, Mollura's installation is funny and intelligent.
Initially, it seems to be a one-liner, merely repackaging the well-lighted, white-walled gallery as a commodity to be consumed. But the Argentina-born, L.A.-based artist's clever piece is much more than an art-school rehash of 1970s Conceptualism, or another watered down, institutional critique spawned by that style.
Looking at, pushing into and leaning against his bulbous bubble is strangely satisfying. The resilient balloon physically demonstrates art's vulnerable place in a culture generally hostile to its pleasures.
A pin-prick of violence would easily deflate it. Yet, giving Mollura's blow-up sculpture a little space quickly initiates a rewarding exchange.
By preventing viewers from entering the gallery, his piece insists that art is necessarily exclusive--that its capacity to bring viewers together is meaningless if we don't also acknowledge art's power to tear people apart, to divide us into antagonistic groups. Medical quarantines and political segregation are also evoked by Mollura's fragile bag of air.
The most conservative sort of formalism, which insists upon art's hermetic autonomy, merges with social issues in his work. The young artist's empty yet loaded installation is at once aesthetically resolved and promising. It marks an auspicious debut.
* \o7 Food House, 2220 Colorado Blvd., Bldg. 4, Santa Monica, (310) 449-1030, through July 23. Closed Sundays through Tuesdays.\f7
* World View: Sebastiao Salgado's majestic photographs of anonymous men and women from around the world depict people either as cogs in some vast, alienating machinery or as unique individuals, with their own desires, expressions and outlooks.
Despite pictures of famine in Africa, brutish labor in Brazil, sweatshops in Kazakhistan and burning oil wells in Kuwait, the Brazil-born, Paris-based photojournalist's 41 silverprints at Fahey/Klein Gallery present a generally reassuring world view.
It is easy to see that Salgado's images of children contribute to this effect. A Guatemalan girl carrying a tray of candied apples on her head, a tree full of Thai boys playing in the sun and three little Mexican girls dressed up like angels for first communion capture the charming, wide-eyed wonder of carefree kids.
When Salgado focuses on a single Indian coal miner or farmer, a Bangladeshi ship breaker or weaver, or a Cuban construction worker, human dignity is emphasized. His beautifully composed photographs suggest that their subjects are never dehumanized by the back-breaking labor they regularly perform.
However, Salgado's pictures of a Brazilian gold mine in Serra Pelada are more complicated. Here, 50,000 workers swarm like ants, descending into a vast, muddy hole 60 times a day to carry out sacks of dirt. In these daunting images, individuals disappear. Inhuman activity subsumes people in an awesome, mind-numbing spectacle.
Even so, this series does not detract from Salgado's romantic view of the world. Although ugliness and suffering are part of the picture, a profound sense of optimism remains central to his vision.
* \o7 Fahey/Klein Gallery, 148 N. La Brea Ave., (213) 934-2250, through Sept. 3. Closed Sundays and Mondays.\f7
* Ambiguous: Surrealism began with shocking provocations. In the 1920s and 1930s, its painters and poets sought to expose the violent, psycho-sexual underpinnings of modern society.
Jeff Gambill's paintings and drawings at Rosamund Felsen Gallery tip Surrealism on its ear. Rather than shouting about life's absurdity, his ambiguous images whisper some of its secrets.
The biomorphic blobs in the 38-year-old's paintings appear to drift between being meaty and weightless. Sometimes, these strange forms have the substance of mutant organisms; at other times, they look like gaseous vapors.
Pregnant with uncertainty, Gambill's restrained version of Surrealism hints at significance. Occasionally, a recognizable object such as a frog, turtle, cob of corn or flash of lightning suggests a clear story. Stripped of supporting material, however, these vivid depictions serve only to intensify the general sense of mystery.
Gambill's imaginary landscapes are poised on the brink of intelligibility, like a word on the tip of your tongue that you just can't utter. Evoking a stream-of-consciousness that flows into outer space, his paintings seem more animated by curiosity than driven by a fear of the unknown.
Unlike classic Surrealism, which directed its energy toward repressed sex and dread, Gambill's open-ended art leaves its meanings--and its viewers--up in the air, drifting in a beguiling dream-state where imprecise memories float.
* \o7 Rosamund Felsen Gallery, 8525 Santa Monica Blvd., (310) 652- 9172, through Aug. 6. Closed Sundays and Mondays.