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ART REVIEW : Painters Put Wry Spin on High, Low Culture

July 19, 1994|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Good news for fellow travelers in the summer art wasteland: Griffin Fine Art in Costa Mesa is showing hip yet endearing abstract paintings by two young Los Angeles artists through July 31.

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Steve Roden and Daniel Manns have worked out personal styles based on such disparate things as wordplay, early-'60s color schemes, computer graphics, Zen pattern-making and a tongue-in-cheek replay of Color Field painting.

Roden graduated from the Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design in L.A. in 1986 and earned his master of fine arts degree at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Manns is an Orange County native and attended Orange Coast College. Both artists have been in exhibitions at several critically well-regarded L.A. area galleries, including "Germinal Notations" at Food House and "Sawtelle" at Domestic Setting.

Roden's paintings on small (and very small) wood panels play little visual games with words. The irregular, hand-drawn lettering mingles with decorative devices and ghostly snatches of imagery that often seem trapped beneath layers of beeswax or urethane. I found them instantly captivating for purely visual reasons; only later did I concern myself with what they may mean.

Details coolly recall early-'60s fabric patterns (bull's-eyes, elongated ovals, pinwheels), Abstract Expressionist painting cliches (wiry, tangled lines) or pop culture objects (martini olives, tears). Made with the help of computer-generated imagery, the compositions have a dreamy, subconscious quality--like a cross between doodling and writing the first draft of a poem.

In fact, a couple of works ("Iambic Pentameter," "The Last Poem of John Clare") refer directly to poetry. Painted on tin, the latter work has a flickering metallic sheen. The outline of a tall, stacked shape reminiscent of a Russian Suprematist construction accompanies a trio of echoing words: nest, vessel, rest.

The shape recalls the painstaking job of "building" a poem; the sheen evokes the luminous effect of getting it right. Clare was an impoverished English 19th-Century landscape poet who worked as a day laborer and spent the last decades of his life in an insane asylum writing what some believe was his best work.

In "Inconsiderable Things," the word silent appears three times, along with three beach balls and a couple of meandering ornamental flourishes. The painting encapsulates a random yet arbitrary universe in which words, images of objects and apparently meaningless designs share the same space. Why should the letters s-i-l-e-n-t and the stripe pattern signifying "beach ball" be more meaningful than several elaborate squiggles? Because everything depends on our tacit understanding of signs and symbols.

Silence and emptiness--scrutinized in a wryly clinical way, as if putting quotation marks around the self-pitying modes of adolescence and bad poets--are leitmotifs of Roden's paintings and his 39 drawings in colored pencil on index cards. One of the drawings contains the phrase "tears were standing in our eyes," with a group of capital I's standing around like lonely figures in an empty landscape.

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Nine years ago, Manns' work in a student exhibition was awarded "best of show" by then-Laguna Art Museum director William Otton. These days, Manns is having fun with a bunch of familiar pop culture and modern art devices, ranging from lipsticked "kiss" prints to striped swatches of fabric that playfully erode the high seriousness of stripe paintings from the 1960s.

In these untitled paintings, low culture subsumes high culture in the most beguiling ways. Veering-on-cheesy color combinations (yellow and tan, peach and green, purple and green) evoke the curious popular tastes of the early '60s. Those years were also the heyday of Color Field painting, envisioned as a coolly rational alternative to the Sturm und Drang of Abstract Expressionism, as well as Pop Art.

Big-scale motifs that look like unraveled skeins of yarn (a popular '60s craft medium) variously suggest viscera, DNA and the huge image of canned spaghetti in Pop artist James Rosenquist's famous 1965 painting of contemporary American life in overdrive, "The F-111."

In one of Manns' paintings, a row of giant gray comma shapes superimposed on a tangle of skeins recalls Supergraphics, the commercial Pop spinoff; below, a small swatch of striped fabric amusingly mimics a bar code.

As smart and witty as this work is, it also communicates beautifully on a purely visual level. Manns' exuberant compositions keep the eye roving and the senses revved up. If he still lived in Orange County, he'd cream the competition; as it is, he is one of a glorious crop of younger L.A. artists whose work we too rarely get to see down here.

* Paintings by Steve Roden and Daniel Manns are at Griffin Fine Art, 1640 Pomona Ave., Costa Mesa, through July 31. Hours: 6 to 11 p.m. Thursdays ; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays ; noon to 5 p.m. Sundays; or by appointment. Admission: Free. (714) 646-5665.

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