Joe Zucker's paintings rank among the most wildly inventive being made today. They're also some of the most flat-footed. These curious works possess integrity more common to wooden building blocks than to sophisticated art objects.
Organized by critic John Yau, a 10-year survey of Zucker's zany paintings at Track 16 Gallery gives crisp physical form to the peculiar impulses that animate the Long Island-based artist's down-to-earth images. Technically brilliant but visually dumb, Zucker's big, blocky pictures suggest he is more concerned with the pleasures spontaneously generated during the process of construction than with the satisfactions that result when these labor-intensive tasks are completed.
For viewers, this means that it's more fun to try to figure out how Zucker made his eccentric paintings than it is to stand back and take them in optically, as autonomous, finished entities.
From across the gallery, about half the works look like gigantic, homemade flash-cards whose bright, unmodulated colors and stylized silhouettes of cats, houses and martini glasses use the designs found on international airport signs to hint at more personal stories.
Up close, it becomes clear that Zucker's paintings are not disembodied symbols but clunky objects made of solid wood frames, hundreds of pounds of acrylic paint and thousands of feet of sash cord, the strong rope used to balance sliding windows and their counterweights.
Where an ordinary painting's canvas would be stretched, Zucker has strung irregular webs of cord, filling the skewed, rectangular spaces between strands with rubbery, toothpaste-like dollops of acrylic. A diptych titled "Golem" includes 75 feet of clear plastic tubing filled with paint and woven into the composition, suggesting that it's hooked up to an intravenous life-support system.
The other half of the show consists of Zucker's Pegboard paintings, made by sandwiching thick layers of juicy acrylic between sheets of plywood backing and Pegboard. These loose, fragmented images are more visually engaging. "Sleazeasy 1" depicts a poisoned rat lying on its back in a well-lit gallery. This image flickers in and out of focus as you struggle to hold its components together.
The Pegboard paintings are most interesting for the curious way they're made. Paints of various viscosities squirt, ooze and bleed through the holes, yielding worm-like protrusions, Life-Saver-like discs and runny drips.
Three goofy works from 1984 literalize Zucker's desire to match the results of his painterly processes with their playfulness. This series consists of shaped white canvases across which the artist has troweled thick, tar-like smears of black enamel.
By leaving five long-handled trowels in each piece, Zucker acknowledges the process by which they're made. By putting black ski masks, gloves and socks on these tools, he transforms his paintings into animated stick-figures that leap, pirouette and prance across the wall.
Although the 53-year-old artist is usually discussed as a maverick who helped bring narrative content back into abstraction in the 1960s, it is more useful (and accurate) to see Zucker as an odd, Process artist. He's an unrecognized member of a generation more interested in the hands-on activity of art-making than in the results these actions yield.
* Track 16 Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 264-4678, through April 1. Closed Sundays and Mondays.
Fantasy Land: An enchanting fantasy land opens to viewers of Tom Knechtel's virtuoso paintings on panel. At Rosamund Felsen Gallery, silly portraits of the artist's disembodied head, beefy wrestlers and mythical literary figures swirl around one another as if caught in a strong whirlpool or trapped on the level of Dante's Inferno where tempestuous winds blow adulterous lovers in eternal circles.
A rich, imaginative menagerie--including wise-looking toads, mischievous goats, a somber centaur, horses stampeding in every direction, a disemboweled circus bear and a beheaded goose--fill out a hallucinatory stew that is simultaneously intoxicating and operatic.
Knechtel's ravishing paintings combine the exquisite delicacy of Persian miniatures with the whimsy of illustrated children's books. Their glassy, jewel-like surfaces are so jam-packed with suggestive visual incidents that it's impossible to resist the impulse to make up your own stories to explain what's taking place before your eyes.
In contrast to earlier works, Knechtel occasionally interrupts the smooth, varnished surfaces of his new paintings with rough swipes of thick paint, into which he carves flowery patterns or renders additional figures. His loaded images beg for viewer participation. Promiscuous, generous and potent, they draw you into the picture by giving you a lot to work with, and even more to play with.
* Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 828-8488, through March 11. Closed Sundays and Mondays.