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ART REVIEW : Ebner's Circus of Lost Souls Reveals Pain

October 06, 1995|DAVID PAGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Like a pack of animal crackers that have just come to life, the curious creatures in Tim Ebner's new paintings at Rosamund Felsen Gallery appear to be leery of their newly found freedom. Dolled up in fancy hats, dress uniforms and woolly turtlenecks, these birds, bears, kangaroos and clowns seem to have sat still as their portraits were painted, despite being suspicious of such a stuffy, formal exercise.

The pain in their eyes is palpable and subdued. It is as if the darkness these misfits endured in their crowded cracker boxes has prepared them for experiences much worse than sitting for their pictures.

Two ducks in profile peer out of the corners of their eyes, ever vigilant for some threat from behind. A pair of bears strikes tough-looking poses, but they are more vulnerable than fierce in their goofy outfits. A deep-sea diver seems trapped in his protective gear, and a figure behind a sunken ship's porthole expresses the horror of being buried alive.

The most poignant expressions in Ebner's unsettling circus of lost souls are found on the faces of pencil-necked toy soldiers, one wearing a coonskin cap and the other a fez. Both have brightly rouged cheeks and painted lips. Neither male nor female, human nor inanimate, these skittish figures are simultaneously sympathetic and creepy. They tug at your heart as they elicit a touch of disgust.

Ebner's paintings recall Edgar Allan Poe's suspicion that most of the time we haunt the world like ghosts rather than inhabit it like fully sentient beings. Whether this is a defense mechanism or the inevitable result of growing up in a cruel world is a question left open by these haunting portraits.

In either case, Ebner's pictures give shape to the grim wisdom that the light at the end of the tunnel is an unreachable illusion. Rather than symbolizing an escape from unhappiness, this light simply illuminates everyday suffering, allowing the artist to explore the nuances of long-endured pain.

The only similarity between Ebner's new paintings and his slick, synthetic abstractions from the 1980s is that both bodies of work sustain long-term scrutiny. The more you look, the more there is to see.

* Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 828-8488, through Saturday .

Abstract Exploration: Michael C. McMillen is a modern myth-maker whose art relies on the power of suggestion. At L.A. Louver Gallery, an informative postcard, a fake newspaper and 10 round paintings hint at a wide-ranging tale of exploration and discovery.

Two enigmatic cartoons, a pair of quasi-scientific contraptions and a camouflage-shrouded periscope round out the exhibition, revealing that McMillen is less concerned about telling you the whole truth than getting your imagination going.

His homemade postcard describes a cache of artifacts found in an abandoned shed near a fictitious tributary. Each object supposedly bore an image resembling a dartboard's background. Rumored to function as a timekeeping device, surveying instrument or hypnotic mandala, the image's true use remains a mystery.

Likewise composed of 24 equal sections alternating between black and white, McMillen's abstract paintings prefer speculative possibilities to precise references. The pattern also appears in a picture on the front page of the fake newspaper, on the sail of a small, unmanned raft making a solar-powered, radio-guided journey across the ocean.

In the same way Thomas Pynchon's novels capitalize on coincidences to drive the narrative forward, McMillen's art cultivates the mind-set of an avid conspiracy theorist, finding tenuous links in the oddest of places.

Peering through the periscope in his outdoor installation, you see a seemingly distant figure planting a staff in the ground. Stepping back from the periscope's viewfinder strips the scenario of its magic: Plainly visible on a balcony's railing, the apparently far-off figure is only a plastic toy holding a small paintbrush. Getting a glimpse of the big picture drains the wonder from more focused--if blinkered--points of view.

* L.A. Louver Gallery, 45 N. Venice Blvd., Venice, (310) 822-4955, through Oct. 21. Closed Sunday and Monday.

Spontaneous Control: There aren't any masterpieces in the Fernand Leger (1881-1955) exhibition at Louis Stern Fine Arts, but there are some real zingers.

Leger's preparatory drawings and masterfully casual watercolors steal the show. As a result, an intimate view of the artist at work emerges from this hit-and-miss survey of 18 hard-to-find works made between 1923 and 1952, well after the painter had secured his place in art history and drifted out of fame's spotlight.

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