As exhibition titles go, "Unsettlingly Surreal" may be a bit over-the-top in describing the mild, easily digestible irrationality of the art now showing at Century Art Gallery in Sylmar. This art, by Barbara Margolies, Eileen Shahbazian and Hamid Zavareei, offers gentle deviations on reality, with aspects of mysticism and deadpan humor, rather than provocations of the disturbing kind.
What the show manages to get across is a range of attitudes and effects, with three distinct approaches to the dream-laden, nonlinear thinking that links them to surrealism. That often overused term and condition in art--as crystallized into an ism by Dali, Tanguy, Ernst, et al--has been ingrained in much of 20th century art, concerned as it is with the wavering relationship between the concrete and unconscious worlds.
In general terms, surrealism has to do with sneaking up behind the realm of the logical, rewiring what we commonly believe to be the actual. Then again, that process of subversive reconfiguration is woven into the very experience of art-making.
In the case of Zavareei, who has shown frequently around the area, the surreal element results in paintings of mystical imagery and sometimes vague sci-fi overtones. In his paintings, such as the "Self-Consistent Traveler," objects and figures often float in mist-enshrouded spaces. A man, covered in a sheet, hovers above the ground in a mysterious bronze haze.
In "Forms of the Void," a cube, a plank and two boulders levitate, as if defining some sort of metaphysical resonance.
More curious, maybe even slightly unsettling, are his two large "Paradigm" paintings. Here, oddly ritualistic scenes depict scores of nude figures lounging around cryptic, possibly sacred sites, aglow in fiery orange light--as if it were some spiritual energy source, something ancient or cosmic.
Shahbazian's sculptures are rough-hewn bronzes in which twisting vegetation and other natural forces gently intrude upon geometric grids, emblems of the industrial world and right-angled symmetry.
The paradoxes of balance and contrast are key to her expressive language.
In "The Yield," a gnarled vine penetrates and slithers through a rectangular form, and a long white rope emanates from a "tower" in "Rapunzel's Rescue." "Process" finds three roses, in various stages of bloom, tethered to box-like structures, somehow both clinging to and restricted by the bronze host.
Margolies provides comic relief--or, at very least, ironic relief--from the more serious-toned works in the gallery. Her cheeky assemblages take on impressions of house and home.
"My Mother's Table" is a table setting with books and faux artifacts covering the topic of domesticity, culinary life and memories of childhood. In Margolies' corner, we also find a pop art-y Matzo Ball Mix box and tiny, zany collages pasted onto recipe cards.
The small houses in her series are decorated in unlikely ways, with thorns, nails, eyes and pills ("Insomnia House") and, in "House of Dreams," miniature books detailing dreams. Here, the exhibit's title comes home to roost, in works that are surreal to the core, but glazed in amiable kitsch.
* "Unsettlingly Surreal," through March 3 at the Century Art Gallery, 13000 Sayre St., Sylmar; (818) 362-3220.
Female Focus: If there is a theme connecting the two-person show at the Orlando Gallery in Sherman Oaks, it has to do with women in art, on both sides of the canvas. Jo Blaber's "The Power of Creation" presents portraits of celebrated female artists, while Ellen Rose's coyly named "Mademoiselles," a show of monotypes on linen napkins, takes aim at the way women are depicted in art.
Rose's portraits of women on sheer, dainty, frilled fabric play up the inherent juxtaposition of opposites: bold, Rubenesque nudes and flapper-era women fingering cigarettes are emblazoned on delicate hankies. The sum effect is artwork energized by its contextual game-playing, the distance between image and material.
In her wide-ranging series of portraits of the artists, Blaber deploys varying approaches and levels of expressive intensity. In a full-length portrait of Kiki Smith, the face decays into a skeletal, abstracted body. For the painting of Eva Hesse, the subject is seen on a canvas beneath a canvas frame, a painting within a painting.
We also find affectionate portraits of Ojai's centenarian ceramic artist Beatrice Wood, a surprisingly straightforward image of Louise Nevelson, and three of Georgia O'Keefe, including an effectively moody, dark portrait.
The most dramatic effects are saved for a portrait of Nancy Frank, in which vigorous, expressionistic brushwork leads the eye into the central vortex of the piece--where the canvas has been ripped and peeled open. We peer into the literal and symbolic heart of the painting and, presumably, the subject.
* Jo Blaber and Ellen Rose, through Friday at Orlando Gallery, 14553 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; (818) 789-6012.)
Thinking Small: You get a lot of bang for your buck, quantitatively speaking, at the show now hanging at the Creative Arts Center in Burbank (closing today). Alumni of the Art Institute of Chicago have contributed roughly 2,000 postcard-sized pieces to make for a dizzying array of art in one space.
It is the willy-nilly, free-for-all sensory barrage aspect of the exhibition that defines its charm. Quality and media are all over the map, including tiny paintings, collages, relief sculptures, photographs, cartoons, a recipe for venison chili, an Art Institute parking pass and other miscellany.
Some works are signed, some not. What's important is less the individual pieces and artistic identities than the mosaic-like effect of the whole, as if testifying to the democratic, creative spirit on parade.
* Art Institute of Chicago Miniature Show, through today at Creative Arts Center Gallery, 1100 W. Clark Ave., Burbank; (818) 238-5397.